At some point in the life of a new cultural product, that work may escape the time and circumstances of its creation, the initial reaction of audiences to it, and reviews by contemporary critics. It graduates to a higher place, to the standing of a work of art.
Initial impressions do matter. When the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913 kicked off a fuss in the audience subsequently described as a “near-riot,” there must have been, among those present, at minimum the sense that something new and interesting was joining the world at the ballet that day. As for those who booed, surely even they later boasted of their attendance at the premiere. And of course, Stravinsky’s composition soon thereafter made its transition into a canonical work of musical modernism.
Few new works make that journey. I think Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning, which premiered in 2019, will be one of the few American plays of our time—perhaps the only one—that will enter the literary canon.
Heroes of the Fourth Turning is set outside a rustic house in rural Wyoming. The house is near Transfiguration College, a very small, very conservative Catholic “great books” school where students “spoke conversational Latin and locked your phone in a safe for four years and rode horses and built igloos and memorized poems while scaling mountains,” as one character recalls to another. Those two—Kevin and Teresa—graduated seven years earlier, along with the cabin’s owner, Justin. Having served as a Marine Corps sniper and been married and divorced before going to Transfiguration to try to resettle his spiritual life, Justin is 10 years older than his fellow alums. The cast of characters is completed by Gina, the newly inaugurated president of Transfiguration, a 64-year-old mother of eight who taught the others, and her youngest daughter, Emily, who is 25. We join them all late at night as the party at Justin’s celebrating the inauguration has largely broken up.
These characters are all faithful and conservative Catholics, and the ostensible subject matter of the play is their struggle to relate to a world around them growing ever more distant from traditional moral teaching—both Catholic precepts and the stern biblical and virtue ethics of the ancient world. Much of the theatergoing audience of our day has had little real-world interaction with people such as these characters—human beings talking, arguing, venting, laughing, crying, and importuning among themselves in accordance with the premises of their Catholic faith.
On this stage, for example, abortion is simply and inarguably murder. The dispute between the characters on the subject is largely over the apportionment of the blame for what one character brands a “modern-day Holocaust.” Justin, the former Marine, describes the modern world as “a system that distracts [young people] from true moral questions and refocuses their attention onto fashionable and facile questions of identity and choice.” He traces the problem to the early-20th-century eugenics movement and the desire of its leader Margaret Sanger “to eliminate anything ‘unclean’ or ‘imperfect,’ including black babies and Down syndrome babies” in favor of “a sterilized world based around state-mandated pleasure and narcissism. These are just facts, look it up y’all.”
For much of the audience, this a laugh line. What’s funny to today’s paying customers is that Justin thinks these are “facts.” Arbery’s real comic point here is that his character is dead right when it comes to the facts about Sanger.
So it is that the play unfolds as a bit of a peep show—a window on an unknown world, yet one that provides the audience a little transgressive thrill. Whether with enthusiasm or disgust, the characters voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Therefore, to most of the audience, they are specimens in a zoo for the deplorable. And that is how the play was mostly reviewed. Some conservative critics embraced it on mirror-image grounds—in support of the way Arbery’s characters defy the manners and mores of the times.
If that’s all there was to Heroes of the Fourth Turning, it would be merely an interesting and well-executed problem play. But there are two additional elements to Heroes. The first makes it art, and the second makes it great art.
Arbery’s title draws on a 1996 book called The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy, by William Strauss and Neil Howe. It’s a crackpot work of pop history and futurism. Strauss and Howe argue that human affairs have forever turned on cycles spanning four generations. The “Fourth Turning” marks the onset of a 20-year “Crisis”—a crucible of existential challenge in which one era comes to an end and a new one begins. Each generation has its characteristic type. The Millennials of this play are called upon to be heroes, like those of the Greatest Generation who fought World War II during the previous period of Crisis. As the character Teresa says with enthusiasm, “there’s a war coming.” She’s a writer and spoiling for a fight with the left, and like most 29-year-olds fervent in ideology—secular or religious, left or right—she has every incentive born of self-importance to exaggerate the stakes. It’s war; she’s a hero.
The action of this plotless play consists of its characters wrestling with their roles in this war. Justin observes that Transfiguration College “makes 99 percent great people”—“Healthy. Happy. Humble. Building families.” But the play is not about them. Those people have already left the party. Those left on stage are the “weird lingerers.” And each, as the college’s name promises, undergoes a transfiguration of a kind.
