What I learned from 'The Guys'

September 7, 2011

I've told the story many times: how, like most New Yorkers, I felt shocked, powerless, and uncomprehending in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, which shook my very faith in human nature. A chance visit to my sister's home in Brooklyn led to a meeting with a New York fire captain who had lost eight men in the towers. I volunteered to help him write eulogies for them, and was so moved by the experience that I wrote a play about it as an act of testimony, with little sense that it would ever be produced.

This September, there are more than 75 productions of "The Guys" scheduled across America. They will take place in professional theaters and church basements, most of them benefits for causes ranging from the Burn Care Everywhere Foundation (Nyack, New York) to hospice (Orlando, Florida). Some New Yorkers recall that the play opened 12 weeks after 9/11 at the tiny Flea Theater in lower Manhattan with Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray in the two roles. Few of them realize that it has been running almost continuously ever since, in all 50 states and at least 15 foreign countries.

People were puzzled by "The Guys" from the start, since I earned my living teaching journalism at Columbia, and hadn't pursued a connection with theater since my student days at Yale more than two decades earlier. But that question is resolved by the very nature of the play: it was a story I needed to tell, and journalism wasn't the right approach. I could see that the captain -- who quickly became a friend -- was struggling with the intrusive nature of mass media in this country. He and his friends in the firehouse were besieged by cameras and interviewers, when they were still experiencing the throes of fresh grief. It would be wrong to add to that distress, but another chance meeting, this time with a theater director, suggested that theater could offer another approach. I could change the names and details but tell the story, thus sacrificing the facts in order to serve the truth.

One of my motivations in writing the play was to counter the bellicose noise in our media environment. The administration in Washington rushed into war and postures of revenge. Television blared the music of brass bands and shows of military force. What I saw around me in New York was quite different -- a dreamlike landscape of kindness and grace. I remember that it was difficult to stand for very long on a bus, because people were always offering their seats to each other. Strangers spoke to each other, and offered consolation. We wept, publicly. I was determined that this reality should be recorded too, and that posterity should know that we weren't all marching to the same drumbeat. Some of us -- especially in New York -- moved in a very different direction. I was glad that the play and the feature film version of "The Guys" at the very least recorded that reality.

People have asked me how writing the play affected me. It will take a long time to answer that question. It propelled me, unexpectedly, into the world of first responders, a great-hearted blue-collar crowd that doesn't usually teem with Ivy League academics. I've learned a lot from them, and many of them have become my friends. At a time when I was despairing of my writing, I had my inborn need to write confirmed, and I was shown that the more the impulse to write came from the gut, the more important it was to realize. The experience drove me to the Middle East to intellectually explore the origins of this conflict. My experiences in the Arab world have shown me the great confusion and conflicts lying beneath the current upheaval -- but also the beauties of an ancient culture and the profound poetry of the Koran.

What I learned from "The Guys" is that writing is our bridge to memory. What I learned from the guys is that altruism lies deep in the human spirit, in all its flawed magnificence. Together, they are our only proven antidotes to despair.

-- Anne Nelson is the author of "The Guys," a play about a fire chief who lost eight men on Sept. 11, 2001. She is on the faculty at Columbia University and is a member of St. Ignatius of Antioch on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

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