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Heroes & The Power Of Ideas

Will Arbery's characters are caught up in concepts that matter more and less than they think
Heroes of the Fourth TurningWritten by Will ArberyDirected by Danya Taymor

Will Arbery’s Off Broadway smash Heroes Of The Fourth Turning closes this weekend. I’m really sorry that I didn’t have a chance to see it on stage. I understand from friends who did see it that there are things about the play that don’t really come out in the script, but do on stage. For example, the wordiness of the characters’ arguments, in print, evaporates on stage, I’m told. If you have a chance to see one of the final performances (it closes Nov. 17), by all means GO!

I see that Will was on NPR’s On Point show while I was away in Russia. I missed that broadcast, but I have to say that Alissa Wilkinson’s interview with him in Vox was my favorite so far (and helps me understand why he didn’t respond to the interview questions that I e-mailed him). Here are some excerpts:

Alissa Wilkinson

That’s part of what’s interesting about the conversation they have regarding empathy throughout the play. Art is, at least supposedly, the thing that can make us more empathetic. And yet I can imagine for instance an audience member with liberal commitments wondering if they’re supposed to be empathizing with the characters onstage, and whether that’s a good thing. If you don’t issue a rebuttal to their point of view within the script, then are you giving them a platform?

I can see how a left-leaning person could look at it and say, “I’m being asked to empathize with people who I think are bad people I don’t want to empathize with.” But I can also imagine people thinking you’re giving them a glimpse into an “enemy camp.”

Will Arbery

This is something I get on the right, as well.

It basically boils down to a dissatisfaction with the ending, on both sides. People want a clear thesis, or they want to know what my diagnosis is. On both sides, you hear, like, Clearly, he’s still confused and doesn’t know where he falls.

That for me is sad, because I don’t think that what they’re talking about is art. I think they’re talking about something else that I’m not interested in making.

But I understand the temptation, on both sides. The play is dealing with things that are very timely, and there’s a lot of debate, and so you want to be able to know who wins the debate.

I’m much more interested in what debate does to a person’s body, how it changes the air. How it turns fugues into these aggressive ways of thinking, and makes Teresa unrecognizable to her mentor. I’m so much more interested in all of those elements, rather than just giving people some answers.

Also, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t my total intention to leave people feeling like they had to figure it out for a long time. If they could settle it in the space of the theater, then I would have failed.

He’s onto something, isn’t he? Reading the play as a conservative Christian who once was Catholic (and who is intimately familiar with the debates the characters have), I relished the messiness and the contradictions in the lives of these characters. They reflect the messiness and contradictions in the lives of myself and many of my friends, though I think that because of our age, we’re more settled than the Millennials of Heroes are. But if you go to this play from the Left or the Right, expecting to see winning arguments, then you will be disappointed — and you should be disappointed, because the challenges in front of us do not lend themselves to a neat ideological solution. In fact, one of the deeper themes of the play, as I read it and reflect on it, is that the eagerness for a clear, sharp resolution to these difficult questions forces people to take stances that aren’t necessarily truthful, but give them the psychological comfort of certainty. The Teresa character — the self-appointed Steve Bannon acolyte — is not exactly wrong in her perception of the coming fight, but as the play goes on, it all comes to seem like a way for her to hide from herself, as a substitute for a meaningful religious or personal life. She’s performing the role of an alt-right culture warrior, but it emerges later in the play that she’s doing so to hide from part of herself.

Don’t you think that a lot of this Social Justice Warrior rage on the Left is the same kind of thing? Performance. Turning life into a series of performative, purgative rituals to ward off meaninglessness. Yesterday I was talking with a friend about a completely different, non-political situation, and I described a group as clinging to a particular narrative, despite mounting evidence that the narrative was dangerously incorrect, because they believed that the harder they leaned into that narrative, the more likely they would be to keep chaos at bay. It didn’t work, and they met disaster. The group no longer meets. In their case, the master narrative wasn’t an answer to hard questions; for that group, it was a way of avoiding hard questions.

And this wasn’t a religious group! But that dynamic can be seen in religious groups, in political groups, among activists, and so on. It’s so difficult to know when keeping faith with a narrative (religious or otherwise) is a sign of strength, and when it is a sign of weakness.

