The Minute-man supplement
Thoreau Play Continues In Concord;
Sareen R. Gerson
From the beginning of the anti-Vietnam War movement, peace activists have quoted Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Dis-obedience” as home-grown, moral precedent for refusing to participate in an unjust war.
Thoreau wrote the essay shortly after his release from the Concord Jail, where he was incarcerated for one night in 1847 for refusing to pay a poll tax that would support the Mexican War (His aunt paid the tax, bailing him out the next morning). The war, he said, “had been boomed up” by President James Polk “all by himself with no help from Congress, and less help from me.”
Now come Jerry Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, authors of ‘Inherit the Wind,” with a new, fast-moving, provocative ac count of this sleeping, waking, night-marish night in jail. This was the experience that induced Thoreau, at last, to leave his idyllic life at Walden Pond and reenter the active world of ideas and influence.
His concerns then paralleled today’s civil rights and Vietnam: the Massachusetts fugitive slave laws, and President Polk's unprecedented imperialism in Mexico.
The Concord Players, under the talented direction of Sudbury’s Virginia Kirshner, have mounted an exceptional pro-duction of ‘The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail.” They will present five more performances at the Veterans’ Building in Concord; tonight at 8:30, and on Novem- ber 20, 21, 27 and 28.
An Effective Work
Dramatically, the work is very effective. Whether the play could also be branded as polemic. and whether or not any art form should risk losing touch with the whole truth (in this case, the whole Thoreau) by attempting to make a political point, is another question.
While the authors and actors do present Thoreau as a robust young naturalist and transcendentalist, speaking out against conformity, the real focus is on his abhorrence of injustices against both slaves and Mexicans, and his determination to make his voice heard far beyond the shores of Walden.
The play consists of dozens of scenes that alternate flashbacks with humorous exchanges between Thoreau and his illiterate cell-mate. Bailey. The young philosopher’s mother, his brother John, Ralph Waldo Emerson as his hero, Emerson and his wife as his employers and second family, appear and reappear through the wakeful night. He takes his students “huckleberrying” in their classroom without walls on Heywood Meadow -- fails in wooing Ellen Sewell -- rages at the indignity of his brother’s death -- and through it all hears the cry 01 the loon, the echo of his own lonely flute, the sounds of Concord. Through the barred window he watches the changing light of the sky.
known to Thoreau readers are recreated: Emerson shouting, “Henry! What
are you doing in jail?” and Thoreau’s answer, “Waldo, what are you doing
out of jail?” Thoreau helps and gives his name to a runaway slave, later
shot down on his flight to the Canadian border. The young man is devastatingly
frustrated when Emerson fails his promise to speak in Concord Square
against the war.
An Excellent Cast
The play is well-studded with quota-tions, brought alive by Terry Beasor’s interpretation of Thoreau as a stubborn young man --- not at all the bearded philosopher of the history books. Derek Till and Patricia Butcher play Emerson and his wife with elegant restraint: Lavinia Mac-Leod is the heartwarming, somewhat addlepated mother; George Faison as brother John, and B ill McDonald as Bailey, have created characters worthy of any stage.
Others are Irving McDowell as the Deacon, Jean Aldrich as Ellen Sewell, Heddie Kent. Dick Freniere and Bob Peters. Scott Connelly is the young Edward Emerson, and in the mock war scene, the dying little drummer boy. There are half a dozen others, as townspeople. All are excellent.
A great deal of the effec-tiveness of the production. set on an almost bare stage (two beds, wooden cabinet, a bench) is due to the lighting effects of the sky, which becomes a stretch of pale green rippling water for a boat scene, for example. Close to the end, when Thoreau has a rapid-fire nightmare about the war, the sky turns red, the townspeople are soldiers. Emerson is Polk, and brother John dies again --- this time on the battlefield. Excessive strobe flashes are distracting at this point: otherwise the scene is a fitting climax of action, and a credit to Don Harper’s lighting design.
In the midst of the battle, an unseen voice cries out against the war in Mexico: it is the denunciation delivered in Con- gress by Rep. Abe Lincoln of Illinois. who was not re-elected because of his stand. but later became the first Republican President.
In their program notes. the playwrights say, ‘Perhaps this play will jog our memories as we relive the poetic protest of one of America’s freest men - the explosive spirit who addressed himself to the perils of our time with more power and clarity than most young men writing now about now.