‘Heroes of the Fourth Turning’ is a haunted play about religious conservatives

Critics are hailing it as a theatrical Trump explainer, but playwright Will Arbery understands the problem preceded him.

‘Heroes of the Fourth Turning’ is a haunted play about religious conservatives

Critics are hailing it as a theatrical Trump explainer, but playwright Will Arbery understands the problem preceded him.

The movie critic Pauline Kael has remained notorious for something she didn’t actually say: that no one that she knew voted for Nixon. What she said, rather, in a 1972 speech, was: “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.”

In Heroes of the Fourth Turning, a new play by Will Arbery, the people “who voted for Nixon” are present, this time on the stage. Four old friends, who are all tied to a small conservative Catholic college in Wyoming, Transfiguration, are reunited when a beloved professor is made its president. Three of them are graduates of the college, and one is the now-president’s ill and disabled daughter. They argue about a lot of things, but mostly the arguments — broken up by the interventions of a very screechy generator — are over Trump. They all (probably) voted for him.

Arbery comes to this, his fourth play, with personal credentials: His parents run Wyoming Catholic College, a tiny conservative institution that, like the fictional Transfiguration, does not accept federal funding. “Having come from a small subsection of conservative America,” he writes in the liner notes, “I felt that I had a responsibility to provide audiences with access to those conversations.” (Like Arbery, I am Catholic, and like Arbery, I have some personal and professional experiences in these conversations, which you can take as either a credential or a necessary disclosure.)

Accordingly, much has been made of Heroes of the Fourth Turning as a kind of Vox explainer for the Trump-era religious right. “They would not at first seem so different from you and me,” writes Jesse Green in his review for the New York Times, dubbing the play “a red-state unicorn.” At Vulture, Sara Holdren considers Heroes of the Fourth Turning “a portrait of a dying species, a self-proclaimed intellectual and spiritual aristocracy flailing as their claim on the earth and their sense of self dissipate.” On the right, this interpretation has also held. “People like me — politically and religiously conservative — don’t expect to encounter contemporary art about ourselves,” wrote Rod Dreher in an enthusiastic blog about Arbery’s play.

The play can accommodate this point of view, but it’s not really what’s interesting about Heroes of the Fourth Turning, a play that immerses itself in ideological conflict and (quite literal) darkness. Like HBO’s The Young Pope, Arbery’s play explores a world unfamiliar and alien to most of its audience, doesn’t shy away from controversy, and takes its subject on its own terms. If you’ve never lived in a world in which conservative principles are simply taken for granted, where the revelation somebody had had sex might be genuinely scandalous, or if you just don’t know anybody who voted for Trump, then I imagine that the play might be usefully disorienting to you. But a good play isn’t a didactic documentary, and Heroes of the Fourth Turning is a very good play.

The Fourth Turning is a (real) 1997 book by Neil Howe and William Strauss, which posits that civilization moves in eighty year cycles, and each cycle (or saeculum) comprises four parts. The “fourth turning” is cataclysmic collapse, and the generational type that corresponds to it are “heroes.” (Past turnings include the Civil War and World War II.) It is speedily summarized for us by Teresa, a jittery, almost manic professional conservative, and the only of the three graduates who seems to have made something of herself after graduating from Transfiguration College.

Teresa is sleek and polished in a white jumpsuit; she wears high wedges and has acquired fashionably bad habits (to wit, cocaine). She writes for a website that seems to be Breitbart-esque and is obsessed with Steve Bannon (who, in turn, loves The Fourth Turning). Her constant declarations that “there’s a war coming” resonate with her two fellow graduates, Justin (who has stuck around at Transfiguration, apparently to train horses) and Kevin (who works for a Catholic textbook company but, by his own account, does nothing but “come and cry” and argue on the Internet).

From time to time people wonder why a robust religious left does not exist. In one sense, it does, and always has.

