Delmar and I moved to Los Angeles the summer of 1984 and I remember the brouhaha over the cancelation of CIVIL warS. It didn’t matter to us—the Olympic Arts Festival was putting on so many other fantastic events all over town that we got the false impression that L.A. was a world-cultural paradise. Last Thursday night I finally realized that we had been deprived of something really amazing.
The music comes from that series of masterpieces Glass produced up to the mid-Eighties. The rigor and aggression of the earlier work was mellowing and acquiring lyricism and tenderness. He was discovering what classically-trained voices could do. One of the things they could do was evoke gently sorrowful tenderness (e.g. Mary Todd Lincoln’s keening over Robert E. Lee’s spoken word collage of news atrocities). They could also evoke indignation and determination in the face of evil (e.g. the chorus declaiming verses of resistance from Seneca the Younger).
This section of CIVIL warS does not offer a summarizable story. Mythic figures (Earth Mother, Hercules) share the stage with historical figures (Abraham Lincoln, Giuseppe Garibaldi)—whose words almost never have anything to do with their historical reality. They come and go without doing much of anything other than announcing their existence—and at the same time undermining any historical illusion. It’s a collage of words, characters, and gestures, held together by the music. But there is also a fairly clear mood of embattled humanity. We seem to be watching the characters and the chorus as people attempting to maintain their humanity in defiance of oppression, brutality, and misfortune. It’s not a hymn of triumph, but of resistance. And there are some funny parts, too (believe it or not). I felt I was seeing the apotheosis of Gertrude Stein’s work for the theater. Who knows what the whole thing would have been like. Maybe more than Einstein.