Staged Reading: The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

“How did Henry David Thoreau profoundly influence such political giants as Mohandas Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy, and Martin Luther King, Jr? The answer lies in a brief essay that has been variously titled but which is often referred to simply as “Civil Disobedience” (1849).” – Wendy McElroy

THE NIGHT THOREAU SPENT IN JAIL, a play about the most famous act of civil disobedience in American history, will receive a staged reading at Cyrano’s on January 25. The story follows the refusal by a 29-year-old Henry David Thoreau, the American philosopher, essayist, poet, mystic, and naturalist, to pay his taxes, because he opposed the American war against Mexico in the mid-1840s.

Written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, authors of “Inherit the Wind,” “First Monday in October” and other plays, “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail” has been widely produced, starting in 1970 during the height of protests against the Vietnam War and the Cambodian incursion. The play was relevant then and remains relevant today. In their hatred of large government, for example, members of the Tea Party movement might find in Thoreau’s solitary protest an echo of their distrust of large-scale actions by the federal government and of the government’s payment for those actions through taxation.

No less an aversion, but this time to the deeds of President James K. Polk in leading the country into war with Mexico in 1846, would likely be found among those in the Occupy movements of recent months, who might sympathize with Thoreau’s opposition to both the war and the pro-slavery forces who supported it.

On the other hand, Thoreau the man —the real subject of this play—would present a challenge to both sides. How, for example, is it possible that an arch individualist like Thoreau, who was also a virulent anti-technologist, could appeal to groups like the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street protesters, who have massed through social networking and spread their messages along the electronic highways of the Internet?

For that matter, can any of us living today in our hyper-corporatized, über-consumerized, groupthink world, safe in our respective cocoons, afraid to offend and antagonize, “friending” each other to earn social-networking points—can any of us understand a man whose idea of gainful employment was to study plants and observe birds and bugs, who preferred a solo walk in the woods to conversation with another person, and for whom the idea of a social group was anathema?

“The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail” gives us Thoreau as a flesh-and-blood thinker, his family, his neighbors, his cellmate, his employer and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other citizens of 1840s Concord, Mass. It was an age when a young America was finding itself, and Thoreau, groping toward his own light, was leading the way to that discovery in one very special direction.

Immediately following the reading, a panel of local experts will conduct a discussion and audience Q&A. They include Toby Widdicombe, professor of English at UAA and an authority on American literature; Bruce Farnsworth, a poet, arts impresario and the founder and manager of the former Mobile Trailer Supply art gallery in Mountain View; and Bob Pond, longtime Anchorage theatre professional and director of “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail.” The discussion will be moderated by Peter Porco, producer of the reading.

“The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail,” by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee.
A staged reading directed by Bob Pond.
7 PM Wednesday, January 25.
Cyrano’s Off-Center Playhouse, 413 D. Street.

Admission free. Contributions of any amount are welcome.

For more information, contact Peter Porco at 248.6662, 306.9659 or

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Cyrano's Theatre Company (CTC), formerly Eccentric Theatre Company is the resident company at Cyrano's Off Center Playhouse in Anchorage, Alaska. It was formed in 1995 by a loose-knit group of volunteers committed to producing professional quality dramatic works utilizing Alaskan talent.

This nurturing of regional talent is one of our most important goals. We've employed actors and technicians from Juneau to Fairbanks, and have made extensive use of UAA Theatre Department graduates. In this respect, we have been a bridge or transition point from academic theatre to professional careers.

Founding members Jerry and Sandy Harper received the 1997 Governor's Arts Award for arts organizations in recognition of the important work being carried out at Cyrano's Off Center Playhouse.