Dry Bones

Will Arbery’s ‘Heroes of the Fourth Turning’
(Courtesy of Playwrights Horizons)

Will Arbery’s new play, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, now on stage at Playwrights Horizons in New York, is itself quietly heroic, managing to do several hard things well. It not only succeeds in making the arguments of conservative Catholics intelligible and compelling to a mostly liberal, mostly secular New York audience; it also manages to demonstrate that the differences among conservative Catholics can be as interesting as the differences between them and everyone else. On a purely technical level, the play proves that it’s still possible for political rhetoric to take the stage without sounding like an imitation of Aaron Sorkin. Though rhetoric is often treated as if it were beneath the dignity of good theater, it is no less natural than any other mode of speech. Rhetoric is just the idiom of persuasion, so only bad rhetoric deserves the playwright’s scorn. In Arbery’s play, the stakes of persuasion are, or appear to be, existential, and that by itself is a feat worth acknowledging.

But the hardest and most important thing Heroes of the Fourth Turning does is to put two contradictory realities on the same stage at the same time: the reality that Catholic Christianity is all about communion and redemptive suffering, along with the reality that much actual suffering, and especially physical pain, is incommunicable. Sure, we can talk about it, but we can’t really share it. Pain, more than anything else, seems resistant to communion. Even when we can express it—and we often can’t—it still isolates us. Just as each of us must die alone, each must suffer alone, no matter how many friends we have to comfort us as we do. Does our religion just obscure this second reality, or does it somehow answer it? Is it cure, palliative, or just placebo? That’s one of the many questions this play asks and pointedly declines to answer.

The four friends of Heroes of the Fourth Turning have been brought back together in rural Wyoming for the installation of a new president at a small Catholic college. Three of them—Justin, Teresa, and Kevin—are recent graduates of the college and former students of Gina, the new president. The other, Emily, is Gina’s daughter, who went elsewhere for college and career but has had to return home because of an unspecified illness that keeps her in bed most days. It is late at night (the night of August 19, 2017); a party has just ended at Justin’s house; and the four friends have gathered in his backyard.

Now in his late thirties, Justin (Jeb Kreager) is older than the others. He attended the college after several years of military service and a failed marriage. His approach to Catholic counterculturalism is reculer pour mieux sauter: the Benedict Option as tactical retreat. Despite the election of Donald Trump, Justin is sure that all the real power belongs to the secular liberals who are destroying the things he holds dear—the family, the faith, a capacity for sacrifice. The prudent course in such circumstances is to keep one’s head down and wait for our decadent culture to destroy itself. As he explains, “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.” Remote Wyoming is as good a place as any to do these things; big cities are all off-limits, “hubs of LGBT activity” and other disorders. Justin now teaches horsemanship at the college and lives alone. At the beginning of the play we see him pick up a rifle and shoot a deer that wanders by his yard, then carry its carcass back to his porch and begin to dress it. As the play proceeds, he keeps returning to a blood stain on the porch that no one else seems to notice. Compared to his three friends, he is a model of composure, if not serenity, but there’s an unmistakable glint of anxiety in everything he says.

Kevin (John Zdrojeski) is in many ways Justin’s opposite: immature and emotionally needy, sex-starved and writhing with self-contempt. He is guzzling whisky throughout the play, so one is never quite sure how much of his extravagant self-abasement reflects a real spiritual crisis and how much is just the booze. Kevin works for a Catholic textbook publisher and seems to be addicted to online pornography—he says all he does is “come and cry.” He thinks maybe he should become a priest, but he also thinks that maybe all his problems would be solved by having a girlfriend. His appetites seem to be not just incompatible with his religion but incommensurate with it, as if the two things existed on entirely different levels of his psyche, each with its own exorbitant demands. Kevin plays the puppy for pity and for laughs, but we know why Justin thinks he “smell[s] like the devil.”

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Then there’s Teresa (Zoë Winters), who talks like the devil and has all the best lines. She lives in Brooklyn and writes blog posts for a Breitbartish website (her hero is Steve Bannon). Her rapid-fire monologues are impressive and alarming, brimming with historical references and spiked with ideological zeal. Teresa is preparing herself for civil war, and clearly relishes the prospect. She and her cobelligerents will be “heroes of the fourth turning,” a final period of crisis in a historical cycle that repeats itself every eighty years. The liberals, having overplayed their hand, will be vanquished by a new generation of conservatives with no scruples about civility. Civility is for chumps, or “soy boys” like Kevin. Robert Frost once defined a liberal as someone afraid to take his own side in an argument. Teresa defines conservatives, real conservatives, as people not only unafraid to take their own side but ready and eager to annihilate the enemy. She is a piece of work, no doubt about it, but is she a real person? No one—not her friends, not the playwright—seems to know.

Finally, there’s Emily (Julia McDermott), sanctified by suffering. Or so everyone else would like to assume. Like her hero Flannery O’Connor, Emily knows that long nights of the soul can have a lot to do with the body; and her illness gives her an authority to which the others instinctively defer, even when they disagree with her. Her conservative Catholicism, if that’s what it is, is not like Teresa’s or Justin’s. Theirs is solid and proudly impenetrable, hers fragile and porous to the experiences of the undevout. Emily has worked for a prolife organization that helps pregnant women in distress, but she also has a friend who works at a Planned Parenthood clinic, and she insists that her friend is, despite her moral error, a good person who believes she’s helping women—not, as Teresa would have it, the moral equivalent of a Nazi guard at a concentration camp. It is not only Emily’s illness but also her gentleness that wrong-foots Teresa. She can accuse Kevin of being a soy boy, but she can only accuse Emily of being too kind for her own good.