Anyway, the ending of Heroes really is confusing, and open to various interpretations. I talked not long ago to a fan of the play who hates the ending, and makes a good case for why it fails aesthetically. It does fail to resolve the questions the play’s dramatic narrative raises … but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

More from the interview:

Alissa Wilkinson

I want to go back to what you said about debate. “Debate me” is practically a meme at this point, but it’s also interesting to see how debate has shaped our political culture in really big ways. When I was a homeschooled teenager in the 1990s, debate was the thing to do, especially in conservative circles. It promised to teach you how to think like “the enemy.” But that kind of sparring seems like it values winning over thought.

Will Arbery

Yeah. It’s in the play, too. The only way anyone ever wins a debate in the play is by resorting to something personal.

I feel people doing that to me too as a creator. “Do you still go to Mass? Are you practicing?” Like, what do you actually think about all these things? Looking for any ammunition they can get to sort of resolve the tension [from the play] in their own lives. But I don’t give it to them.

Ah, now see, I asked this kind of thing of Will in the (unanswered) interview questions I sent to him, not so I could resolve the tensions in my own lives, but so I could get a better idea of his own stance. That’s just natural journalistic curiosity. It’s normal for an interviewer to ask a writer or artist, especially when they have written a play so deeply autobiographical, which parts of their own lives inform their art. I suspect that it’s more the case here that the playwright himself hasn’t resolved these questions (he said in another interview that he hasn’t gone to mass regularly in years) within himself, and is anxious about being put on the spot about them. It is also probably the case that he’s wise not to talk about these things in public, because there are surely people on the left and the right, religious and secular, who would use that information to dismiss the play (e.g., “Oh, he’s a fallen-away Catholic, what do you expect?” “Oh, he’s still stuck in remnants of his patriarchal upbringing, and that’s why he doesn’t understand that these crazy Catholics make the world unsafe,” etc.) Anything to make the hard, painful questions go away.

I like what Wilkinson says about the “debate me” culture. We really have been conditioned to value “winning” over a genuine engagement with ideas. I’ve said in this space before how frustrating it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, being a columnist based in New York City, and being invited to be on cable news panels. I was smart enough to understand that these things are meant to offer the simulation of debate, but I still could not bring myself to play my role properly. I can remember once being on an MSNBC panel in which the producer was saying into my ear that I needed to be more aggressive, and to repeat my points. He was right; I was bad for cable TV. I was trying to listen to my opponents, and take what they said seriously before responding. That’s not what the network wanted. They just wanted a clash.

More seriously, this is a constant theme of mine: the dangers from overintellectualizing life. You’ve heard it from me a thousand times: one of the main reasons I lost my ability to believe in Catholicism was that I made the classic intellectual’s mistake of thinking that mastering the arguments for the faith was the same thing as having faith. What does it profit a man to win all the debates in the world, but lose his soul? The point here is not to dismiss intellection, but to properly order it, and to recognize its limits. I don’t think Teresa, the right-wing ideologue, is a villain; I think she is someone for whom winning the argument is everything. I know a Christian like that, and he’s totally insufferable. He’s often correct in the stances he takes, but he’s a pretty awful person, and has a gift for driving people away.

But you know, just yesterday I was having a conversation with a friend who is a moderate Republican with lots of liberal friends. He told me that he has watched those friendship dry up because in the past few years — under Trump — the liberals have become so ideologically deranged that they can’t talk about anything but how much they hate Trump, and how much they hate people who like Trump. He told me he didn’t even vote for Trump in 2016, but watching what has happened to his liberal friends — them turning themselves into ideological fanatics — it frightens him to think about them coming to power, so he’s probably going to hold his nose and vote Trump in 2020.

The young conservative writer Philippe Lemoine has a good Twitter thread about how people on the left both “grossly exaggerate and vastly underestimate” the influence of right-wing ideas. You’ll have to read the thread to understand what he’s getting at, but in my experience, it’s 100 percent true. Most conservatives aren’t nearly as extreme as many liberals think they are, but they also know that they’re better of just staying quiet around liberals, because liberals will have a hissy fit and condemn them as crypto-Kluckers or fascist-adjacents just for considering ideas to the right of Joe Biden.

