"There is no splitting these things apart."
February 6, 2020 1:42 PM   Subscribe

Last fall, playwright Will Arbery's Heroes Of The Fourth Turning ran off-Broadway in NYC. Set in a small Wyoming town, it covers a few hours on an evening in August, 2017 when four graduates of a conservative Catholic college, modeled on Wyoming Catholic, who have returned to celebrate their mentor's success. A Play About The Nuances Of Conservatism In The Trump Era
There’s just enough ideological and attitudinal space between these characters to make for revealing arguments in each direction—for example: Can one be pro-choice and, in any meaningful way, also be a good person?—and to reveal the despair lurking behind their rhetorical and emotional poses. To catch the nuances in their differences—and to imagine what these nuances might mean for the future of people like these, and therefore for the future of our country—is a bit like the corneal adjustment required in the first moment of the play: you’ve got to distinguish dark from dark, and perceive a thousand darknesses in between.
The podcast Know Your Enemy had a long episode interviewing Will Arbery about his life and the play.
Will Arbery's play "Heroes of the Fourth Turning"—about four conservative Catholic friends arguing under a night sky in Wyoming—feels like it was written to be discussed on Know Your Enemy. An ominous meditation on faith, conservatism, empathy, cruelty, and power, "Heroes" has ignited debate and garnered praise across the political spectrum—from First Things to the (failing) New York Times to Rod Dreher's blog at the American Conservative. Arbery was raised by conservative Catholic professors and grew up imbibing the ideas of the right and the teachings of the Church. He writes from a place of deep love and withering scrutiny. Lucky for us (and you!) Will displays all the sensitivity, intellectually curiosity, and love in this conversation that he does in his remarkable play.
‘Heroes of the Fourth Turning’ is a haunted play about religious conservatives - "Critics are hailing it as a theatrical Trump explainer, but playwright Will Arbery understands the problem preceded him."[read this one!]
Arbery comes to this, his fourth play, with personal credentials: His parents run Wyoming Catholic College, a tiny conservative institution that, like the fictional Transfiguration, does not accept federal funding. “Having come from a small subsection of conservative America,” he writes in the liner notes, “I felt that I had a responsibility to provide audiences with access to those conversations.” (Like Arbery, I am Catholic, and like Arbery, I have some personal and professional experiences in these conversations, which you can take as either a credential or a necessary disclosure.)

Accordingly, much has been made of Heroes of the Fourth Turning as a kind of Vox explainer for the Trump-era religious right. “They would not at first seem so different from you and me,” writes Jesse Green in his review for the New York Times, dubbing the play “a red-state unicorn.” At Vulture, Sara Holdren considers Heroes of the Fourth Turning “a portrait of a dying species, a self-proclaimed intellectual and spiritual aristocracy flailing as their claim on the earth and their sense of self dissipate.” On the right, this interpretation has also held. “People like me — politically and religiously conservative — don’t expect to encounter contemporary art about ourselves,” wrote Rod Dreher in an enthusiastic blog about Arbery’s play.

The play can accommodate this point of view, but it’s not really what’s interesting about Heroes of the Fourth Turning, a play that immerses itself in ideological conflict and (quite literal) darkness. Like HBO’s The Young Pope, Arbery’s play explores a world unfamiliar and alien to most of its audience, doesn’t shy away from controversy, and takes its subject on its own terms. If you’ve never lived in a world in which conservative principles are simply taken for granted, where the revelation somebody had had sex might be genuinely scandalous, or if you just don’t know anybody who voted for Trump, then I imagine that the play might be usefully disorienting to you. But a good play isn’t a didactic documentary, and Heroes of the Fourth Turning is a very good play.
Deep in Red America (But Not at the Diner) in Heroes of the Fourth Turning
Perhaps trying to get out ahead of a prickly response from progressive New York audiences, the dramaturgical materials that surround the play and the artistic director’s program note emphatically do not ask us to empathize with Arbery’s characters. Instead, we’re asked to consider, critically, the empathizing impulse. “Oh don’t with the empathy,” snaps one of those characters, Teresa, a ravening idealogue in a chic white jumpsuit. “Liberals are empathy addicts. Empathy empathy empathy. Empathy is empty.” Teresa (Zoë Winters), like everyone in Heroes, is a zealous Catholic conservative. One might, sans empathy, call her rabid. She’s back in Wyoming—where she attended the small, intensely intellectual and intensely faith-based Transfiguration College—to celebrate the appointment of a beloved professor, Gina Presson (Michele Pawk), to the school’s presidency. Arbery’s play takes place in the wee hours, after all the toasts have been drunk, when anyone with their shit together has already gone home. But Teresa’s still hanging around in Justin’s (Jeb Kreager) backyard, along with Emily (Julia McDermott), Dr. Presson’s daughter, who speaks with a lilt and walks with a cane, doubled over in pain from what seems to be Lyme disease; and Kevin (John Zdrojeski), who’s full of whiskey and terror, and whose brain is short-circuiting from twenty-eight years of sexless self-loathing.
TheaterMania: Heroes of the Fourth Turning and the Conservative Millennials Preparing for War and A Conversation With Playwrights Will Arbery and Jeremy O. Harris - "The two writers discuss their breakout plays, Heroes of the Fourth Turning and Slave Play."