 

Because these are alpha Catholics, the word “grace” gets used often enough, but there’s remarkably little sign of the stuff in all the showing off and putting down and digging in our heroes do.

Late in the play Gina (Michele Pawk) arrives to take Emily home, but not before receiving tribute from her former students. They ask her to read part of the speech she gave at her installation as the college’s new president, and she is happy to oblige. To judge from the fragment we hear, it isn’t much of a speech: tediously figurative, ideologically complacent, a bit pompous. In fact, this passage of ceremonial rhetoric turns out to be the weakest and dullest rhetoric in the whole play, and one assumes this was intentional. A podium may now be the last place to look for real eloquence.

Soon Kevin, falling-down drunk, is asking Gina questions she isn’t prepared to answer—questions about the value of the worldview he drank in at her college—and then Teresa is challenging Gina for dismissing Trump and his advisers as charlatans. This intergenerational argument between a Millennial firebrand who thinks our current president is chemotherapy for a sick country and a mellowed-out Goldwater Girl who went to confession immediately after voting for Trump is more than the narcissism of small differences. As Teresa at least understands, there is a real question here about whether prolife politics can ever be detached from the politics of race—not about whether the ethical argument against abortion entails racism (the answer to that is obviously no) but about whether the prolife cause, as a political movement, can get anywhere except as part of a larger fight for “Western Civilization” and whether that concept can be understood in nonracial terms. Teresa thinks it can’t. Her conservatism is about white people sticking up for themselves before it’s too late, answering the tribalism of identity politics with their own tribalism. As she puts it:

You call us racist, we’ll call you racist. You call us white, we’ll call you black. You call us Nazis, we’ll call you abortionists and eugenicists. You call us ignorant Christians, we’ll call you spineless hedonistic soulless bloviating bloodbags. But you stop doing that, and give this thing space and time to work itself out, we’ll stop too.

Gina finds this repellent, and appears genuinely surprised to hear one of her protégés talking this way. She is certainly right to be repelled, but does she really have a right to be surprised? According to Teresa, her own politics are just the logical extension of Gina’s; Gina just doesn’t have the guts to accept responsibility for it. If you’ve hosted a campaign event for Pat Buchanan in your home, as Gina once did, then you can’t clutch your pearls at the mention of Steve Bannon.

At the end of the play, everyone has left the yard except for Justin and Emily. It’s clear from the start of the play that there’s some kind of bond between these two, a friendship at least, maybe something more. Justin is obviously eager to help Emily however he can, and she seems to prefer his help to everyone else’s. The tenderness between them is one of the few hints of something conspicuously missing from most of the dialogue in this play: grace. Because these are alpha Catholics, the word “grace” gets used often enough, but there’s remarkably little sign of the stuff in all the showing off and putting down and digging in our heroes do. They’re supposed to be outside in open country—they keep mentioning the sky, the stars, an impending eclipse—but this pious conclave feels oddly claustrophobic. At moments when the dialogue is pitching into another round of malice or despair, Justin’s backyard seems like a chamber in hell, right down to an unearthly shrieking that keeps erupting from somewhere just offstage. Justin says the sound is from his broken generator. One of the few flaws in this play is that the audience is expected to believe this explanation—or at least to accept that the people on stage believe it. Spoiler alert: it’s not the generator. In its last moments, Heroes of the Fourth Turning veers into Twilight Zone territory, where it doesn’t belong. Whatever is gained in symbolism or metaphysical depth is lost in plausibility. A play this theologically serious and psychologically devastating doesn’t need a badly rigged diabolus ex machina to drive its point home. But you can’t ruin two hours of brilliant naturalism with two minutes of supernatural guff.

Despite this false step near the end, Arbery’s very last step lands right where it should, here in the ordinary world where the greatest terrors are all too natural. Saint Emily, meek and mild, has something to tell Justin about suffering that leaves him flat on his back. Her pain, she explains, is not what he thinks it is, and it does not do what he thinks it does. It destroys before it redeems—if it even does redeem. It is not, as he imagines, spiritually beautiful; it is hideously ugly. He does not, and cannot, know it, and his compassion is really a form of self-deception, worthless to her and damaging to him.

In one sense, Emily’s fury seems to come out of nowhere. It’s so out of keeping with her manner in the rest of the play, and what does it have to do with Trump or the Benedict Option? Nothing and everything. The exquisitely articulated ideological constructs in the rest of the play all pretend to be in the service of a religion whose God was tortured to death. Even the most secular New York theatergoers know this about Christianity, but if they didn’t, they would never learn it from all the brilliant dialogue of the Catholic intellectuals in this play. It goes unsaid not because it goes without saying, but because Catholicism here has wandered about as far as it can from the Gospel without becoming totally unrecognizable. What remains are its bones, which might or might not be good enough to prop up Western Civilization—Teresa’s real religion—but are of no comfort whatever to Emily. Her agony calls her religion’s bluff. It kills all ideology and sentimentalism on contact. What, if anything, does that leave?

Very early in the play, Kevin asks Teresa why Catholics have to love the Virgin Mary, because, frankly, he finds it impossible to love her, no matter how hard he tries. In response, Teresa launches into a lecture about the “scandal of particularity.” This, she says, is what liberals, with their universalism, can’t tolerate about Christianity—that it’s about God intervening in particular places at particular times, in one way rather than another, choosing a particular people, then choosing one woman to be the mother of the one Son of God. This is all very edifying as far as it goes. But it does not reach Emily, and that is where the real scandal of particularity is in this play: in the particular suffering that none of Emily’s friends seems to know what to do with. Here, even their best, most sympathetic rhetoric is a rattling of dry bones.

Published in the December 2019 issue: 

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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