Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning appears to be a play of ideas. Its author described the show, which closed down last month after an off-Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons, as dealing with “the secret and shrewd force” of Christian conservatism. I might add that Arbery and I both received a Catholic education from the Cistercian monks of Our Lady of Dallas, albeit seven years apart. His treatment of religious themes reveals intimate knowledge of the subject. Whistleblower, anyone? Reviews have certainly begun under better auspices than these.
The one-act play takes its name from a 1997 political work by William Strauss and Neil Howe, The Fourth Turning. The book posits that American history is cyclical and moves through four twenty-year periods: high, awakening, unraveling, and crisis. Those born in a given period, and therefore shaped by it, share the characteristics of a particular “archetype.” We thus have prophets, nomads, heroes, and artists, which more or less correspond to Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millenials, and Generation Z, respectively.
According to this scheme, the play’s four protagonists—Teresa, Justin, Emily, and Kevin—are all roughly heroes, since they are all, roughly, millennials. (More on this later.) The group has reconvened at their alma mater, the remote Transfiguration College of Wyoming. The action takes place in the twilight of a party at Justin’s house; earlier that day, Emily’s mother has been invested as the president of the school, and the four await her arrival after the other guests have left.
They pass the time as one imagines good young Catholics do, that is, by indulging liberally in the vices permitted them and cautiously in the ones that are not. Their conversation blends the personal and the political, leading to sensational talk about abortion, homosexuality, Donald Trump, and more. They begin, slowly but surely, to coalesce around Teresa’s suggestion that they are the heroes of the fourth and final turning, charged with the responsibility of leading America from a crisis to a high.
But Arbery strays from this plan. “Not everyone is a hero,” Teresa clarifies. “It’s just an archetype—a collective thing.” Justin (Jeb Kreager) is the most conspicuously mislabeled of the group: born in 1977, he falls within the nomad cohort, attending Transfiguration on the GI Bill with students well below his age. He is pragmatic and independent, the only one to remain in Wyoming after graduation; the play begins with a long, still movement in which he shoots a deer from his back porch the morning of the party.
It makes sense that Teresa (Zoë Winters) should slip into the role of prophet, since she expounds the whole theory. The young Bannonite is also eager, between the bumps of cocaine we begin to suspect she is enjoying off stage, to wax at length about the many perils facing conservatives today, or to lecture Kevin about why the “scandal of the particular” is hampering his adoration of the Blessed Virgin. “Mommy issues” would have been more direct, but she likes the sound of her own voice.
Teresa glosses over the role of the artist in her explanations, and she shows an equal lack of interest in any of Kevin’s actual problems—crippling insecurity, compulsive masturbation, and so on. Kevin (John Zdrojeski) is an endearingly miserable sort, a whipping boy with a dissolute artistic temperament. At one point he asks, with every indication of sincerity, if he should “dance” God’s transgender children “to the gates of Hell and slam the gate shut behind them.” He wants to move to New York, where Teresa lives, but probably wouldn’t last long there.
That leaves Emily (Julia McDermott) as the hero among heroes, a perfect match in the Christian sense that suffering is strength. Her every movement is hampered by an invisible and debilitating illness. She strikes us first and foremost as a selfless, if at times dopey, minister of charity who kills with kindness. The testimony of her work for a pro-life advocacy organization in Chicago is particularly compelling.
In “The Queen of Spades,” Pushkin writes: “Two fixed ideas cannot exist in the brain at the same time any more than two bodies can occupy the same point in space.” He would have very much enjoyed this play. Set aside the “secret and shrewd force” Arbery hinted at. He has also given us something else: a play about four not-quite-adults who fail, miserably and repeatedly, to live up to a set of Christian values that they can hardly agree upon. At every turn, we can judge the protagonists by their aspirations, or we can judge them by their failures to live up to them. Both are vividly rendered. But it is very difficult to judge both at once.
Take the archetypal scheme above. It teases at, but never succeeds in, explaining away the whole play, just as Teresa, its progenitor, attempts and fails to explain away Kevin’s scruples about the Virgin Mary or Emily’s sympathy for “baby-killers.” Like her friends, Teresa neither means what she says nor says what she means. We may borrow her neo-Viconian theories to make our own conclusions about the rest of the characters. We might even imagine we are making progress. But if we do, we are as surprised as she is when Gina, her mentor and idol, excoriates her for condescending to the identity-obsessed politics of the Left in her efforts to outflank them. Such labels are limited, we realize, and we start to wonder, quietly, whether inhabiting her viewpoint was a useful exercise. Teresa, too, wonders aloud at one point if empathy is worth the trouble.