The group is completed by Emily, the severely disabled daughter of Dr. Gina Presson, the Catholic professor and intellectual they have all come to honor, who herself appears in the back half of the play. Emily seems to have spent a lot of energy trying to get away from this world, going somewhere else to college and moving to Chicago, where she worked for a pro-life charity, only to be forced back by an unnamed disease that leaves her mostly bedridden and dependent on a cane. She does not like her mother, though she does like her friends.

Skimming the beginning of Strauss and Howe’s book, with its polemics against “linear time,” I was reminded of nothing so much as the old internet favorite, an infamous Web 1.0 page that laid out a grandiose theory that each day consists of four days existing simultaneously called TimeCube (“Nature's Time is Cubic and perpetual. Linear Time is wrong and suicidal”). Its appeal, however, particularly in the play, lies in claiming both superiority over time itself and in the sense that anything is up for grabs. Those who understand the working-out of history are poised to make the future they desire. It also appeals to an apocalyptic mood (in the early pages of the book, a phrase often repeated is, and I’m sorry, “winter is coming”).

The arguments among these characters change, but they tend to come back to Trump. When Kevin asks Gina, desperately, “why are you conservative,” Gina replies at first with an ode to slowness: “I believe in slowness, gridlock. The space between the cup and the lip.… Just waiting a little longer to taste the wine.” “I think that’s really beautiful,” Kevin responds, “but you didn’t answer my question.… Why do we have to be lumped in with... Like, what do we do with Trump?” Gina responds that this wasn’t the question, but of course, it is. It is always the question. It was before Trump was ever in the room: why the love of slowness, so attractive in the abstract, must require attaching oneself to figures who are, as Gina admits, racist.

From time to time people wonder why a robust religious left does not exist. In one sense, it does, and always has. Nuns campaign against the death penalty and nuclear power. The Berrigans, two brothers who were also priests, broke into buildings and burned draft cards during the Vietnam War. Oscar Romero agitated for the poor and died for it. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has expressed strong disapproval of the treatment of migrants at the U.S. border, going so far as to entertain “canonical penalties” for anyone known to be involved in it. And so on, and so on.

For me this question arose in the play when Emily, trying to divert a conversation from transgender people, which she fears will become “hateful,” begins to talk “givenness”: “We are given ourselves. There’s a mystery in the givenness. And we’re sharing that givenness with God.… But I do feel these days that it’s like... it’s like it’s popular to reject the truth of ourselves as given.… My body is just a friggin prairie of pain, and I can’t choose to make it go away. It’s just what I’ve been given.”

“Givenness,” with its acceptance of suffering and pain, its refusal to attach blame to weakness, can give rise to projects that even non-Catholics will find appealing: communities for the mentally ill or disabled like L’Arche and Geel; the various Catholic Worker projects. Givenness is caring for the dying and kissing the feet of the leper; givenness is Mary saying “yes” when presented with Christ.

And it is also a lot of other things: opposition to abortion and divorce, flat imposition of celibacy for everyone who cannot achieve marriage, a passive acceptance of pregnancy whose consequences for the mother’s body Heroes of the Fourth Turning ruthlessly outlines, and an attitude toward suffering that can seem heartless or sadistic. There is no splitting these things apart. They are all expressions of the same thing. Part of why Catholicism often represents “Christianity” in the popular imagination is, I suspect, precisely this mixture of the alluring and the alienating, high aesthetic and kitsch, grandeur of the soul and obsession with everyday sins. Catholicism’s only close competition, in this respect, is snake handlers.

When Gina, forced to address Trump, calls Trump, Bannon, and the rest “a bit racist,” Teresa, smarting from failing to impress her beloved teacher with her career in punditry, goes for broke. Wasn’t Gina herself a member of the John Birch Society? Didn’t she host a rally for Pat Buchanan? Didn’t both of those things have a reputation for being a little… well… racist? Persistently needled by Teresa, Gina snaps: “We had to cultivate that strength and prepare the younger generation to take up the fight in case we died before we won it and now we’re finally finally taking the Supreme Court back. And to do that, we had to make compromises. We had to create a voting bloc. We had to align ourselves with people whose priority was — ” She doesn’t finish the sentence, but she doesn’t need to.