Teresa’s militancy, very much of our time, is at a far remove from any thought of loving your neighbor, let alone your enemy. In an exchange with Gina, the new president of Transfiguration, Teresa is in fighting mode. “If we don’t collectivize ourselves, we’re going to be exterminated.” Gina, whose prized student Teresa once was, is appalled by this. “Where did I go wrong?” Gina asks. Teresa rebukes her: “You just lost track of the new thinkers.” Gina replies, “I failed you. This is a brutal and stupid way of thinking…. It’s imbecilic. It’s un-Christian…. Look at you, you’re worldly, you’re crude, and you’re weak. You’re one of them.” Whatever righteousness Teresa might once have embodied has transfigured into pure blinding hatred for her ideological enemies.
Another character, Kevin, is attracted to Teresa’s war but suspects he’s too weak for it, girlfriendless and addicted to Internet porn as he is. Teresa agrees. Teresa repeatedly calls Kevin a “soy boy,” a term of derision whose meaning Kevin professes not to know. At last, she defines it for him: “a whiny bitch trapped in the body of a man.” This bit of LGBTQ resonance tips Kevin over the edge. The stage directions tell us Kevin “starts hitting his leg, or something else scary.” He’s drunk but still cogent as he falls into a raging Catholic fantasy of personal damnation: “You all hate how weak I am,” he says. “But in the next kingdom, my weakness will invert, and I’ll be as strong there as I am weak here. And you’ll be the weakest creature, Justin. You’ll stink like the devil… . I’m gonna f— you in hell.” Coming as this does after half a dozen odd remarks by Kevin during the course of the play, Arbery shows us a character tormented by his Catholic view of his own sexuality, as well as the specific character of the “dissolving toxins in my eyes” online and its effect on “this goddamn thing between my legs.” His transfiguration is into rage against himself.
The transfiguration of Emily, Gina’s daughter, comes last. With just herself and Justin remaining on stage, she confesses that she told a lie earlier that night about having awakened one morning to curse God. It turns out it was not Emily who did the cursing. It was “this woman Tiffany—this pregnant woman I counseled in Chicago who ended up getting an abortion anyway.” In a tour de force, Arbery has Emily reenact all the pain and anger this black woman felt in Emily’s office. Emily, transfigured into Tiffany, recites the minutes-long monologue of denunciation that she, Emily, endured: “F— your pity and f— your empathy, you self-righteous c—…. Get the f— out from behind that desk telling me what you think you know about me.” On it goes—“Know that it’s living and still kill it.”
Arbery takes an enormous risk in this scene. If so much as a word of this were off the mark, the result would be disaster. Imagine writing it at all, let alone against the cultural backdrop of the latter half of the second decade of the third millennium. Centuries from now, footnotes to Heroes of the Fourth Turning will have to explain who Steve Bannon was and why Donald Trump kicked off such a fuss. This scene will stand searing on its own.
But I haven’t yet described how Kevin left the stage, or Justin’s transfiguration—nor have I fully explained my view of the greatness of Arbery’s art here. Therein hangs a tale. I didn’t see Heroes in its initial run at Playwrights Horizons in New York in 2019. During the pandemic, however, I was able to take in an innovative and intelligent semi-staged Zoom production. Last year, I got a ticket to see it at a matinee at the Studio Theater in Washington, D.C. I arrived only to learn that the performance had to be cancelled due to malfunctioning audio equipment. The stage manager informed us that since the sound system is critical to the play’s staging, they could not put it on that day. And in fact, there are three occasions during Heroes when an extraordinarily loud, screeching noise suddenly overwhelms the characters and the dialogue on stage for several seconds before terminating just as abruptly. The audience is likewise surprised and overwhelmed.
The sound effects are key to Arbery’s vision. Back to Justin, the ex-Marine. He has given up on humanity. He doesn’t want to join Teresa’s fight. He hasn’t told anyone yet, but he has decided to enter a monastery to get as far away from a corrupt world as possible. Fifteen minutes or so into the play, with the “weird lingerers” on stage, Justin picks up his guitar and starts to sing an “outsider-country” tune, as he describes it. It’s “Nothin,” by Townes Van Zandt—a strange, haunting evocation of despair. When he gets to the third verse, the stage directions inform us, “Suddenly there’s a horrible screech. It’s so loud. Part machine, part animal. It overwhelms the stage. Everyone covers their ears.” Confusion briefly abounds, except for Justin. When the noise stops, he says, “Uh, that’s my generator. Sorry guys. Sometimes it, uh. Be right back.” He exits to tend to the problem.