In the Vox interview, Will Arbery talks more about how fragile people are — people of the left and the right — when approaching ideas and expressions of ideas that unsettle them. “Like they’re afraid of thinking their own thing, or liking their own thing,” he says.

In my experience, this is almost an entirely left-wing thing — people afraid of liking something that deviates from their own progressive orthodoxies. But I have met people who were raised in super-strict Protestant fundamentalist or traditionalist Catholic circles who say that this was how they grew up — with this terror of having Incorrect Thoughts. We happen to live in a time and a place, though, where in the major producers of culture, progressives hold this kind of tyrannical hegemony. A friend who works inside a liberal church bureaucracy told me the other day that if her coworkers knew how conservative she is, she would likely be fired, or at least they would make her completely miserable. But they don’t see it, because she’s a nice, friendly person; to them, conservatives are all vicious, nasty people, so she can’t possibly be conservative. She’s not trying to hide her conservatism, except that she knows that if she was honest about what she believed, it would ruin her career and cause her coworkers to turn on her. Meanwhile, as an underground woman, she hears things like how the church bureaucrats work to marginalize and destroy any expression of Christian orthodoxy within their denomination, which is not formally a liberal one.

See, this is why it is impossible to dismiss what Teresa, the ideologue in Heroes, says about a coming war.

Anyway, read the entire interview. There are some mild spoilers, but I guess if you haven’t seen the play yet, you’re not going to get to. Even though I think it’s a fantastic play, I don’t think it will last, simply because it is very much a play about our contemporary moment. This line from Wilkinson, the interviewer, speaks to something that is not going away anytime soon:

These characters, for all their expansive education, do seem to lack some ability to imagine others. They think their debates and discussions are the way to fight encroaching secularism — as if arguing and polemics are what matters, when the people they’re arguing about don’t even realize these fights are taking place.

She’s really onto something, though it’s not quite fair to these characters. They’re having these arguments because they all went to this college where people argued like this all the time, and they’ve come back for a kind of reunion. Still, this comment of Wilkinson’s hit home with me, because it made me realize that the kinds of things I — that we, on this site — talk about really aren’t on the radar screens of most people.

Here’s the thing, though: these things really do matter, and they eventually will matter one way or the other in the lives of ordinary people. I can’t emphasize strongly enough something I’ve learned from all the research I’ve been doing this year about Soviet and Soviet-bloc communism: that what were once abstruse theoretical debates confined to small circles of intellectuals came to rule the lives and fates of hundreds of millions of people, who never saw it coming.

Attention must be paid — or else. Whether you are on the left or the right, secular or religious, the kinds of things Will Arbery’s characters argue about matter, whether you realize it or not, though they probably won’t matter in ways they anticipate. Watch and wait; you’ll see.

However — and this is a key point — they don’t matter in one very important sense. Matthew Boudway speaks to this in his thoughtful review in Commonweal:

In one sense, Emily’s fury seems to come out of nowhere. It’s so out of keeping with her manner in the rest of the play, and what does it have to do with Trump or the Benedict Option? Nothing and everything. The exquisitely articulated ideological constructs in the rest of the play all pretend to be in the service of a religion whose God was tortured to death. Even the most secular New York theatergoers know this about Christianity, but if they didn’t, they would never learn it from all the brilliant dialogue of the Catholics intellectuals in this play. It goes unsaid not because it goes without saying, but because Catholicism here has wandered about as far as it can from the Gospel without becoming totally unrecognizable. What remains are its bones, which might or might not be good enough to prop up Western Civilization—Teresa’s real religion—but are of no comfort whatever to Emily. Her agony calls her religion’s bluff. It kills all ideology and sentimentalism on contact. What, if anything, does that leave?

I don’t fully agree with Boudway about the Catholicism in this play having “wandered about as far as it can from the Gospel” — though I suppose that’s what a Commonweal writer would say — but he is spot-on about how hard it is for a Catholicism of the head to deal with the pain and suffering in the body. It’s a very Catholic theme. I would love for a progressive playwright to write a Heroes of the left (secular or Christian). I would love to see the shibboleths of progressivism, religious or secular, be tested against the pain of the body.




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