"I don't think we're ready yet to have artworks that put the bad guys in a sympathetic light. People's emotions are still too raw. We are not ready yet to talk about why this happened in the first place, why the Americans are hated, and the problems we've created in the Middle East."

But she guesses that those sorts of explorations might start occurring in about three years, once the memorial at Ground Zero is dedicated.

"Memorials provide a sense of emotional closure," says Finney, who is writing a book called When Tragedy Strikes the Academy, about how universities have coped with multiple deaths on campus.

"People have something tangible to see and visit, and then they can go back to their regular lives. They can visit the memorial site and grieve, and move on."

When Anne Nelson was writing The Guys, she worried about how to craft the piece without traumatizing the audience.

The Guys, which began as a series of eulogies for 12 firefighters who died when the towers collapsed, became a grass-roots cultural phenomenon. In New York, the two-person play first was performed on Dec. 4, 2001, and attracted a rotating all-star cast that included Sigourney Weaver, Susan Sarandon, Anthony LaPaglia, Tim Robbins, Bill Murray and Helen Hunt. (A film released in 2002 stars Weaver and LaPaglia.) The Guys has been performed in 47 states.

"Most of what has been done about 9/11 stimulates the nervous system, but it leaves out the emotions that would help us to process it," Nelson says. "It was very important for me not to exploit either the firefighters or the audience. I wanted the play to evoke the range of emotions you get at a good Irish wake, from horror to laughter. To do the former recognizes how these men died, and to do the latter honors how they lived."

Messages of solace
Nelson may have a point.

For the past five years, we have lived in a state of tension and hyper-alertness. The messages we've received from our political leaders have been "be vigilant." Those messages have not been, "Relax. Everything will be OK."

What words of reassurance we have had have come from ... artists and entertainers.

Jay Mechling thinks that explains why Fox's 24 has been such a hit. "The message of 24 is, 'Don't worry. You have good guys in power who can take care of the bad guys," says Mechling, an American history professor at the University of California, Davis.

In The Guys, Nelson creates the same effect in the opening monologue, when the author's stand-in, named Joan, describes her sadness and disbelief as she watches the second tower fall.

But just seven sentences later, Joan describes cuddling a 3-month-old baby.

"I needed to hold that baby," she says. "It was primal. That week, you could have scored big in the rent-a-baby trade."

The audience has permission to laugh. And it does.

"That monologue is about looking the audience in the eye and telling them that they will be safe," Nelson says. "It says: 'We are going to go into a bad place, but I will hold your hand. I won't let you be hurt.'"

What more can we ask from our artists than that?

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com