Rob Weinert-KendtJanuary 22, 2021
Photo of Will Arbery, upper left, and “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” upper right, courtesy Playwrights Horizon. Bottom photo: Catholic News Service(Photo of Will Arbery, upper left, and “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” upper right, courtesy Playwrights Horizon. Bottom photo: Catholic News Service)

“There’s a war coming, dude,” says one character to another very early in “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” an Off-Broadway play by Will Arbery that created a sensation in 2019 for its nuanced portrait of young conservatives associated with a Catholic college in Wyoming. These were articulate, complicated people with political and religious views many audiences seemed pleasantly surprised to see onstage in Manhattan. Rod Dreher called it “breathtaking,” and the praise was unstinting all across the spectrum, with The New Yorker’s Vinson Cunningham calling it “a formally lovely, subtly horrifying play about the death rattle of ideologies and the thin line between devotion and delusion.”

Arbery’s play captured something essential about what we now know were the twilight years of the Trump administration: a sense of embattlement and confusion among folks who had voted for him, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and distaste. At the time of the play’s setting—in 2017, a week after the deadly Charlottesville Unite the Right march—Republicans were in control of all of the branches of government. So why didn’t Arbery’s conservative characters feel on top of the world? Therein lay the play’s drama.

“There’s a war coming, dude,” says one character to another in “Heroes of the Fourth Turning.” Was she right?

One character, the alumnus Kevin, says he threw up next to his car after casting his vote for Trump, while Teresa, a hard-edged pundit who predicts the impending war, posits an elaborate case for why Trump, for all his flaws, is a pivotal and necessary defender of the nation’s values. Another character, Emily, finds Trump “gross” and speaks up for her liberal friends and for empathy, while Justin is a stoic ex-military man who would like to introduce firearms classes at the college but who otherwise prefers withdrawal from secular society, a la Dreher’s Benedict option.

When I spoke to Arbery about the sources and meaning of his play for America, he studiously avoided pledging allegiance to either political side, let alone declaring the status of his Catholic faith. He was and remains an observer and dramatist of political ideas and the people who hold them, he explained. Which is why, a week after a right-wing mob stormed the Capitol to halt the certification of the 2020 election results, I reached out to Arbery to see what he thought about this apocalyptic break in the social order and whether this was the “war” that Teresa was talking about. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rob Weinert-Kendt: I hope you take it as a compliment that we’re going to talk about your characters like they’re real people. But first, how are you doing in the midst of all this, and what are your thoughts about it?

Will Arbery: I wasn’t surprised by anything that happened on Jan. 6, grotesque as it was. This stuff has been brewing for a long time, and they told us outright that it was going to happen. I am sort of in the same mode I always am, which is just watching, absorbing, trying to read perspectives that aren’t being fed to me by the usual outlets, to get a sense of what the mood is on all sides of the spectrum.

Arbery’s play captured something essential about what we now know were the twilight years of the Trump administration.

Have you noticed any changes in the discourse, or is everyone just reverting back to their ramparts?

I’m not a journalist; I’m not trying to form a coherent overview of the situation as quickly as possible and get that information out there. I’m following my curiosity where it leads, for usually creative purposes, because I’m trying to somehow make art out of all of this. But the sense I get from what I read is that people on the right are condemning what happened on Jan. 6 and then quickly pivoting to point out the hypocrisy of the left to be condemning this violence and not to have condemned the violence of last summer.

I guess I’m inherently mistrustful of anyone who immediately sees an event like this as simply confirming all their priors. This felt like a real break to me, and I would hope that others saw this as a break and that there’s not a large constituency for actual anti-democratic insurrection.

Well, I’m interested in the actual people who were storming the Capitol, and in Trump, I guess. But I’m much more interested in the person at home who’s watching it happen and feeling some degree of identification with the cause but a disagreement with the behavior—and the ambivalence that evokes. You saw a lot of this last summer in a wide range of reactions to the protests all over the country. Most of them were quite peaceful, but some of them were literally incendiary. 

‘I’m interested in the actual people who were storming the Capitol, and in Trump, I guess. But I’m much more interested in the person at home who’s watching it happen.’

There were a lot of reasons those things happened, but what I’m interested in is the person who’s left-leaning, who has broad sympathy for what’s underneath those actions and how they square that. Are they sitting there thinking, “I’m glad somebody is out there overturning the tables in the temple and getting their bodies on the street”? It’s almost vicarious, the feeling that, even if I wouldn’t do that or I don’t quite agree that’s the best method, they’re doing the good work out there in the world, and sometimes it has to look like that.

So with the people storming the Capitol, I’m interested in the person at home who has some degree of affinity or allegiance with those people, and how that person is processing that and what that ambivalence looks like. The thing about ambivalence is that, as much as there’s suspicion and doubt, there’s also longing and desire. It’s a push-pull that people on the left are quite familiar with.

Do you think any of your “Heroes” characters would have joined this mob?

Kevin feels maybe the most likely to get swept up in something. He’s certainly the most eager to please, and he’s impressionable. If he got sucked into the right online forum, you could see him getting swept up in it. But part of the point of “Heroes” is that these people are so ordinary. For all their talk of wanting to be extraordinary—and that feeling that they may be called soon to be heroes, to really put their bodies on the line—I don’t know if this storming of the Capitol has the necessary righteousness that would get them on the street. It’s all so predicated on the sort of god-worship of Trump.

Right, Kevin isn’t a fan, and while Teresa has reasoned her way to seeing Trump as somehow exactly the leader we need, she doesn’t seem to have quite that messianic sort of Trump worship.