At a speech this year at the University of Notre Dame, the current Attorney General, William P. Barr, claimed that “Christianity teaches a micro-morality. We transform the world by focusing on our own personal morality and transformation.” He contrasted this to secular “macro-morality,” in which “one’s morality is not gauged by their private conduct, but rather on their commitment to political causes and collective action to address social problems.” This distinction, which does not hold up well to even light scrutiny, is also the distinction that allows someone like Kevin to vote for Trump and vomit immediately afterward.

Christ’s demands are destabilizing: give away everything you own, renounce your parents, love your enemy and do good for those who hate you. Living like this is difficult, even if you do what most practicing Christians do and live with these demands as aspirational more than mandatory. Within the political structure of both the Catholic Church and the United States, these demands are recognized but become deformed by the need to locate oneself politically somehow. There would be very few individual Catholics who would not acknowledge their need to live up to the Sermon on the Mount, but equally few who would feel that this needs to be expressed in their vote.

Catholics are not really the face of “the Trump voter” in American media, which is somewhat reflective of reality. The data suggests that Catholics split pretty evenly between Clinton and Trump in 2016, but a staggering 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump. Church hierarchy has, for the most part, disapproved of Trump.

Within the world of Catholic intellectuals, however — who, among other things, run little colleges like Wyoming Catholic College, Christendom College, and Franciscan University of Steubenville — Trump has been embraced, or at least not disowned. Perhaps the most interesting case is the medievalist Rachel Fulton Brown, who converted to Catholicism in part because of Milo Yiannopoulos (himself Catholic) and who blogs about Milo and, occasionally, Trump in exalted terms. William Barr, Stephen Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Brett Kavanaugh — all are Catholics.

There would be very few individual Catholics who would not acknowledge their need to live up to the Sermon on the Mount, but equally few who would feel that this needs to be expressed in their vote.

In other words, while a white evangelical might represent your average Trump voter, Catholics make up a not-inconsiderable amount of Trump’s elite support — support which is not based in personal enthusiasm so much as understanding that they are being granted access to power and might as well use it. Many of them may privately deplore most-to-all of Trump’s actions, but for another seat on the Supreme Court, they will hold their noses and vote for him a second time.

The desire for access — to power or even just to special insider information — can lead Catholics to curious places. In a July 2019 podcast episode, Taylor Marshall, a Catholic writer and critic of the contemporary church, plays some of the audio of the exorcism of Anneliese Michel and then quotes various lines from the demons supposedly possessing Michel’s body (for the curious, they identify themselves as: Cain, Nero, Judas, Lucifer, and Hitler, among others). The demons express a variety of opinions that align with Marshall’s: communion in the hand (rather than in the mouth) is bad (but good for demons); liberal theologians like Hans Küng are working for the devil; Humanae Vitae, the encyclical banning birth control, is “decisive.”

As a Catholic myself, I believe in the demonic, which means I neither listen to recordings of putatively demonic activity or pay attention to what demons proclaim about — well — anything. If I accept the authority of something like Humanae Vitae, it’s because the Church tells me to, not because demons do. Similarly, I do not form my opinions on gender by reading incel forums, or on race by browsing Stormfront, or on human psychology by studying mass shooter manifestos.

Throughout Heroes of the Fourth Turning, the conversation has been broken up, unpredictably, by Justin’s generator, which emits a truly awful screech, like a cat yowling played over a car accident. It is so disruptive that people who hear it can drop to their knees. Its final wail comes after Kevin, who behaves more and more violently as the play progresses, enters the house to go to sleep.

