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.”
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.