Yeah, I don’t think so. Teresa’s line on Trump is, “He’s a Golem molded from the clay of mass media, and he’s come to save us all.” I think even for her that might be a little bit of a hyperbolic joke. She recognizes fully that he was created from the very materials she’s fighting against; it’s an ambivalent position on him, and it’s the most positive one we hear in the play. And even if you’re looking at it in religious terms, the Golem is a Jewish figure, and it’s not messianic; it’s a different sort of beast. It’s this idea of an exchange between our human dignity and our baser impulses, the uglier parts of ourselves, making this monster in order to create a bridge between the turmoil of this moment and hopefully a more peaceful future. So it’s an intensely contradictory figure and a sort of folklore symbol that sidesteps Christianity entirely.

‘Teresa’s line on Trump is, “He’s a Golem molded from the clay of mass media, and he’s come to save us all.” She recognizes fully that he was created from the very materials she’s fighting against.’

You know, it’s the case with most revolutions throughout history that there are these early rumblings of what becomes a much larger conflict that are characterized by these wild, extreme figures who do things that make people very uncomfortable, but in doing them, reveal in your own private soul where your allegiances lie. It’s sort of that secret question, like, “Oh, did a part of me want to see them pull that off? Would I have been so upset if they pulled that off?” The flip side of that being, “Okay, they shouldn’t have done that...but if they start to be punished for what they did, is there a world in which that punishment goes too far? Do the punishing powers start seeking out those who might have even a private affinity for them? Will my thoughts one day be revealed and put on trial?” I think people from both sides feel that anxiety.

I want to say, in response to your “both sides” language, that, as many others have pointed out, the cause really does matter here. An example I saw people cite was Belarus. When their dictator wouldn’t leave office, I think a lot of observers made distinctions between property damage done in protest of his government versus violence done by his secret service and right-wing militias. In terms of the power relationships in play, you can’t really talk about “protest” in this disembodied way.

I agree. I can’t possibly say in good faith that if things had gone differently, that if Trump found a way to stay in power, that people on the left wouldn’t have at least attempted to storm these hallowed seats of government. The difference is the response of law enforcement. If the left were storming these places, the gates would not have been open. The National Guard would have been out in full force. What was so disturbing about this was seeing the lines blurred—that feeling that the call is coming from inside the house—and to see the passivity of the state, which just a few months before we had seen in high gear. 

‘If the left were storming these places, the gates would not have been open. The National Guard would have been out in full force.’

We’d seen those men with shields pushing, pushing, pushing against crowds. We saw those beatings. We saw people maced and kidnapped and thrown into vans. We’d all seen with our own eyes what it looks like when the state is afraid of bodies on the street. And then we see what happens when they’re not afraid, or when they’re maybe even a little bit sympathetic to those bodies. With the protests last summer, despite how incendiary they could be, there was a clear one-to-one situation happening. There was outrage, and then there was the cold, silencing hand of the state. We saw that conflict in very clear terms. What we saw on Jan. 6 was what chaos looks like; all the wires are crossed, there is no clear binary, and it exposes the complicity of the state. And that’s very unsettling.

I don’t know if you saw a piece by Tim Carney, who pegged the rioters’ motivation as the need for something to believe in. We talked earlier about the god-like worship of Trump. Do you see this uprising in religious terms?

We’re a very religious nation, and I think we have a tendency toward religious fervor. It can look like a lot of different things; sometimes it can look like a very robust astrology industry. But absolutely, I think there’s a religious element to all of this. A lot of the language I’m seeing on the right has to do with God, family and nation. God and family, we can understand; if you’re a true believer, and you feel like your faith and family are under threat, of course, you’ll be on high alert. But the nation thing—I get so confused, you know, because I don’t see a lot of that in Christ’s teaching. I guess underneath all of it is the conviction that the United States was meant to be Christ’s nation on earth—and Teresa does have this language in the play—that it is meant to be the standard bearer for Christ’s work in the world. It’s supposed to be what protects Christ’s teachings and his literal body and presence in the world, because He exists in the Eucharist. And if there’s not a nation defending him, then “we’ll be taken over” by other faiths or godlessness and eventually martyred and killed. So we have to “hold the line.”

‘Eventually we’ll start to get more and more people to believe in this idea of Christ’s nation on earth, and you’ll get more and more people to believe that America is meant to be that nation.’

It seems like a tall order for these religious right pundits—some of them priests, some lay people—to convince a sort of ordinary good Catholic who just wants to live their faith and protect their family that the nation needs to be a part of that doctrinal narrative as well. That is what we’re seeing start to brew. The question will be to what degree are they able to paint some of these men who stormed the Capitol as heroes; and if maybe they can’t find any heroes among them, maybe we can at least find a few victims, and those victims can become sort of martyrs and saints for the cause. Eventually we’ll start to get more and more people to believe in this idea of Christ’s nation on earth, and you’ll get more and more people to believe that America is meant to be that nation. And the idea that if you don’t get on board with that, then you are letting Christ’s teaching on this globe wither and die. So there’s a lot of righteousness behind that, but it’s also a leap, and we’re seeing people work that out in real time.

I get the feeling you’re going to write more about this. Should we expect a sequel to “Heroes of the Fourth Turning”?

I can just say I’ve continued to explore this material in various media. I’m actually looking at a much wider canvas than five lonely souls on a Wyoming night. I’m very interested in how these ideas travel and reach people and take root in a person. I’m very interested in how an idea becomes one that someone would die for. As easy as it is to paint a picture of these angry, snarling extremes that hate each other and feed off of that hate and define themselves by that hate, there’s also so much genuine belief, and there’s so much good, and there’s so much love, and there’s so much beauty, and we don’t talk about it enough. It’s hard, and I obviously have my own sympathies, but that’s what I’m doing.

It sounds almost like a spiritual practice.

Yeah, it is. It is.

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