Originally, The Civil Wars was conceived as a single daylong piece of music theatre to accompany the 1984 Summer Olympics. Six different composers from six different countries were to compose sections of Wilson's text inspired by the American Civil War. After initial premieres in their countries of origin, the six parts were to be fused in one epic performance in Los Angeles during the games, a parallel to the internationalist ideals of the Olympic movement.
The premiere of the full work was cancelled when funding failed to materialize (despite the Olympic Committee's offer of matching funds) and deadlines were not met. But four of the six sections had full productions under Wilson's direction in Minneapolis, Rome, Rotterdam and Cologne, with workshop productions of the other two sections in Tokyo and Marseille.
A documentary on the work's creative process, Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars, was released in 1987. It is out of print.
With no singers, The Knee Plays told its story through nine dancers wearing white doctor's smocks. The style of presentation was influenced by Japanese Bunraku puppetry and Noh and Kabuki theater. The designs, by Jun Matsuno with Wilson and Byrne, were modular white squares resembling Japanese shoji screens that moved fluidly to redefine the space for each scene.
Byrne's music, however, took its inspiration not from Japan but from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band of New Orleans. The instrumentation was for a brass ensemble, and incorporated a number of traditional tunes, including "In the Upper Room," "The Gift of Sound," "Theadora is Dozing," "I Bid You Good Night," and "I Tried."
New York Times critic John Rockwell wrote "The 'plot' traces the transformation of a tree into a boat into a book into a tree again, almost as a cycle of nature [...] All of which means little in words, but much in stage pictures."
Wilson coined the term "knee play," meaning an interlude between scenes, for the opera Einstein on the Beach. The term emerges from Wilson's conception of these pieces as connective tissue linking the "meat" of a performance.
This section is more musical theatre than opera, with spoken dialogue predominating. Frederick the Great of Prussia is the central character, and his struggle to cling to political power is paralleled in the private power struggles of a modern family under a domineering "Old Man."
In 1985 the Cologne sections were performed in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Pulitzer Prize jury awarded this production the prize for drama for 1986 by a unanimous vote. However, the Pulitzer supervisory board overruled the jury, with the result that no drama prize was given that year.
In the New York Times, critic John Rockwell described this production:
The production divided the critics of MIT's newspaper, The Tech. Michiel Bos wrote, "Tension is build up, maintained and relaxed with supreme skill. Timing is crucial and perfect: every move, every pause, every sound, every silence has its just measure." But Eric Ristad saw the piece as being hermetic to the point of opacity, of being "private theater with a vengeance; it is without content, and immune from criticism. [...] The piece just exists, and we react to it individually, in much the same way we might react to a drop of water."
The act is divided into a prologue and two scenes. In the prologue, the Earth Mother and a Snow Owl duet before being joined by Abraham Lincoln in a prayer for peace. In Scene A, Giuseppe Garibaldi (who fought for the unification of Italy) sings while his soldiers face off against a group of Hopi dancers. Scene B is dominated by two spoken narrations: the first by Robert E. Lee (who spins weightlessly as if in outer space as he speaks), and the second by the grieving, mentally ill Mary Todd Lincoln. Throughout, an octet of characters from Greek mythology comments with excerpts from Hercules Furens and Hercules Oetaeus by Seneca the Younger.
Philip Glass began composing the music for the Rome section late in the creative process, after Robert Wilson had already planned and videotaped a complete silent version of the drama. Glass's role was similar to that of a film composer, tailoring his music to the rhythm of the action rather than imposing his own tempo. Glass would later repeat this process with La belle et la bête, an opera intended to be performed as a synchronized soundtrack to showings of Jean Cocteau's classic film.
The Rome section was recorded in 1999, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. The cast was as follows: Robert Wilson as General Lee, Giuseppe Sabbatini as Garibaldi, Laurie Anderson as the Young Mrs. Lincoln, Denyce Graves as the older Mrs. Lincoln and the Earth Mother, Zheng Zhou as Abraham Lincoln, Sondra Radvanovsky as the Snow Owl and Alcmene, and Stephen Morscheck as Hercules. The Morgan State University Choir sang under the direction of Dr. Nathan Carter.