Dear Will Arbery: About ‘Heroes of the Fourth Turning’

The hold of conservative Christianity on the American body politic is a symptom of the crisis.

Zoë Winters and Michele Pawk in Will Arbery's "Heroes of the Fourth Turning." Photo: Joan Marcus.

Dear Will Arbery,

Your playHeroes of the Fourth Turning, is too long, and we’ll likely have to disagree about that, but that isn’t why I’m writing a letter to you anyway. I’m writing because I get (or at least I think I get) why you wrote it. Certainly things made more sense after I read the revealing autobiographical essay that you contributed to the program (Heroes of the Fourth Turning runs Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons through Oct. 27). You were raised by “Catholic conservative academics”; their conservatism was “poetic, passionate and nuanced” — these helpful insights into your background explains the impulse that appears to have powered your writing. As I reflect on the experience of seeing it (directed by Danya Taymor), perhaps for you it is a dramatic exorcism as much as a dramatic exercise. Less so for me.

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One of the frustrations with your play, other than it’s length (the point of your last scene and the late arrival of your most important character eludes me), is the difficulty some of us may have in finding your characters — well, if not likable, at least bearable. To be fair, I was born and raised in NYC and I’m Jewish — what do I know about a town of 7,000 people in Wyoming where the young, conservative, pro-Trump alumni of a small Catholic college are gathering to honor the elevation of their mentor, Gina (divine Michele Pawk), as its president? It’s not that these characters are conservatives, per se, that disturbs: the setup attracted me to your play in the first place. It’s more that characters like Teresa (force-of-nature Zoë Winters) are so monumentally off-putting — she’s basically the unwanted step-ghoul of Ann Coulter and heterosexual Sen. Lindsay Graham. You’d have made Teresa’s character more appealing if somehow her transition from the self-reinforcing world of the Catholic college to the Sodom and Gomorrah of NYC resulted in a more nuanced character. Yet even as she communes amongst all of our Sodom-ness and all of our Gomorrah-ness, the ultra-conservative Kool-Aid continues to keep her kidneys flushed and her spleen well vented:

“The lepers need to be healed, not championed for their leprosy. We’re not meant to structure our society according to every freakish chosen “right.” We’re supposed to strive for the good. 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. Painful particularity is what we need. Otherwise we’re culturally lobotomized. We’ll be force-fed brand new oppressed identities every year and we’ll bow to the tyranny of rights. Fuck rights… We need to embrace our American identity as a representative of Christ on the globe.”

Jesus H. You-Know-Who, Will! I chose to (heavily) excerpt Teresa’s stupendous monologue from early in the play because it’s quite the aria. Winters is a wonder, and one cannot take in Heroes of the Fourth Turning without acknowledging and appreciating that scene. At the same time, you have no idea how much I wanted to pick up my clicker and switch from Fox to House Hunters, Antiques Roadshow, even Maury.

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Let me be clear: it’s Teresa’s monumental monologue, more than that mercurial, weirdly menacing opening scene, that sets up to meet the “heroes” of the title of the play, each of whom may be said to embody one self-righteous conservative theme or another. If there’s anything that binds them, I’d argue that contained in your play is a faint, frightening echo of George W. Bush’s post-Sept. 11 speech to Congress, with the perverted phrase “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” further perverted into “Either you are with conservatism or you are with the terrorists.” That’s my paraphrase, my interpretation, but I do think that sentiment lurks beneath your plot, both in its clear and its confusing parts. No doubt these are the kinds of people who might confess, if pressed, that they see liberals as terrorists. Perhaps this explains why some of us, in response, see conservatives like those in your play as tantamount to a national cancer. And why your attempt to humanize these characters may be met with a gimlet eye.

Yet you do demand that we try to see some of these characters as indisputably human — even when riffing or rhyming off the same philosophical and intellectual rigidities. There’s the brooding and introspective Justin (solid Jeb Kreager), who is older than the other alums and concealing a not-so-shocking secret; there’s ailing Emily (strong Julia McDermott), full of empathic piousness that recalls Bush’s claptrap “compassionate conservatism”; there’s Kevin (John Zdrojeski, seemingly inexhaustible), who struggles to reconcile his faith with his penis. And his alcoholism. And walking the walk of faith as he talks the talk.

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And speaking of talking (and talking and talking), it is good dramaturgy when Kevin’s fight to feel the depth of his faith leads us to what ensues when Gail finally arrives. It’s a much-needed shift in your plotting — and smartly accomplished. I just need you to accept that, for some of us, the bass notes of dramatic rhythm in this play really are a challenge. First we must endure a very long (sorry) polemic on the sanctity and inviolability of conservative Christian dogma, and then, once we’re past wondering or caring where all this leads, we’re confronted with Gail’s kindler, gentler version of Christian conservatism. (Gail’s relationship with Emily has one additional dimension, of course, and I was surprised you didn’t explore it more — I won’t add another word about that.)

Let me, though, add another word about the performances. It is probably true that for us Sodom and Gomorrah liberals, our defensive default may be to dismiss your characters as flawed archetypes — certainly the coltish (and Coulter-ish) Teresa belongs in that category. Much as I disliked them, what recommends your play is that I know that the rest of your characters aren’t archetypes at all. Which means that Kreager, McDermott, Zdrojeski, Winters and Pawk cannot rely on superficiality or shortcuts — they must play the play, speak the words, trust the playwright. Lord, talk about faith! And you don’t always make it so easy, Will. For example, what Zdrojeski must put himself through as Kevin — all that self-inflicted angst, all that repressed libidinousness — is a stomach churn. Your dialogue may not provide Taymor with much in the way of action to stage, but she is compensated by your commitment to trying to limn a world, however foreign to some of us.

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At a helpful point in the play, one of your characters explains the theory of authors William Strauss and Neil Howe that provided you with your title. Called Strauss-Howe Generational Theory, the idea is that historical events occur and recur as four regular cycles, each one reflecting a “generational persona” that begets a new era, or turning. Each turning leads to the next, and the whole process takes 80 to 90 years — roughly the span of a human life. We’re in the latest fourth turning, Teresa declares, and the fourth one is always a crisis. No reasonable person could argue that our era is anything but an infection of crisis; one could conclude from Heroes of the Fourth Turning that the hold of conservative Christianity on a great swath of the American body politic is, in fact, a symptom of this infection.

Maybe my issue with your play, then, is I fail to see your characters as heroes of this or any other turning. These Trump-loving saviors of the American experiment, of Christianity, ooze enough hubris, fecklessness, arrogance and diseased rhetoric as to make me want to shut my eyes, close my ears and eternally hum la la la. Heroes don’t need heralds; heroes don’t rationalize hatreds or ignorance or fascism by flag-waving. True, Pawk’s Gail offers a note of quiet decency among the holy conservative bullshit. Yet this doesn’t make Gail a hero; she’s simply less infected with the crisis disease. The question is whether we cure a disease by shutting our eyes, closing our ears and pretending it isn’t there, and I think we know what the answer is. I’d have just preferred that this theatrical baptism into the font of Christian conservatism didn’t feel like waterboarding. Next time, might you sprinkle me instead? Up to you. Until then, good sir, I wish you peace and love.

Leonard Jacobs