Playwright Will Arbery says he isn’t interested in “diagnosing” his characters.
The somewhat enigmatically titled play Heroes of the Fourth Turning is one of the buzzier new shows off Broadway this season, largely because it tackles territory that rarely overlaps with the New York stage: young, conservative Catholic intellectuals. The show concerns graduates of a Catholic college in Wyoming — where they studied Aristotle, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and archery and survival techniques in equal measure — who return to campus for a weekend event and spend an evening in a friend’s backyard.
The playwright, Will Arbery, was raised along with his seven sisters by conservative Catholic parents who are now professors at Wyoming Catholic College; he knows what he’s writing about. His four characters fit archetypes familiar to those with knowledge of that world. Justin is a sturdy outdoorsman who prays the rosary faithfully and is certain that whatever power Christians still have in the world today is fleeting. Kevin is adrift and a bit pathetic, attracted to “the world” but tortured by his own vices; he also desperately desires to have a girlfriend.
Emily, the daughter of two professors at the college, lives with a painful chronic illness (that seems to mirror Lyme disease) and practices an empathy that occasionally scandalizes her community: For example, she maintains her sincere faith while being friends with a drag queen and a Planned Parenthood employee. And Teresa lives in New York, writes polemical essays for a right-wing publication, and is a devotee of Steve Bannon. (Heroes of the Fourth Turning takes it title comes from a generational theory called the Fourth Turning, which both Bannon and Teresa see as an explanation for a “coming war,” in which the strong and faithful will eventually rise from the ashes victorious.)
Throughout the play, a screeching, almost demonic-sounding cacophony is occasionally emitted off-stage, and all of the characters cower and cover their ears. Justin blames the sound on the generator out back, but it feels like something bigger is going on. And by the end, everyone is a bit broken down, their views of themselves and the world shaken — especially Emily.
All four of them voted for Donald Trump in 2016. And all four of them held their noses while doing so, for different reasons. But that detail has been enough to garner coverage of Heroes of the Fourth Turning as a work that provides a glimpse into the minds of a certain sort of Trump voter. The play has also received a number of reviews in conservative and Catholic publications, including a lengthy rave from Rod Dreher, (whose popular idea of the Benedict Option, a “strategy for Christians in a post-Christian nation,” is mentioned by name) based on Dreher’s reading of the screenplay.
However, I think it does Heroes of the Fourth Turning a disservice to look at it only as a tool for understanding, or skewering, a certain group of people. Arbery is neither blindly accepting nor promoting of his characters; to validate or advance a specific worldview isn’t the play’s intention. Instead, it gently and sometimes joltingly lets Justin, Emily, Teresa, and Kevin lay out their constellation of individual beliefs on their own terms — beliefs about the world, about their place in it, about their faith, about their pain. Then it traces those beliefs back to deep, sometimes troubling roots, and shows how those roots have implications for the future.
But it’s also interested in how the ideologies we cling to are often intrinsically linked to our personal pain, and often ineffective at helping us heal. Pain complicates belief.
I recently met Arbery at a coffee shop in Brooklyn, where we both live, to talk about Heroes of the Fourth Turning, his understanding of its troubling ending, his influences, why people are so interested in his biography, whether empathy is real, and a lot more.
Some light plot spoilers follow.
I’ve personally spent a lot of time around people who resemble in many ways the characters in Heroes of the Fourth Turning. They’re familiar to me, and one thing that’s especially familiar is their faith and their politics sit right alongside their love of aesthetics, of art and poetry, as if all three are woven together.
My dad’s a poet, and my mom’s a political philosopher. So the dinner table was always poetry and politics, poetry and politics, and the way they met. I didn’t think about the connection between aesthetics and politics consciously when I was writing. But I will say that I’m very interested in the phrase “the body politic.” When you read Heroes, it may seem like a lot of talking, a lot of intellectual, theological, philosophical stuff. Whereas if you see it, it’s so much more visceral and bodily.
I like that.
One thing I have noticed over time, is that many of my peers have gravitated from “low church” traditions, which are often not very focused on or even eschew the aesthetics of worship, to high church traditions that are all about what you smell and see and say.