National Review: Heroes of the Fourth Turning: A Play about a Growing Populist Divide
New York Times: A Play About God and Trump, From a Writer Raised on the Right
Catholic Herald: An extraordinary play that challenges progressives and conservatives alike
Vox: How Heroes of the Fourth Turning, about Catholic intellectuals, became one of fall’s buzziest plays
First Things: Conservative Heroes
Casper Star-Tribune:
Off-Broadway play set in Wyoming draws critical praise, sparks conversations - “So I listened to the interview, you know, was really charmed by the Wyoming connection and that this playwright was talking about things that, you know, myself and my friends and colleagues are talking about, just you know, what’s our responsibility to each other?” she said. “How does our faith or lack of faith inform that? Who are we as Americans? Just really interesting stuff. And it takes place in Wyoming.”

America Magazine: Playwright Will Arbery on the restless Catholics of ‘Heroes of the Fourth Turning’
In the context of a New York theater production, a plea for “listening” could be read as, “Liberal audiences should listen to conservative views they don’t usually take seriously.” But Mr. Arbery means it the other way around too: “Listening is what I’m offering to everyone, and arguing for. Catholic conservatives ignore that call at their own peril, and that’s how I always felt growing up—there wasn’t enough listening to what the other side was actually saying.” He wonders, for instance, why progressive audiences and critics seem willing to take “Heroes” and its characters seriously, but conservative audiences are unlikely to have seen or sparked to another recent production at Playwrights Horizons, “A Strange Loop,” Michael R. Jackson’s hall-of-mirrors musical about a young black gay man in New York City.
Keeping the Faith - A Conversation with Will Arbery
I write, more than anything, about women trapped in (and upholding) a system designed to limit their autonomy. So I see these two plays—Plano and Heroes—as very much positioned around the weight of all that. As I mention constantly, and perhaps obnoxiously, I grew up in a household with eight women. I was the only boy among seven sisters. Despite my household very often feeling like a matriarchy, and despite all the powerful particularities of all my sisters, there was still a sense that the patriarchal structure was the name of the game. Catholicism has the Virgin Mary—and there’s a real reverence there—but there are still very few models outside of sainthood and motherhood. And both of those revolve around extreme bodily pain.

And then here I come, with a little chip on my shoulder—“I have seven sisters!”—as though that gives me any real understanding. It doesn’t. It gave me my best friends. It gave me my heroes. But as much as I endeavor to honor my sisters, my mother, my female characters, I’ll always be a man writing about them. I’ll never escape that. And nor do I want to. Zadie Smith said in a recent essay for the New York Review of Books: “The hard truth is that we do not always know ourselves perfectly or well. Indeed, there are things to which subjectivity is blind and which only those on the outside can see.”

I hope that’s true, that my outsider status can be of use to these stories that I can’t stop writing. But Zadie goes further, in the same essay, saying that we always need to question that sort of attempt: “Is this [work] before me an attempt at compassion or an act of containment?” And maybe it’s inevitably both. I want my works to be acts of compassion, but I don’t think they’ll ever escape the ways they contain the characters too. That’s why in so many of my plays, there’s a sense of dread, of unease, a feeling of being trapped, an uneasy hum. I’m the one trapping them there. I’m the uneasy humming. I try to make it beautiful, even though it feels awful.
Dear Will Arbery: About ‘Heroes of the Fourth Turning’ - "Maybe my issue with your play, then, is I fail to see your characters as heroes of this or any other turning. These Trump-loving saviors of the American experiment, of Christianity, ooze enough hubris, fecklessness, arrogance and diseased rhetoric as to make me want to shut my eyes, close my ears and eternally hum la la la."
posted by the man of twists and turns (5 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I said "graduates," it's really "three graduates and the child of professors"
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:47 PM on February 6

It's going to take me a long while to fully read all the links, but I just wanted to say this sounds like a really interesting play. I love the idea of using so much (literal) darkness onstage; I would love to see that. (And I would love to see it without knowing ahead of time that it was staged that way, but alas, spoilers. Hah.)

That Vulture review is pretty extraordinary: "Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning is so frighteningly well written, it’s hard to write about."

I've been really deeply moved by theater works that gave me some understanding of the otherwise good people, and people trying to be good, living with a mindset that leads them toward evil; I'm thinking of The People's Temple, an oral-history style play (one of the creators was also instrumental in The Laramie Project) created from the words of those who died at Jonestown, and those who survived.

And this kind of play is the reason I wish theater performances were routinely filmed and made available that way: of course film never replicates the live experience, but this seems like something that should at least be available to a wider audience than the relative handful of theatergoers who got to see it in New York.

Thank you so much for sharing this, the man of twists and turns - and for the excellently chosen and compelling quotes. I'm really glad to know about this play.
posted by kristi at 3:57 PM on February 6 [6 favorites]

Where can I watch this?
posted by Freelance Demiurge at 7:46 PM on February 6

Wow. I'm sure it's well done and all, but it was just amazing the flinch of utter no I had at the thought of watching a bunch of Kavanaughs slime for two hours.
posted by tavella at 10:16 PM on February 6 [4 favorites]

Among the Post-Liberals, Daniel Luban review three books that encapsulate three different strains of post-liberal, conservative, Catholic, American political thought.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:40 PM on February 19

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