During these deeply divided times, it’s good to be reminded that fiercely independent thought, conscientious protest and civil disobedience — with the potential reward of time behind bars — are as American as apple pie with corn syrup and Cool Whip.
When Sara Rideout was in high school, her English teacher introduced her to the writings of Henry David Thoreau, an influential thinker who remains famous a century and a half after his death for “Walden,” a masterwork about withdrawing from civilization and returning to nature. But Thoreau also wrote a ground-breaking essay, “Civil Disobedience,” about resisting corrupt governments that was inspired by his hatred of slavery and the Mexican-American War.
All of that thrilled the teenaged Rideout, who said it inspired her to re-evaluate “my relationship to my government, nature and religion.” Years later, La Center theater teacher Rideout was even more thrilled to discover “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail,” a two-act play that depicts the author’s principled incarceration on the night of July 23, 1846. That’s when Thoreau refused to pay six years of back taxes that, he argued, would only support slavery inside and imperial adventures outside our borders — such as the Mexican American War, then underway.
“The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail” was the product of another bitterly divided era. Protest and strife over race relations and the Vietnam War were widespread when the play opened in 1971; it may have been set in the 1840s, but critics noted how directly it spoke to the concerns of the 1970s. The same playwrighting team, Robert E. Lee and Jerome Lawrence, had already scored in the 1950s with “Inherit the Wind,” another historical, issue-oriented play that was destined to become a classic (and a staple of high school English classes).
“The play flashes through Thoreau’s memories, and we see the people who influenced him and the events that shaped him,” Rideout said. “I’ve had (the play) on my short list … just waiting for the right group of students who I knew could bring it to life … and this year was finally that time. I have 10 seniors this year, all of them immensely talented, so I knew I needed to give them something substantial that would push them to grow in ways they hadn’t yet had the opportunity to do.”