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Henry David Thoreau: Lyceum Lecturer

Jay DiPrima presents Thoreau in the actual role of Lyceum lecturer delivering his works on “Civil Disobedience.” Held in ArtisTree's Grange Theatre and followed by Q&A with DiPrima.

Dr. Jay DiPrima has been teaching, directing, acting and writing for over three decades. His passion for bringing literature and history to life through enactment has enabled him to wed the hybrid fields of history, theatre, English and education in a variety of settings. He taught at the O’Maley Middle School (Gloucester) in performing arts and history for two decades. He has written several plays for the Gloucester community including Middle School Moments, and Beauport Anthology, and a play based upon the lives and works of Reverend John and Judith Sargent Murray entitled Mingling Souls: From Sorrow to Joy.  He also teaches arts integration and drama in education courses for Fitchburg State University and for Endicott College’s Arts and Learning Graduate Division.

His first professional appearance as an actor was in the role of Henry David Thoreau in the Guild Players Touring Company’s production of “A Night Thoreau Spent in Jail.” (1980)  Since then, he has had the opportunity of bringing the character of Thoreau to numerous high schools throughout Massachusetts in an original play entitled,  Henry David Thoreau: Lyceum Lecturer. 

On July 25, 1846, Thoreau ran into Concord’s local tax collector, Sam Staples, who asked him to pay six years of delinquent poll taxes. Thoreau refused because of his opposition to the Mexican-American War and his belief that it was an extension of slavocracy. He spent a night in jail because of this refusal. (The next day Thoreau was freed when someone paid the tax against his wishes).  The experience had a strong impact on Thoreau. In January and February of 1848, he delivered lectures on "The Rights and Duties of the Individual in relation to Government" explaining his tax resistance at the Concord Lyceum.

“Civil Disobedience" originated from these Concord Lyceum lectures and was first published as "Resistance to Civil Government," in May of 1849, in Elizabeth Peabody’s Aesthetic Papers, a short-lived periodical that never managed a second issue.

A second experience that brought public recognition of Thoreau’s ideas took place in 1854, when Thoreau joined the Fourth of July celebrations at Harmony Grove, Framingham Massachusetts.  He and a select number of abolitionists were speaking out against the enacted fugitive slave law and the recently enacted Kansas-Nebraska Act legalizing slavery in newly established territories. Days before this celebration, Anthony Burns, a fugitive “slave” employed in a Boston clothing store, was legally forced to return to his slave owner in Virginia. The fiery and impassioned Thoreau delivered one of his strongest orations at this event. The lecture in its entirety was published several weeks later in William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator and a month later in the New York Tribune by Horace Greeley. The death knell to slavery in Massachusetts and the legal propagation of it throughout the South was the subject of his lecture. The key question raised by Thoreau (and further elucidated in his essay) was essentially “if government does not act to do the right as an individual’s conscience sees it, is there not a higher law that we should obey?”

This question and Thoreau’s example became a touchstone for both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr’s commitment to non-violent resistance in the ensuing generations.

Learn more about Jay DiPrima