Will Arbery's drama about young conservative Catholics knows its subject - and its progressive audience - well
Increasing numbers of people talk to me about their growing sense of “crisis.” A friend recently wrote, “my standard assumption when everyone starts saying ‘we can’t go on like this’ is that they are right, we can’t.” But if we can’t go on like this, how will we go on? On what will our crisis turn?
Even in the rarefied environs of the New York City theatre community, people seem interested in this question, as I discovered this past weekend watching an extraordinary new play about Catholic conservatives in Wyoming.
“Heroes of the Fourth Turning” was written by Will Arbery who grew up in a conservative Catholic home, the son of Wyoming Catholic College professors Glenn and Virginia Arbery — now he is one of New York City’s rising stars as a member of the prestigious New Dramatists. So when Arbery writes a play about four young Catholic conservatives who gather for a reunion to toast one of their professors who had become president of the college, he knows his conservative subject, and he knows his progressive audience in equal measure.
Arbery’s play is remarkable for never letting progressives rest in their dismissals of conservatives, and also for holding up a critical mirror to the often messy disputes that conservatives have amongst themselves. He is not just interested in telling a richly drawn story about an ensemble of conservative Catholics in Wyoming, but he seems also interested in telling a story that starts “a big conversation” about sacrifice, suffering and community — about God, good and evil, and America. In fact, to underscore this point, the play opens with one of the characters praying at dawn, taking up his rifle, and killing a deer whose bleeding corpse he lays upon the porch where the story unfolds — literally performing the play upon blood sacrifice that the characters repeatedly cross over with their own agonies and ecstasies.
The title of the play, “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” comes from William Strauss and Neil Howe’s best-selling 1996 book “The Fourth Turning,” which argued that American history goes through 80 year cycles which each involve four turns, following the trajectory of life itself: growth, maturation, entropy, and destruction — repeat. “Teresa,” a young Bannonist blogger living in Brooklyn, tells her friends “we’re all being called to be heroes because history goes in generational cycles…[over] four turnings. Each one of them is a couple of decades.” She explains to her friends that the first turning starts high, the second is an awakening, and the third is an unraveling.
“Unraveling is weird,” Teresa tells them. “It’s like, we break into different camps. Institutions aren’t trusted anymore, and there’s a ton of emphasis on personal freedom – but more like, license. Things get a little decadent. People go off into their different camps. Culture wars. 80s, 90s.
“Then comes Crisis. That’s the fourth turning. It’s destruction, it’s revolution, it’s war. The nation almost doesn’t survive. Great example is the Civil War, and the economic crisis before that. Or the Great Depression into World War II. And it’s right now. The national identity crisis caused by Obama. Liberals think it’s Trump. It’s the fight to save civilization. People start to collectivize and turn against each other. It seems like everything’s ending – we’re all gonna die. No one trusts each other. But the people who do trust each other form crazy bonds. Somehow we get through it, we rise from the ashes, and breach back into a High.
“And those four turnings make a saeculum.” Teresa wants to reassure her friends that what looks like bad news — crisis — is really good news, as they are the heroes who will inaugurate a new high.
“Emily,” who used to work in a pro-life crisis pregnancy clinic but who feels deep sympathy for people caught up into the snares of pro-choice culture, interprets this generational heroism differently than Teresa. “Oh y’all, my parents were just talking about this at dinner. They were saying that they think our generation has a spiritual hunger, and like a bravery. And that they see it on both sides. Like both sides desperately want the good.”
That theme of both sides desperately wanting the good — but not finding a common good — is a dominant theme of Arbery’s play. “Justin,” the eldest of the characters, in his 30s, frequently identifies the powerful sense of loss that many conservatives feel. “It’s just becoming harder and harder to hold onto what’s good. I’m talking eudaimonia. I’m talking The Good.”
A proponent of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, a book he refers to as epitomizing their tiny Transfiguration College in rural Wyoming, Justin warns his conservative friends to avoid the cities where LGBT activism works like a poison upon children and threatens the family.
