Menu

Essay

From the Artistic Director: Heroes of the Fourth Turning

By Tim Sanford, Artistic Director

Portrait of Tim Sanford by Zack DeZon

“Even the wildest aberrations of religious thought still manage to bear witness to the fact that evil and the violent measures taken to combat evil are essentially the same. At times violence appears to man in its most terrifying aspect, wantonly sowing chaos and destruction; at other times it appears in the guise of peacemaker, graciously distributing the fruits of sacrifice.”

René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (translated by Patrick Gregory)

 

Everyone talks about polarization and divisiveness, but what are we doing about it? We bemoan conversations sealed up within echo chambers. Just toggle back and forth between MSNBC and Fox News over the course of the day — it’s exhausting. Endlessly repeated sound bites, wrapped in smirking self-righteousness and staged outrage. Where is the complexity? Where are the shared truths?

“At first it seems they all just live to throw out political flashpoints at each other to stir each other up.”

At first, the young adults that people Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning feel utterly familiar: revved up on whiskey, coke, and desire, ready to lecture, argue, show off, and flirt. It takes us a while to glean that most of them are graduates from a liberal arts, Catholic college in Wyoming. In this biblically-oriented community, these millennials were sequestered from the godless hedonism of pro-choice, gender-fluid progressives born from Obama era permissiveness. They are the last remaining partyers for a reception in honor of the newly named president of that college, a beloved professor and mother of one of them, who has yet to show. At first it seems they all just live to throw out political flashpoints at each other to stir each other up. But these diatribes keep spilling over into vituperative insults and we realize these characters all have complicated histories with each other.

And at the same time, we also realize there is a remarkable heterogeneity of views represented here, none of which we would ever likely find expressed on Fox News. Nor would one likely ever find them represented on a theatrical stage. At one moment, they quote Steve Bannon, then Hannah Arendt. Some of them hold worldviews steeped in a grim eschatology. Some hold remarkable moral paradoxes within them. Can one view abortion as murder but still cherish the friendship of someone who works at Planned Parenthood? And wait, one of them loves “BoJack Horseman?”

“The play forces us to listen closely as we search for the weak spots in their logic.”

Heroes of the Fourth Turning is a dazzling, provocative play. It dares us to listen to perspectives that many in the audience will undoubtedly find abhorrent. But their arguments are so passionately and articulately rendered, the play forces us to listen closely as we search for the weak spots in their logic, and in the process we cannot help but apprehend the deep fervor that motivates them. That doesn’t mean Will strives to evoke empathy for them. His characters emphatically abhor “empathy” as a meaningless liberal buzzword, a byproduct of Obama-bred condescension. So how should we view them? Where do they land on Aristotle’s pity/fear matrix? We dare not pity them. They all seem a bit fierce for that. Should we fear them? It’s a bit unnerving when they describe themselves as heroes in the wars to come. The violence of apocalyptic thinking has been a part of religious mythology from its earliest days, and that specter certainly hovers over the world of the play. But when they start framing their self-assessments according to the portentous and eggy pronouncements of something called the Strauss-Howe Generational Theory, they start to seem more nerdy than menacing, and we feel a little better.

At the end of the day, Will has clearly tasked himself with the objective of making us recognize and understand his characters in all their full-blown ambivalence and eloquence, and force us to spend time with them. Dare we hear in the brutal snap judgments these characters hurl at the left the inverted shadows of the left's snap judgments of them? It's possible these characters will never earn our empathy. But in Will's hands, they definitely get our attention.