The Way They Live: The Civilians Discover America At The Met

CiviliansWashingtonCrossingTheDelawareWhat does it mean to be an American?

The Civilians, the first-ever theater-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, finished their year-long residency with a flourish by addressing that question with their last show at the Met, “The Way They Live.”

The title comes from the first of more than a dozen works of art that the theater troupe selected from the Met’s American Wing,  projecting them one by one on the screen of the museum’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, and putting each cleverly at the center of its own scene or song. Each scene and song was based on verbatim transcripts of interviews both with people who work at the museum, and with people who were visiting it. A cast of seven portrayed the cavalcade of real people as they commented on or debated the work of art.

The result, which ran for just two performances (May 15th and 16th), was something of an illuminating and unusually entertaining art history lesson — akin to what I considered the best scenes in the recent Broadway revival of The Heidi Chronicles.  The seven original songs, in a range of styles from jazz to art song to Native American folk music, were a highlight. They were surprisingly well-crafted (given that they were based on transcripts) — and not just tuneful, but sometimes even powerful and moving, especially Kirsten Childs’s “Never” inspired by the painting “Dressing for the Carnival” by Winslow Homer (number 7 below), and Ty Defoe’s “In All Directions,” inspired by “End of the Trail” by James Earle Fraser (number 13.)  Overall, “The Way They Live” also offered a glimpse into the way Americans today think (or at least talk.)

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged, with caption.

One of the first things we learned in the show is that the Metropolitan Museum of Art created the American Wing in 1924 with a primary aim of acculturating the rush of new immigrants — teaching them what it means to be American. This seems less easy to define now than then, judging by the dissonant themes explored in the show, including racism, sexism, and jingoism.  That first painting “The Way They Live,” done by Thomas Anshutz in 1879, depicts a black woman and two young boys tending to a vegetable garden. The Civilians performer, portraying a curator the troupe interviewed, points out how angry they look, and that the painting was originally entitled “Cabbages” – which suggests something less than full respect for the people in the painting.

There seemed to be a consensus against the two sculptures by Erastus Dow Palmer, the first (5 Indian Girl, or the Dawn of Christianity) suggesting that conquering the Indians was for their own good, the second (The White Captive) promoting the idea that women want to be raped. (About the first one, one curator remarked: “Everybody says ‘Oh, she’s looking at her cell phone.'”)

“Washington Crossing the Delaware” is probably the most famous of the works of art selected, and it elicited a wide range of comments. One said: “In my 31 years here, I’ve taught that painting maybe 300 times, and it’s never the same.”  Another believed it has more to do with the era in which it was painted — 1851, the period that led to the Civil War — than the era that it depicts. One saw it as representing what’s wrong with war, and preferred the Vietnam War Memorial for emphasizing what all wars are really about — death. “It’s overrated, I think because of its size.” One reported overhearing people saying again and again that its overriding emotion is hope.

“The Way They Live” was the third piece by the Civilians at the Met; the others were “Let Me Ascertain You,” a cabaret-style hodgepodge meant to introduce The Civilians to the museum’s patrons, and “The End and the Beginning,” billed as  “romp through dying, death and the afterlife” at the Temple of Dendur, using transcripts of interviews with the  museum’s Egyptian art curators.  This first theatrical residency has been remarkable, a promising experiment that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, in part because each show had only a couple of performances.

Now, there have been other examples of collaboration between a museum and a theater troupe. The theater company Native Voices has been in residence at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, a museum of the American West, since 1999. But I am unaware of any collaboration that,  like the Civilians at the Met, has attempted to use visual art to create performance art — to translate one art form into the other. The possibilities that could emerge out of greater connections between museums and theaters — practical, economic, and aesthetic — are thrilling.

More information on the works of art:

The Magnolia Vase

Washington Crossing the Delaware

Madame X

Indian Girl, or The Dawn of Christianity

Dressing for the Carnival

Portrait of the Artist by Mary Cassatt

The Last Moments of John Brown


Author: New York Theater

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

Leave a Reply