Except, as Justin confesses at the end of the play, there’s nothing wrong with his generator. His house is haunted by something evil. He doesn’t know what is causing the screeching. Blessing the house hasn’t helped. Justin, who is also a hunter, is always scrubbing the concrete of his porch when he thinks people aren’t looking, convinced that the blood of the last deer he killed is there, irremovable. When he asks the others if they see the blood, too, they don’t know what he means.

“Demons,” are explicitly named fairly early in the play, when Kevin announces, shortly after reuniting with Teresa: “I think there’s a demon in me.… I just say things to people, things just come out of my mouth.” Kevin is certainly ridden by something, whether it’s a demon or not, but if you’re watching for the signs after this proclamation, they’re certainly there: When people start to pray around him, he vomits. He stinks “like the devil.” He hates the Virgin Mary. He is ridden with sexual jealousy and constantly brings the conversation back, quite literally, to his penis and his thwarted libido, even screaming to Justin “I’m gonna fuck you in hell.”

This space is demonic, poisoned by the guilt of compromise and dancing with the devil, deals upon deals upon deals made that have added up to hell.

But Kevin is also an inheritor of an idea of the world that does not make sense, in which compromises and the gap between professed ideals and adopted practice is unavoidably prominent, and his desperation also seems to come from the inability of the people he trusted simply to tell the truth. He is angry at people who have resolved for themselves, not always dishonestly, their failings and their aspirations. By the end of the play it seems he will be taken back into the fold of the college to work on the staff there, which will no doubt make him happier and may be the worst thing he could possibly do. He seems less a man possessed than one formed in incoherence.

But this space is demonic, poisoned by the guilt of compromise and dancing with the devil, deals upon deals upon deals made that have added up to hell. In this fractured place, blood cannot wash away, the sick cannot heal, the agonized only deteriorate further. As she prepares to leave, Gina tells Teresa: “I love you, honey, but in the thin thin space between your intellect and your animal nature is the tiny cave meant for the Holy Spirit. For gut goodness. For grace. You’ve sealed it shut.” Gina is right. But Teresa isn’t the only one.

The only character who remains purely open is Emily, who, in the very last moments of the play, stands up and vomits up a monologue of pure rage, one in which, if we take her at her world, she is accepting and giving birth to another person’s anger altogether. Emily’s body is haunted, too, but not by demons. She is participating, or so it seems to me, in the Catholic tradition of “vicarious suffering,” in which a person can literally feel pain on behalf of others. The implication is that her mysterious disease is in someway related to this decision; that in feeling the pain of others, she allows it to destroy her own body. The result is, to put it mildly, extremely frightening.

Others have taken the ending to mean that somebody is possessed, and it’s Emily, though the playwright disputes this. The play itself, however, simply shows you what happens: The house takes in Kevin and emits its last scream, and Emily screams in reply. But these screams, both ugly, are not expressions of the same thing. Emily, like her girl “Flannery O,” is testifying to the inherent violence of grace. You can either discharge your sins into the world or take the sins of the world upon yourself, haunt the house or be the haunted house.

Nor does the play make programmatic recommendations to Catholics “in the age of Trump,” except to imply that we have always been in the age of Trump. It respects that Catholic belief is thickly woven together in ways that can make action and inaction seem equally impossible, that its standards of judgment are different; that there is no place for these people to go, except to struggle in the evil house that they have made, before an audience of largely unsympathetic and uncomprehending people.

Early in the play, Justin tells a story of “the grateful acre,” a kind of Giving Tree–esque story in which an acre passes through time and various cycles of life and disaster but is always “grateful.” Like Emily’s “givenness,” the suggestion is that the meaning and the redemption of what you are will only be found by wrestling with the tensions within yourself that will not and cannot be resolved. If it can be adopted as a political strategy, it may be only by undoing what the previous deals have done: ceasing to be a voting bloc, ceasing to protect oneself, ceasing to view the culture as a state of war. Deals with the devil can only end one way. And no one can live in this house for much longer.

B.D. McClay is senior editor of the Hedgehog Review.