Playwrights' Perspectives

Playwright’s Perspective: Heroes of the Fourth Turning

By Will Arbery
July 8, 2019

Portrait of Will Arbery by Zack DeZon

I was raised by Catholic conservative academics. The conservatism modeled for me was poetic, passionate, and nuanced. My parents teach at a school in Wyoming quite similar to the one in the play. As a boy, I would stay up past my bedtime, on porches and patios, listening to professors and students — debating, drinking, smoking cigarettes. I barely knew what they were talking about, but I knew what it felt like to sit there and listen. It’s been a long journey from there to here. I love my conservative parents. They’re brilliant and compassionate and weird. They have back pains and nightmares and adorable giggles. But I uncoiled myself from their world. Now I’m circling back, learning everything I can about where I came from, and it feels like waking up into an old life. Who was I? Where did I go? How long was I gone?

As a child, one of my favorite songs — it was always stuck in my head — went like this: “Pat Buchanan for Pres-i-dent.” I learned the ditty when we held a Republican rally at our house in 1996. I was fond of singing the name of that prickly pundit whose white supremacist rhetoric paved the way for Trump.

In my mother’s office was an old campaign poster for Barry Goldwater, with the slogan “In your heart, you know he’s right.” Goldwater ran against LBJ for president in 1964. His campaign was marked by his refusal to vote for the Civil Rights Act, claiming that it was excessive federal governance.

“Now I’m circling back, learning everything I can about where I came from, and it feels like waking up into an old life.”

When I voted for Obama in 2008, the first time I was old enough to vote, I kept my choice hidden from my friends and family in Texas. On winter break, my best friend teased it out of me. He was incensed. He called me an “abortionist.” What a strange thing. I cast a vote, and suddenly I was indistinguishable from his mental picture of evil. My vote had transformed me into them.

I started writing this play immediately after the presidential election in 2016. There was a lot of talk then about “echo chambers,” and having come from a small subsection of conservative America, I felt that I had a responsibility to provide audiences with access to those conversations. The danger of giving you that access, though, has to do with empathy. According to Hannah Arendt, a skeptic of empathy, the trick is “to inhabit the position, not the person.” One trains “one’s imagination to go visiting,” but we should not inhabit, which can shade into a sort of colonizing compassion. The contemporary over-emphasis on empathy has, according to Namwali Serpell, “imposed upon readers and viewers the idea that they can and ought to use art to inhabit others, especially the marginalized.” The characters in Heroes of the Fourth Turning are not the marginalized, despite what they might say. Christian conservatism is a secret and shrewd force in our country. I’m not asking you to empathize with these characters. I’m representing their positions, with a goal of impartiality. You can do what you want with that access.

But then I wonder, of course, whether you might end up not empathizing with them, but loving them, which I do, and which makes me feel vulnerable and quiet.

And I wonder, of course, whether the act of representation can ever truly be impartial. Isn’t the stage a platform for its characters, and isn’t a platform a tacit endorsement? Or: is my play, somehow, a condemnation? Where do I end and the characters begin? After all, this isn’t an uncut C-SPAN feed. I chose everything these characters say and don’t say. I end it where I end it. I can call this a fly-on-the-wall experience, or an exercise in patience, or a symposium. But, to be honest, I think I’m after something a little more dangerous. I think I’m after a fugue.

“Isn't the stage a platform for its characters, and isn't a platform a tacit endorsement? Or: is my play, somehow, a condemnation?”

“Fugue” has two meanings:

1. In music: a contrapuntal composition in which a subject is introduced and then repeated by interweaving voices until the climax.

2. In psychology: a period of dissociating, entering another identity, losing your own, waking up in a different environment, not knowing how you got there.

This play is guided by both of these definitions. Musically, you can hear each of these five voices — the alto, the soprano, the mezzo-soprano, the tenor, the bass — making subtle changes to the stated subject. This music is interrupted by a sixth voice, one distinctly non-musical, which asserts itself in terrifying and random contradiction.

The play’s engagement with the second definition of “fugue” is more complicated. The desire to fuse with other people has been a major theme in my work — my characters often want to disappear into someone else, or merge with the entire world. I find this impulse tragic, because not only is it impossible, but the attempt is very dangerous. You can’t fuse with other people. If you try, you — and everything that makes you you — might disappear.

But then what are we doing here? How close can, or should, a playwright get to a fugue state? What about an actor? What about an audience?