Will Arbery’s “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” is intelligently written, beautifully directed, well-acted, and gripping from the very first scenes. Certainly, it’s a play that demands extended conversation.

When I told my wife that I was going to be writing this week about our son Will’s play, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, she asked me if I had to do so. Well, “Wyoming Catholic College” keeps popping up in Google Alerts about the play, and the publicity alone needs a comment. Since last week, the play has attracted even more notice. Yesterday, Playbill announced that it had been extended a second time, and there is already talk about producing it in London and Chicago—just talk at this point, to be sure. Heroes is much discussed; it’s filling the seats at almost every show, including the one that my wife and I attended this past Sunday evening; and it’s fueling conversations, I suspect, long after the playgoers leave the theater.

Why did my wife not want me to write about it? Because the play is personal for us, since it delves into our family and the college we serve. Our son based the play on the conversations and experiences he has had on his visits to Wyoming Catholic College in the past six years—but, to be fair, not just those visits. He grew up around similar students and faculty and conversations at Thomas More College in New Hampshire. His sisters attended the University of Dallas while he was in high school at Cistercian Preparatory School across the street. Wyoming Catholic simply gives him a recent focus.

The worst reaction to the play has been from a Catholic blogger who called it “a smear-play about faithful Catholics and their politics,” which it definitively is not. In fact, all it took to generate that slander was to have the play praised by the New York Times, first in a review and then in a feature piece by Jenny Schuessler.[1] (To be fair, Will could have smiled for the camera.) But conservatives admired the play first. As C. C. Pecknold wrote in the Catholic Herald, “Arbery’s play is remarkable for never letting progressives rest in their dismissals of conservatives, and also for holding up a critical mirror to the often messy disputes that conservatives have amongst themselves.”[2] Rod Dreher’s long commentary on the American Conservative website has generated many comments (pro and con).[3] Far from being a “smear-play,” Mr. Dreher argues, “this play is deeply informed about the lives and thoughts of young Catholic conservatives in post-Christian America.” He points out that “Will doesn’t write about them in a cliched way, e.g., Catholic playwright moves to New York and vomits up vicious dramas denouncing the hypocrisies of his religiously conservative upbringing. He writes critically of his characters, but the criticism is more about trying to understand why they believe the things they do in the ways that they do.”

As the principal figures in his religiously conservative upbringing, my wife and I have been mentioned quite often by name, usually to validate the very possibility of the kinds of conversations that take place in the play. So have Wyoming Catholic College and our daughter Monica. Being in this position makes it difficult for me to judge the play with any objectivity.

But let me say a little. It is intelligently written, beautifully directed by Danya Taymor, well-acted by the cast, and gripping from the very first scenes.[4] What’s most amazing about it, in many ways, is that it gives a strong voice to the Catholic positions articulated by the characters—the scandal of the particular in God’s choice of Mary; the responsibility of accepting one’s “givenness,” especially in suffering; the necessity of sacrifice; the need to secure a stronghold against the influence of the dominant secular culture; and the importance of not “forgetting being,” as Heidegger puts it. Many of the things that Attorney General William Barr said in a recent, widely criticized speech about secular culture at Notre Dame are said even more forcefully in the play by one or another of the characters. In its world, evil is mysteriously and jarringly present, but a sacramental depth also informs the action; love supersedes mere empathy (which gets a caustic dismissal at one point); endurance and hope persist.

There is no “corrective” progressive in the play, but the most political of the characters (Teresa, played by Zoë Winters) presents the contemporary argument about racial coding in the traditional Western canon. In fact, she almost flaunts the argument in her exchange with Gina, her former mentor, who coldly repudiates her. Anger and disappointment metastasize. In the last scene, feeling abandoned by her mother Gina and her closest friend Justin, the chronically ill and benign Emily has a despairing meltdown, whose effect is shocking, profane, emotionally violent. She occupies the same threshold space on the stage (Chad Pecknold is especially good on this point) as the doe slain in the opening scene—but I’m getting into details that won’t make sense to those who haven’t seen it.

Will has told us motherhood is the “through-line,” the theme uniting Heroes, and that he hopes the play is cathartic, that it dispels shallow judgments. Certainly, it’s a play that demands extended conversation. I have my quarrels with it. But for those who see it or read excerpts, I would urge one consideration above all: remember that it is a work of imagination. The characters are characters in the world of the play, not in real life, and what happens in the play should not be understood as yielding up gossipy revelations about real-life people or about this institution. A playwright invents things, and Will has invented many. The characters and their actions should be read in terms of the thematic tensions—friendship and eros, love and contempt, ambition and piety—being worked out in the structure of the play’s dramatic realism.

Wyoming Catholic College is fictionalized in the play, but what we do here—what we think about daily—is in fact as centrally important to the broader culture as this play makes it feel. Will Arbery rightly discerns that Wyoming Catholic is a symbolic focal point for the intellectual and spiritual struggles of the age. This College is engaged in deep ways with the agony of a culture that has lost its spiritual center, and his play has brought an articulate and deeply felt conversation before audiences unlikely ever to suspect that there is really another side, not to mention a threshold for charity.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

[1] Jesse Green, “Review: In ‘Heroes of the Fourth Turning,’ a Red-State Unicorn,” The New York Times, October 7, 2019; Jennifer Schuessler, “A Play About God and Trump, From a Writer Raised on the Right,” The New York Times, October 13, 2019.

[2] C.C. Pecknold, “An extraordinary play that challenges progressives and conservatives alike,” Catholic Herald, October 1, 2019.

[3] Rod Dreher, “Will Arbery’s Heroes,” The American Conservative, October 2, 2019.

[4] Play casting and production can be found here.

The featured image is a still from a video production of a scene in Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning (2019).

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