The Civilians Look at Love and Lust at the Metropolitan Museum of Art



Is it possible to lust after a statue?

Of course, one of the curators of the Metropolitan Museum of Art says, as portrayed by a member of the theater company The Civilians in the first performance, last weekend, of its year-long residence at the Met.

The Civilians is the “investigative” Brooklyn-based theater company that for the past 13 years has conducted interviews and other research to shape new dramatic works about such issues as climate control (The Great Immensity), gentrification (In The Footprint), and death (Be The Death of Me.) When it was announced that the Civilians had been given the first-ever theater-in-residence at the largest art museum in the United States, the appointment seemed rich with promise and possibilities: What would this inventive theater come up with once given free reign over the two million works of art as old as 5,000 years in the Met’s collection, and the thousands of staff and regular volunteers it could interview?

As it turns out, most of the 16 songs and monologues it presented in its two performances at the Met’s Petrie Court Café had nothing to do with the museum. They were excerpts from works previously presented or in development, including “PRETTY FILTHY: A New Musical About the Adult Entertainment Industry,” which will be shown in it entirety at the Abrons Arts Center from January to March of next year. The show had the feel of a cabaret, and had the same title as several of their previous efforts, “Let Me Ascertain You.” But, as someone lucky enough to have attended previous “Let Me Ascertain You” cabaret-like shows by The Civilians, I reluctantly admit to some disappointment, if only because the previous such shows – such as “Let Me Ascertain You: Occupy Wall Street, Stories From Liberty Square” at Joe’s Pub in 2011 – were so focused, and so moving.

“We are introducing ourselves to the Met,” the Civilians artistic director Steve Cosson explained to me after the show about their approach for these first shows.

However, several new pieces did offer a glimpse of what’s to come. In “Luke,” Cosson interviews curator Luke Syson, portrayed by Civilians company member David Cale, who talks about several sculptures in the Met, as the audience saw slides of those sculptures projected onto a couple of screens:

The first was a 17th century marble sculpture of St. Sebastian entitled The Fury Master



“The reason why we all fell in love with it, the reason why all wanted to purchase it for the museum was his beautiful flutter of his fingers as they raised to heaven,” Luke says. “His wrists are bound but they are not bound to the tree, he is sort of becoming free, he is moving upwards, and the flutter of his fingers, echoes the tree growing up to heaven.’

Cosson then pointed out that many gay artists seemed to have depicted Saint Sebastian, then said “I see a sculpture of a beautiful almost naked man tied up to a tree, looking like he’s in bliss; and you know certain thoughts run through my mind.”

“Well, even if the viewer has a response to this image that’s more like physical arousal,” Luke replies, “…I think it’s an object that could almost purify arousal.”

After showing a few more examples




Luke goes on to say: “….Works of art are meant to be fallen in love with, and I think curators are more comfortable with the idea of the aesthetic desire, you know, and sometimes I think it’s – we’re not comfortable with admitting that these things should be sexy and arousing. I think that there is still a kind of odd sense of transgression involved here.”

Fountain of Desire by Louis-Claude Vasse

In “James,”  Daniel Jenkins portrayed curator James Draper showing us Fountain of Desire by Louis-Claude Vasse (above), which was close by in the Petrie Court, which comes from a French chateau. “I think anybody that was in the Chateau at that time would lust after her. She’s um…inviting.

He then switched slides to Ugolino and his Sons by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux:

ugolini and his sons

“People always want to know what the hell is going on” – which got a big laugh.

The he explained that it is a scene from Dante’s Inferno, in which the tyrant Ugolino is thrown into a tower with his two sons and grandsons, all of whom are starving to death. So …this is about parental love and filial love… And we have it from Dante that the sons beg him to eat them.” The sculptor, James tells us, hired “handsome Italian models at his own expense, feeding them and housing them…’s not about lust, certainly not…These boys are not in it to show off their bodies…This is a pure spirit and uh all in the name of anguish and pain and family feeling…Obviously the experience of the male body is…is tremendous.”

Future performances promise to incorporate pieces at the Met more directly into focused works of theater:

“The End and the Beginning” (March 6, 2015) promises to “romp through dying, death and the afterlife” in a performance stated at the Temple of Dendur in The Sackler Wing of the museum.

“The Way They Live” (May 15 and 16) will study the Met’s American Wing to present “the increasingly immense complexities of what it means to be an American.”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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