And similarly, I’ve noticed that a lot of evangelicals who become interested in art and aesthetics tend to fetishize Catholics as having all the good art. Heroes of the Fourth Turning contains a reference to Flannery O’Connor; I think she symbolizes, for some people, what all Christian writers ought to be like: winsome and hard-hitting, writing stories about faith that don’t resort to easy answers. And of course, characters in the play easily talk about artists and poets, and quote lines of poetry — it’s part of their vocabulary.
All of that rang true to me, but I’m not sure your average New York theatergoer would expect to meet those sorts of people out in the middle of Wyoming, or think of conservatives as having a specific aesthetic heritage to draw upon.
Yeah. I think that Emily is obviously reading not just Flannery O’Connor’s stories, but her prayer journal. That’s where the O’Connor quote [in the play] comes from, her prayer journal.
Kevin used to have a lot more lines, and there used to be this part where he was talking about how he was watching the Criterion Collection all day, every day. He’s just fascinated with the rest of the world, with beautiful films, so I think he watches Criterion Collection movies.
Teresa is interesting, because I don’t know if she has a whole lot of time for art right now. I think she’s totally, in addition to all the conservative thinkers, reading Jacobin, n+1, and the New Yorker and like, you know, Dissent. But she doesn’t have a whole lot of time for like poetry. She watches Bojack Horseman. That’s what she has time for.
I think Justin likes music. You know, he likes the wounded outsider country types. And I think he prays the rosary every morning and prefers the Latin Mass. He’s someone who’s drawn to the aesthetics and the discipline.
That’s part of what’s interesting about the conversation they have regarding empathy throughout the play. Art is, at least supposedly, the thing that can make us more empathetic. And yet I can imagine for instance an audience member with liberal commitments wondering if they’re supposed to be empathizing with the characters onstage, and whether that’s a good thing. If you don’t issue a rebuttal to their point of view within the script, then are you giving them a platform?
I can see how a left-leaning person could look at it and say, “I’m being asked to empathize with people who I think are bad people I don’t want to empathize with.” But I can also imagine people thinking you’re giving them a glimpse into an “enemy camp.”
This is something I get on the right, as well.
It basically boils down to a dissatisfaction with the ending, on both sides. People want a clear thesis, or they want to know what my diagnosis is. On both sides, you hear, like, Clearly, he’s still confused and doesn’t know where he falls.
That for me is sad, because I don’t think that what they’re talking about is art. I think they’re talking about something else that I’m not interested in making.
But I understand the temptation, on both sides. The play is dealing with things that are very timely, and there’s a lot of debate, and so you want to be able to know who wins the debate.
I’m much more interested in what debate does to a person’s body, how it changes the air. How it turns fugues into these aggressive ways of thinking, and makes Teresa unrecognizable to her mentor. I’m so much more interested in all of those elements, rather than just giving people some answers.
Also, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t my total intention to leave people feeling like they had to figure it out for a long time. If they could settle it in the space of the theater, then I would have failed.
I want to go back to what you said about debate. “Debate me” is practically a meme at this point, but it’s also interesting to see how debate has shaped our political culture in really big ways. When I was a homeschooled teenager in the 1990s, debate was the thing to do, especially in conservative circles. It promised to teach you how to think like “the enemy.” But that kind of sparring seems like it values winning over thought.
Yeah. It’s in the play, too. The only way anyone ever wins a debate in the play is by resorting to something personal.
I feel people doing that to me too as a creator. “Do you still go to Mass? Are you practicing?” Like, what do you actually think about all these things? Looking for any ammunition they can get to sort of resolve the tension [from the play] in their own lives. But I don’t give it to them.
This is going to sound a little far afield, but I’ve been curious about how people are responding to Kanye West now that he’s made a gospel album. He’s always been making songs about needing Jesus, but now he can fit into a conversion narrative arc, and it’s easier to figure out which slot he belongs in as a musician: he’s obviously become a “Christian artist.”
You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about artists as citizens, and then from that I started thinking about the phrase “separation of church and art.”
Well, I’ve just been desiring it for myself, that people would grant that to me. I wonder what it’s going to solve for them to know certain things about me that aren’t already just right there in the work.