After Gina arrives, the screech goes off again—as Gina is lamenting the state of public rage: “All these nauseating movements, all that noise drowning out the discourse”—screech. Justin rushes off again. When it stops, her daughter Emily says, “It’s his generator.” The audience is well aware that significance attaches to the screeching generator, perhaps significance of a symbolic nature. We’re not stupid.
And then it happens one more time. Just after Kevin semi-recovers from hitting bottom comes his final speech. It’s weird, almost a reverie. He recalls the mountain they once climbed as freshmen and camped on overnight, Pingora Peak. While everyone else was asleep, “I saw someone coming down, from higher up the mountain. Carrying the stones. I couldn’t tell if it was a he or a she—it wasn’t either. It was more than one being in one being. They were carrying the stones. The stones had words on them for everything we’ve been missing. There are things we’ve been missing, secret sacraments, forgotten fragments, right? And they were carrying the stones right down to where we were. And I wanted to wake you all up but I couldn’t move. And then they walked right by me, inches away, and I could have reached out and touched them, but I didn’t. They just kept moving.” Kevin says he has never told anyone about this before, and exits.
“The screech of the generator again,” say the stage directions.
Teresa takes her leave as well, leaving Emily and Justin on stage through the fraught Emily/Tiffany transfiguration. Justin then makes a confession to her: “I’ve been telling a lie all night,” he says. Justin describes feeling a “horrible presence” when he moved into the house, “suffocating me.” He had a priest come over to bless the place, which didn’t help.
“And,” he says, “the screech you heard, it isn’t the generator. I don’t know what it is.”
Justin thereby reveals the play’s great secret—one that Arbery has been keeping from us all along. And it’s here that Heroes of the Fourth Turning opens a vista on cultural terra incognita, radical new ground—or perhaps old; perhaps, indeed, eternal.
Was Kevin dreaming or hallucinating on Pingora Peak 10 years before? Or did he actually watch some strange being descend carrying “the stones” into the world? What are the words on the stones? Kevin describes them as “things we’ve been missing.” But for good or ill? Arbery has given Heroes of the Fourth Turning a parabolic structure that requires going back and reassessing the entirety of the play based on what we learn at the end. The play simply doesn’t support a merely “psychologized” or symbolic interpretation of the screech. Several such reassessments are possible.
One is that Arbery is crazy to change the subject with Justin’s revelation at the end. Heroes plays perfectly well as a portrait of religious belief without confronting the audience directly with the problem of God and maybe demonic forces. Yet it’s rather hard to imagine that it occurred to Arbery only near the end of his labors that it wasn’t the generator causing the screech. It’s something he knew from the start and kept from us. Maybe that’s because he wanted to demonstrate his ability to write a play with pitch-perfect secular psychological acuity before laying God and the devil on us. Or maybe he wanted to show how psychology often offers refuge from confronting God-and-devil issues—or perhaps the illusion of refuge.
Another possibility is to revert to uncertainty. Justin doesn’t know what causes the screech, and neither do we, nor Arbery. It’s one for the “cold case” files. For those unmoved to religious belief, “I don’t know” is a perfectly reasonable position to take with regard to the origins of the universe and the place of human beings in it—though I think “we can’t know” more accurately reflects the human condition. But there is an awful lot of apparatus in Heroes to suggest that Arbery isn’t indifferent to the question of whether one should leave matters at “reasonable unbelief” or take the leap of faith. On the contrary, “revelation”—including Justin’s big reveal—seems to have a genuine place here, and not just in the historical/mythopoeic sense of something that took place in the mists of biblical antiquity. I don’t think you write a play whose biggest reveal is that the screech “isn’t the generator” out of indifference to the religious revelation the disclosure could signal.
No, I think Arbery is suggesting that the screech’s source is not the Generator—the power and source of light in the world, at Justin’s place and everywhere. The screech is from something else loose in the world. This is a play that dares to imagine that evil in the oldest sense is a living, active force in competition with all that’s good. And in both imagining it and invoking this struggle, Heroes of the Fourth Turning rises to the artistic empyrean.