Want to try another route? Tough going. It doesn’t matter which of the four perspectives one begins with. All the roads cross before they get to Rome—or Babylon. Or both.
Kevin, the earnest and romantic artist, asks us to judge the characters in terms of their ambition. Give them all some credit—they’re trying! He is caught up in our age’s never-ending search for the authentic, which so often becomes a search for approval. He envies Justin for his apparent stolidity, oblivious to the irony of wanting to be as independent as someone else; he fantasizes, crudely, about bathing crippled Emily and having Teresa “teach [him] how to fuck.” He is also blind drunk for nearly the entire play. The embodiment of a second-place finish.
Justin seeks remove from the modern world. His apparent self-reliance, however, turns out to be a crystallization of neuroses—that a “nomad” would aspire to be a priest ought to give us pause. The more we watch him agonize over the spot of blood from the deer he gutted on his patio, the more we grow suspicious of his past: it turns out that he was nearly expelled from Transfiguration for having sex with a freshman when he was a senior, which casts a new light on his admiration for Teresa’s writing and his offer to see Emily home. He demonstrates what paranoiacs know well: the safer we ought to feel in a given set of circumstances, the more magnified our doubts can become.
Teresa’s scheme pegged Emily as a hero among heroes; rife with paradoxes, she’s closer to an anti-hero’s anti-hero. She draws us toward a notion of charity—loving what is broken, painful, and poor—which could, hypothetically, accommodate all of the viewpoints on the stage. But she becomes stuck in her own material existence, where one cannot be anything but absolutely tyrannical. Circle too close, as Justin and Kevin do, and we are sucked into a world where suffering is might and might is right.
If these heroes are all phonies and fakes, then where is the true Christian conservatism we were promised? Certainly not with president Gina (Michele Pawk), who doesn’t arrive until two-thirds of the way in. Gilt with the wisdom of the ages, she serves as foil to the alumni’s naiveté—until she disappoints them by arguing herself in circles and wandering off with her nose in the air. Though her dialogue is razor-sharp, her character is a bit overdetermined. Before we have the chance to size her up in one hat, she is wearing another, and so becomes a well-dressed mannequin.
Heroes has been trumpeted by partisans both Right and Left. They say it offers timely insight into a highly political subject that Broadway tends to ignore. Though Arbery surely anticipated this fascination, his play belongs neither on a dusty trophy shelf nor in a cage at the zoo. He has played both sides to get their attention, I think, and followed up with a play calculated to frustrate such reductive notions.
Like all organized religion, Catholicism is in many ways a search for the one true Scotsman, defined as much by a suspicion of the anathematic as a desire for the beautiful and good. It is impossible to circumscribe within a time and place. It is above all a love of things unseen. The artful set design emphasizes this fact: while the action takes place in Justin’s backyard, a soft glow emanates from the windows of the house peeking out from stage left. It looks cozy. Warm, in the way the quartet hoped Gina would be. What we see on stage is not the destination, just out of reach, but the awkward struggling to get there. Unholy in the main but blessed in the particular. The “little space between the cup and the lip,” as Gina says at one point—“just waiting a little longer to taste the wine.”
Is it a Catholic play? Well, it is a play about people wanting to be right about something. This is a pretty universal sentiment—catholic with a lowercase C—but also one that has been hollowed out by the syncretic impulses of our age. As a religion, Catholicism seeks nothing less than a monolithic answer to our most profound questions. When single-mindedness is presumed synonymous with closed-mindedness, this becomes a titillating notion. As small and pathetic as the characters can seem in the elaboration of their belief, we cannot turn away: the stakes, both human and divine, are abundantly clear.
Heroes is not a one-off special-interest piece on “shrewd and secret” Christian conservatives. It has more lasting power than that. The play’s goofy marketing aside, Arbery’s purview extends well beyond Catholics, conservatives, or partisan affiliation in general. His proper subject is the vicissitudes of human belief. His real achievement? Sounding out the shrewd and secret nothings we whisper to ourselves.