The biographical details? Like, if nobody knew who you were, and if your parents weren’t well-known in Catholic intellectual circles, do you think people would be having a different reaction?
I have no idea. I was super grateful for the chance to write a program note [that could] steer the conversation [around the play] a little bit. Get ahead of some of the questions that I thought might pop up.
But part of me, yeah, really does wonder, What if this play was anonymous? What would people think that it was? For the progressive people seeing it, how much of it is them sitting there being like, “Oh, well, I know who Will is, and I know who his friends are, so …”
So this must be okay.
Yeah, “So, he must be okay. I can frame this the right way.”
A young Catholic coming to see it could be like, “He grew up totally Catholic, and this is a Catholic play, so that’s good, and I can now watch this.”
Like they’re afraid of thinking their own thing, or liking their own thing.
In the theater, I realized I’d seen Lucas Hnath’s play The Christians in the same venue, back in 2015, and I reviewed it for Christianity Today. That play is set in a megachurch, and it really feels like you’re in a big evangelical church — not a cool one, no smoke machines, just red plush velvet choir seats and so on.
After that play debuted, certain biographical details about Lucas started to emerge, like about how his mother was a deacon. And you kind of know why. The language of that play sounds so familiar and correct to your ear if you grew up in a certain kind of church. People want to know who the playwright is because they want to know who their interpreter is.
Right. It makes sense.
My parents sometimes call me a little Hermes figure, existing in this sort of between space like a messenger, but also like the liaison between the world of the living and the world of the dead. That’s something I can get behind.
That feels so much more like what I’m doing than giving people some sort of digestible clarion call that’s rooted in my biography.
I suppose if you watched Heroes of the Fourth Turning not knowing who wrote it, you might think it’s an ethnographic look into a weird or maybe scary subculture.
I think the people who are experiencing it as that sort of hit a wall. And that also speaks to the frustration that they might feel about the ending, which is anything but digestible and easy. But it’s what’s been happening the whole time. It’s what’s been underneath everything, that feeling. Emily is giving voice to some of this dread and suffering, the ground we walk on. But nevertheless, some people just don’t want to receive, or just can’t receive what Emily’s really experiencing. They can’t incorporate that into whatever utility they found in the rest of the play. Because it’s something that defies utility.
And that’s good for them to see.
It really is very much a play, at its core, about pain. About living with pain, and about the breadth and also limitations of or frustrations with a view of pain as cleansing, which strikes me as very Catholic. You can believe in it, but it doesn’t make the pain go away. And it doesn’t cause miracles to happen. That idea is threaded throughout Heroes.
What I think is so amazing about Emily is that she is giving voice to that, not just for herself but, it feels like, for literally everyone she’s ever met. Certainly everyone throughout the night, and everyone she doesn’t know. It’s like it’s all inside of her, but it’s still just her.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how often language itself is just something we think might help our pain. I certainly get that sense of Teresa. Why is she talking so much? Because she’s in so much pain.
I feel that way when I go home to Wyoming and pray the rosary with my family — it feels like medicine.
That brings us back to empathy, though. Teresa says that empathy causes you to lose yourself, but Emily is a counterpoint — her empathy has expanded her, almost literally, to become more than just herself. She contains more.
Absolutely. But you know, not everyone is as strong as she is. I think she’s so strong. You see the effect it has on her.
She’s a remarkable character, though I’ve seen her misinterpreted as weak.
One of the things she says in her last monologue, over and over, is you don’t feel this, you can’t feel this. It almost feels like she’s saying it to us, and she’s saying it to Justin, but she’s also saying it to herself, in a weird way. She’s telling herself that despite how much she is feeling, how much she feels linked to the pain of those around her, it’s still only her own pain. It’s not theirs. It has become hers, and it always was hers.
I guess that’s where I get tripped up on the notion of the idea that you can feel someone else’s pain. You literally can’t. It’s only yours.
As a word, “empathy” frustrates me because there’s so much that’s beautiful and transcendent about its definition: Feeling someone else’s pain, or feeling someone else’s feelings.
