On a starry night in Wyoming, four recent graduates gather to celebrate their beloved professor, newly appointed as the president of their alma mater, a small Catholic great books college. Over the course of the evening, they discuss their views on religion and politics, offering the audience a crash course in the conservative Catholic arguments of the Trump era. The play could be a vanity project, or a young Catholic playwright trying to create religious art without being cliché. Instead, Heroes of the Fourth Turning is off-broadway, playing to a packed house on an extended run, and earning appreciation from the New Yorker and the New York Times.
Most reviews focus on the ideas that drive the play and the playwright’s intent on presenting them to their audience. The playwright, Will Arbery, says that he felt both anger at the people who made Trump possible, and a responsibility to write about them: “It just became clear to me that the most progressive and provocative thing I could possibly do was to take this world really seriously, and to try to find as much clarity within it as possible.”
As the son of the president of Wyoming Catholic College and one of eight children, the world of conservative Catholicism is one Arbery knows well. The play’s Transfiguration College is directly based on Wyoming Catholic’s mixture of “wilderness training and conversational Latin,” as one character puts it. Arbery grew up surrounded by classical sources, theology, and politics. He has moved away from his family’s politics, but continues to wrestle with their faith. With this play, he wanted to give a liberal audience “the feeling that I have sitting there amongst those different kinds of people, having those conversations and the feeling of not being able to get out of that uninterrupted experience.”
His goal was not to convince his audience or to make them empathize with people whose views they probably find repellent. Indeed, one character gives an exposition of Hannah Arendt’s arguments against empathy and mocks liberals for being addicted to it. Instead, Arbery wants the audience to sit with the characters’ ideas, without a filter or someone onstage pointing out how they are wrong, which he calls “a radical act.” On the night I saw it, the audience’s reaction varied. Strong statements about abortion got laughs; a sublime exposition of the theology of the Eucharist did not.
With few exceptions, Arbery’s portrayal of the characters and their ideas is spot on. (Note: Spoilers of the play’s plot follow.) Kevin is weak, and he knows it. He works at a Catholic textbook company but doesn’t know where his life is headed; he enjoys pop culture even as he abhors the values of its creators. Kevin wants a girlfriend, but can’t get one, and also can’t shake the feeling that he might be called to the priesthood. Over the course of the play, he gets drunker, grosser, and more provocative. Justin is the oldest of the group, having come to college later in life. He served as a Marine sharpshooter and has an ex-wife and tattoos. The silent and strong counter to Kevin, Justin thinks that a war between progressives and conservatives is coming, but the other side has all the power and influence. He’s chosen to settle in Wyoming, thinking we should work the land and embrace the Benedict Option.
Kevin spends too much time losing futile arguments online, but Teresa wins them. A disciple of Bannon and Trump, she is becoming a known writer on the alt-right. Teresa’s cocaine-fueled monologues drive much of the argument. She agrees that a war is coming, but claims that conservatives are finally in charge. Now is the time to attack the “throbbing mass of genderless narcissists” that are her neighbors in Brooklyn. Teresa admires the Strauss-Howe generational theory that influenced Bannon, which posits that history is cyclical and that we are currently in the midst of a nation-defining crisis, the final of four “turnings.” Her millennial generation fits the theory’s archetype of “heroes” who are civic-minded and can carry the day in the crisis—hence the play’s title. “It’s hard to confront people who won’t change,” she admits. But what else can one do, Kevin asks: “Do I dance them to the gates of hell and slam the gate behind them?”
Emily is Teresa’s opposite, the daughter of the college president they have come to honor, and based on one of Arbery’s sisters. She had worked in Chicago for a crisis pregnancy center, but now has chronic Lyme disease that leaves her in great pain and living back with her parents. Emily copes with the pain by following Flannery O’Connor’s example, seeing grace in the midst of it even though she sometimes wants to die. She doesn’t see the other side as uniformly bad and wants to argue that her friend who works at Planned Parenthood is a good person. Abortion may be murder, but the issue is complicated. The memory of a black woman she counseled in Chicago and the personal complexities and struggles surrounding abortion have stuck with her.
