Our world is full of calamities, natural and man-made, some of them the result of the workings of the dark side of human nature, — but in so many of them there is heroism and loss and then the problem of the survivors left sitting in the psychological and sometimes real ashes afterwards.
Anne Nelson’s play, which I saw at the NYC Fire Museum last night ( with a brief question and answer period involving the author, the director and the Japanese translator who pushed through the production of “The Guys” in Japan), raises of course then a lot of questions of how we deal with massive trauma, how we handle the memory of the dead, and how we go on living in our traumatized state and find linkage to other people and to our capacity to enjoy life again.
This production I saw was done for the benefit of the Lt Joseph G. Leavey Foundation and in memory of Fire Chaplain and first certified victim of September 11, Fr Mychal Judge.
It was performed ( quite admirably) by William Mulligan as the FDNY Fire Captain who has to perform eulogies for some of the men lost on Sept 11, and Renee Claire Bergeron as the writer who helps him find the words to capture the personalities of the lost men . The director was Hannah Ryan, who , as a sidelight, was directly affected in some dramatic ways by the Boston Marathon bombings..
Although there are just the two characters here, as they work towards their common goal and forge a relationship which is naturally complex and brings up a myriad of issues about what we might call Calamitous Fate ( ” We don’t call them acts of God anymore,” notes the woman writer in one of the soliloquies that pop up in the course of the play).
This is strong stuff and of course as such is the exact opposite of what most of us think of as “entertainment”– ( presently we have Donald Trump to entertain us, the Kardashians, and shows like “The Bachelor” I guess)– but is the very essence of the events that make our Lives , especially those events that can leave people so stunned, paralyzed and maybe embittered. ( At one point the writer notes that an Argentinian woman who had suffered from the dictatorship there finds September 11 to be ” an attack on Yankee Imperalism” — the writer says:– just a second here, since when did people in New York lose their civil rights and the especially the right to be the victims of an evil act and all the horrendous events and the human price that had to be paid?
Bringing in the question of Firefighters , of course, gets us very quickly to the nub of the matter. It has been the Fate of first responders in so many situations– at Chernobyl, in Japan for the earthquake and atomic disaster, — for survivors of notable tsunamis– all the kinds of situations that have brought writers and philosophers up short and made them even question the existence of a God ( one such event, the earthquake that hit Spain back in the time of Voltaire and other European writers and intellectuals, was so unexpected and awesome that afterwards they could not keep their response and reflections to it out of their works.
A good example is Voltaire’s “Candide,” ( which we have had on Broadway via a brilliant adaptation by Leonard Bernstein) which tracks the fate of young lovers who have been brought up to believe ” we live in the best of all possible worlds”— then, when they have to go through shipwrecks at sea, the Inquisition, the earthquake, betrayal of all kinds and the gamut of trial and tribulation that are so constantly befalling humanity…
Anne Nelson’s play is intense and focused, and the exact opposite of a sprawling story like “Candide”, although she is tackling the same existential questions.
I believe it was Pascal who wrote that the goal of art, in its capacity to lead to elevation and social advancement, was to ” please and instruct” — (or was it instuct and please? The words that stick in my mind are the French ones, “instruire et plaire”)-
Anyway, Anne Nelson is holding on to these concepts as the writer and the fire Captain struggle to make a working relationship with each other and also get the job of composing the eulogies done…
The personalities of the lost firefighters are evoked, their quirks and oddities and their ordinariness of course too sometimes– the Captain grasping for words, ” What can you say about Barney Keppel?”( one of the men)– and leads to anecdotes about the behavior of the men and their circumstances as firefighters ( here the play schools us quickly as to what “Probies” are, what makes a good fire officer , especially the ability to be completely trusted and respected when he says :” Follow Me!”– and in the grimmest of circumstances laughter erupts, as it can at Wakes, as we consider all the aspects of the Fallen. It weaves all kinds of information, in fact, into the ongoing action of the play… a pretty impressive piece of work here by the playwright.
The play was 70 Minutes without intermission and I took the precaution of sitting on the side aisle next to the men’s room ( where I found a party of people behind me sitting in the same area for the same reasons)..
What I guess is most important about Nelson’s work is how we watch the rapport between the Fire Captain and the writer grow, including a reference to dancing ( with an interesting, unexpected twist here), and watch as the work for the eulogies gets done, firefighter by firefighter, for the four of them who will need them the soonest.
The play ends with a soliloquy by the Fire Captain, now in symbolic uniform…
This was a very intense and moving experience, of course, but not an oppressive or depressing one, quite the contrary. I believe most people there, such as myself, felt a kind of catharsis and stirrings of deeper thoughts that would have to be thrashed out later, but also the satisfaction of seeing such a beautifully crafted, directed and acted play.
( Final note: the play has been performed in many countries around the world, — it got a laugh from the audience when the Japanese translator was asked how he translated the title and he said he simply used “The Guys”– because people can relate to its themes and human dimensions everywhere..
Again, as I said, the focus on firefighters is particularly apt… I kept remembering the pretty much unreal sacrifices that were made by the first responders at Chernobyl, for instance, when the firefighters and others exposed themselves to flames and radiation that they knew were probably going to kill them, if not immediately, then in just some matter of time..
And here, of course, we have the ongoing legacy of firefighters dying every week from aftereffects of September 11… and the incredible struggle to get the Zadroga Act passed.
I didn’t expect to learn all that much from watching this performance of this play, and am somewhat astounded by how many new insights and connections it is making for me. I hope it worked its magic as well for most of the other spectators, too.
Trailer for a production of the play ( a movie was also made)