But the word itself feels too minor to me. The definition is major, but the word feels minor. Like being empathetic is a minor act that gets like bandied about, as if well, if you’re not being empathetic, you’re a psychopath. We haven’t really sat down and talked about what we’re talking about when we talk about empathy. Because in a sense that’s something that’s radically impossible, in a sacramental, like, religious way.
So then what are we actually like … are we just talking about understanding? Or kindness? Are we talking about love, which feels scarier than all of those combined?
I think part of the reason I’m so skeptical of empathy is that I want people to take it more seriously. It feels like somewhat close to what I do as my job, but it’s been so overused.
There are supposedly scientific studies about empathy that “prove” art makes us more empathetic. I’ve always found that idea pretty suspect — some of history’s greatest monsters have been very into art! But I think what you’re getting at is that we can’t feel other people’s pain; at best, all we can do is have a pretty good imagination.
Yeah, exactly. That’s what Hannah Arendt says — she says, “One trains one’s imagination to go visiting,” which is I think calling empathy what it actually is, the way most people do it. It’s like, Oh yeah, I went visiting there for a while and yeah, I get it. As opposed to what we see Emily doing at the end.
Wasn’t it another Catholic, or semi-Catholic, Graham Greene, who said that hatred is a failure of the imagination?
Yes. That’s so beautiful. If empathy is imagination, I’m totally onboard.
In a way you’re making that possible, then, with this play, because you are kind of giving a glimpse into a world that some people may not have seen.
And, for those who know that world well, you’re putting it into a new and maybe frightening context on the stage. These characters, for all their expansive education, do seem to lack some ability to imagine others. They think their debates and discussions are the way to fight encroaching secularism — as if arguing and polemics are what matters, when the people they’re arguing about don’t even realize these fights are taking place. Frankly, it’s a little unnerving to see those fights suddenly happening on stage for others to look into.
Absolutely. Responses to the play have led to some discussions that make it feel like some walls are toppling. Of course, it’s incomplete, but I feel it even with my own family — some walls have come tumbling down. And it’s not easy, but it feels good, not to even debate or anything like that, but to meet in a… my dad calls it a threshold, a place where we can reflect the good that we have seen in the world to each other. To be like, “This is beautiful to me and it shouldn’t be scary to you. This is beautiful for me, it shouldn’t be scary.” As opposed to being like “Fix this, fix this, fix this.”
That’s part of what I’m trying to do with the play. But of course, for me, pain is part of what’s beautiful. Not in a fetishistic way. But we all are in pain, all the time. We all suffer so much. Doesn’t it create space for us to meet? It’s so easy for us to categorize the “other side” as, you know, sitting smugly somewhere, just wishing for our death.
But they’re not. Well, maybe some are. Those are the ones you don’t like being with.
I think everyone thinks the other side is very smug.
Yeah. And what’s that about? That’s so interesting.
So as you’re telling stories like this, who are you looking to as a model? Is there something or someone in particular you’re trying to emulate?
For the past years I’ve been really inspired by Claudia Rankine. I read a quote from her — she said something like white artists are no longer interested in putting whiteness in the subject position, or if they do it’s to continue its dominance, but it’s never been the subject of violence or paranoia and rage. And that just really hit me. It was just like, I want to do that.
I’ve been thinking about whiteness, and how to just be honest about it, and why it’s so important to be able to talk about it. It seems to me to be a potentially deeply moral, Christian question just to figure out what it means to be born white in this country. Could be simple, but I understand it seems to be quite incendiary indeed.
I have a new play that goes into it much more head on, but I think this play is totally informed by her work.
Also, there’s a recent Zadie Smith essay, “In Defense of Fiction.” I really look up to her, too.
And there’s a playwright named Mia Chung who I really admire. She did an amazing play called Catch As Catch Can last year, which just blew me away.
And I always love David Lynch.
That thing that happens with the sound of the “generator” in the play felt pretty Lynchian to me, actually! What’s your next play?
It’s called You Hateful Thing. It’s a pretty wild play. It’s probably the most wild thing I’ve ever written. It’s about whiteness and compartmentalization and rage and hatred. But really it’s about love.
Heroes of the Fourth Turning is in performance at Playwrights Horizons in New York City until November 17.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.