Toward the end of the evening, the honored guest shows up. But her victory lap is cut short as she discovers more of what the students who admire her think, especially Teresa. Modeled on Arbery’s mother, Gina is an old-school conservative, who once held a fundraiser for Pat Buchanan and still has a Barry Goldwater poster in her office. She went to confession after voting for Trump and has no patience with the alt-right. The cyclical turnings of history are just Plato-lite to her. Gina thought her students were happy and strong; she finds Teresa worldly, crude, and weak. In Gina’s eyes, Teresa has become like the progressives she castigates online: following a brutal and stupid way of thinking, and ruled by emotion. When she tries to get Gina to admit that her politics have been consciously about perpetuating white identity and culture, Gina stops her cold: She didn’t have eight C-sections for White Western Civilization, but for God.
In spite of these debates, the relationships and backstory between the characters make the characters identifiable to secular New Yorkers. By the end, they seem less like conservative “heroes” and more like the millennials the audience would know. Arbery says that the play is a fugue, in two senses of the word. In the musical sense, he has five voices making changes on a central subject. But fugue is a psychological term as well and describes “a period of dissociating, entering another identity, losing your own, waking up in a different environment, not knowing how you got there.” Arbery seems to want to bring the audience as close as it can to seeing themselves in the shoes of the people they casually despise.
This second level of the play comes to a head at the end, where it mixes with the play’s third, and most unremarked on, level: its supernatural character, revealed gradually as successive characters leave the stage. During an argument, Kevin is briefly knocked unconscious. Some time after he comes to, he recounts a dream in which he received a calling to a deeper mystery, to give more sacraments, to embrace “something true”—a calling he refused. Gina’s rebuke has struck Teresa to the core. She has turned her fear of motherhood into a false machismo, and she now recognizes her inability to love. Once they all leave the stage, we are left with Justin and Emily.
Throughout the play, a shrieking roar occasionally bursts out. Justin claims that it is his generator, and goes off to fix it. In the final minutes, however, he confesses that it’s not the generator, that he had a priest come to douse the house in holy water but the noise is still there. Hildegard of Bingen’s Ordo Virtutum in the twelfth century is often credited as the first opera. All the characters sing except for the devil, who, since he is unable to harmonize with divine order, can only shout. Something similar is at work here: a voice from outside disrupts the fugue, bringing the music to a standstill. Perhaps it is connected with the land (Arbery’s idea), or the coming war, or sinful elements of the characters’ world. We are never told for sure, but Arbery thinks the noise is “very real.”
Another element of Catholic fiction seems to be at work, too. French Catholic authors were fascinated by the idea of mystical substitution, in which one character bears suffering on another’s behalf. In François Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, the Mother Superior dies in delirious rage, screaming that God has abandoned her. A sister posits that she died the wrong death, that this death was handed to her by mistake, the way someone would hand another the wrong coat in a coat room. This is borne out in the opera’s conclusion: the main character, a young woman marked by doubt, goes to her death at the guillotine with great peace and conviction.
Emily confesses that her previous story about lying in bed, mad at God, was really the experience of the woman in Chicago she had counseled. She sees herself as that woman, experiencing her feelings as her own like they are stored in her body. Then, instead of declaring his love for her, as we expect, Justin tells Emily that he is planning to enter a monastery. In Emily’s mind, he has claimed to be her friend, but now plans to abandon her. Arbery’s idea of a fugue comes to its full expression as her voice takes on the character of the people who have thrown their feelings at her, especially the woman from Chicago and her friends that night. Her pain and desire to lash out has fused with their own in a violent monologue. “There’s no one there,” she screams, “and he hates you.” Something like that mystical substitution seems to be going on in Emily as well. Her pain and the pain of those she loves reach their crescendo then subside. And at the end she is left standing on her own two feet, healed and holding the cane that she had needed for support.