“These nice young liberal people are blinded by a system that distracts them from true moral questions and re-focuses their attention onto fashionable and facile questions of identity and choice, which gender do you want to be today?, how much sex can you have today?, how many babies do you want? and how do you want them to look?, which is really all part of a larger ideological system that is rooted in an evil, early 20th-century quote unquote progressive trend towards quote unquote perfection, eugenics, and crypto-racism, endorsed by Margaret Sanger, an American eugenics system which persists, which wants to eliminate anything unclean or imperfect, including black babies and Down syndrome babies, and create a sterilized world based around state-mandated pleasure and narcissism…hooked up to a heroin drip of self-satisfied digital activism and committing vile acts of self-gratification because they’re told that it’s important to “experience” life, when actually they’re numbing themselves to the possibility of real sacrifice or any chance of an ethical life, rooted in the grit and toil of suffering in the name of Christ.”
These are extraordinary sentences to put before New York City audiences who are more likely to think about conservative blindness than their own. And it’s also instructive to think about “Justin” as one who deeply believes that his audience will remain as blind as they are threatening. As Justin puts it, they are “trying to wipe us out. They’re wishing for our death. And the only way to survive is to block them out, to focus on the Lord. Try to outlive them. Bake bread, make wine, work the earth, shelter wanderers, and survive.”
“Kevin,” a feckless character who complains how hard it is to be “the holy fool,” and admires the Jesuits who live among the hedonists, thinks the Benedict Option is “spineless,” and that Christians should be trying to convert the hedonists not hide from them. But even he admits that the “big conversation” doesn’t seem possible anymore. He complains that he can’t even talk about how “the transgender thing” is neo-gnostic without getting shut down online — it’s not possible to talk about how terrible it is for gender idealists to separate soul and body.
“It’s this insane thing that they’re all getting hung up on, this small minority of confused people, but all the people are like suddenly so defensive about using the word “they” but “they” doesn’t make any damn grammatical sense.” Not only does the grammar not make sense, the characters confide in one another, but conversation about the “big things” seems impossible — and yet, it must not be lost on the audience, the play itself is performing that conversation with its audience.
The play often works around internal conservative disputes — Bannonist, Benedict Option, Traditionalist — but the deeper undercurrents are those ‘dark and complicated’ mysteries of Catholicism. It is a strength of the play that the conservative and Catholic themes intermingle but never merge into one.
Theologically, the play is ambitious, covering everything from the nature of evil — inexplicable and meaningless disruptions which deprive us of goodness — to the Virgin Mary, to the Eucharist, to pulling human suffering into Christ’s sacrifice. Emily, a character racked by the pain of Lyme Disease, speaks about how each of us is a gift, akin to Christ himself who was “begotten not made.” And in a very important monologue in the play Teresa the young Bannonist tells her friend Kevin that he doesn’t understand the Virgin Mary because he’s “afraid of the scandal of particularity.”
“This is the thing about God. He makes us work out our salvation through other people.”
“We’re not meant to structure our society according to every freakish chosen ‘right.’ We’re supposed to strive for the good,” Teresa fervently implores in her Marian speech, “The particular, written, incarnate, natural Christian good. Otherwise, what are we? A throbbing mass of genderless narcissists. There’s no ‘thisness’ in the liberal future. There’s no there there. It’s empty. What’s really radical is sacrifice.”
Teresa’s political speeches are always theological, and her speech about the scandal of particularity above is precisely in the place of the deer’s blood, which Justin occasionally wipes down throughout the play to remind the audience of the presence of a sacrifice. For Teresa, however, “thisness” seems to keep her on the surface of things. It takes Emily, the Lyme Disease suffering woman whose body she describes as a “prairie of pain,” who breaks into the substance of things, who near the end of the play drags herself across a figure of Christ’s sacrifice, brings her suffering into contact with something real.
The play is remarkable for managing to make progressives and conservatives think about the parts we are playing in history – less Plato’s historical determinism and more Augustine’s “we are the times”. Fundamentally it’s a play which asks about the moral thinness of our present crisis, our “fourth turning,” and asks the audience to break into a bigger conversation about a “terrible beauty which sustains us.”
“Heroes of the Fourth Turning” will be on the mainstage of Playwrights Horizons until October 27th.