I graduated from Wyoming Catholic College in May. The college is nestled in the foothills of the Wind River Mountain Range, in the tiny town of Lander (with a population of about 7,000). Its Great Books curriculum and Outdoor Leadership program are dedicated to cultivating the mind, body, and soul in the Catholic tradition.
Will Arbery—son of the college’s president and his wife—has now written a play inspired by Wyoming Catholic. Heroes of the Fourth Turning, which opened in Manhattan yesterday, takes place at the fictional Transfiguration College of Wyoming, a week after the 2017 Charlottesville riots. In a student’s backyard at night, four old friends—Justin, Emily, Teresa, and Kevin—have converged to celebrate the inauguration of their new college president, Dr. Gina Presson.
Certain details were familiar to me from my college days: Drinking whiskey out of coffee cups; cowboy boots; the dryness of the air (“It’s so dry here. I forgot how dry it was here. I’m so ugly. Do you think Justin has any Kiehl’s?”); gushing over the stars, so clear when you’re out in the middle of nowhere (“Oh my gosh the stars! Something true: this is something true”); and inexhaustible Catholic existential angst (“Ahhhhh / I need to change / Something needs to change in me”).
Arbery’s characters are conservatives, but they aren’t mere mouthpieces for cliché conservative ideas. Sure, Teresa admires Trump (“Trump is a Golem molded from the clay of mass media and he’s come to save us all”) and Steve Bannon. She talks about the coming “war” and wants to tear down the altar of rights: “We’ll be force-fed brand new oppressed identities every year and we’ll bow to the tyranny of rights. F*** rights.” But she’s also afraid of motherhood, doesn’t talk to her “weird sad mother,” and does cocaine.
Justin used to be a sharpshooter in the Marines and likes The Benedict Option. Emily, who suffers from Lyme Disease, despises Trump, while Kevin is a classic example of a soul-torn Catholic: “Whenever we have a big conversation,” Teresa tells him, “It always ends with you saying you should become a priest, and then crying about how you’d be a bad priest, and then crying about how much you want a girlfriend.” He quotes Plato, smokes, and spontaneously recites poetry.
I left the theater feeling restless. The play offers no neat resolution; no character’s ideas are presented as the right ones. Were it so easy. Fortunately, this isn’t a play of pure ideas; it’s a play about particular characters. One of the problems with progressive thought, the play suggests, is that it is ideological—it dissolves all particularity. At the beginning of the play, Teresa talks about the “scandal of the particular”: “This is the thing about God. He makes us work out our salvation through other people.” Justin notes that transgenderism results from a “Cartesian ‘neo-Gnosticism’ that convinces people that their souls are somehow separate from their bodies.” Liberals, it seems, have lost touch with the bodily and the particular.
But so have certain conservatives. Teresa’s response to empathy-drunk liberalism is to feel no empathy at all. She argues with Emily about whether women involved with abortions can be good: “If your friend works for Planned Parenthood, she’s not a good person.” Emily counters Teresa with her experiences working for a pro-life women’s advocacy organization. She has interacted with pregnant women who have nowhere else to go, and understands how they might feel. Emily recounts a vision she had that morning of a woman she counseled, who ended up getting an abortion: “I was in insane pain, on my bed, I couldn’t move, and I was Tiffany, in Chicago, waking up so exhausted, and I had so much to do, and my brain was knives.”
Perhaps Emily is too empathetic. But her suffering seems to be the solution to both liberal and conservative neo-Gnosticism: “My body is so much a part of me I can’t even begin / And I didn’t choose this, 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.” Pain allows you to see inside someone else’s head without absolutely losing your “thisness.”
Love, too, can allow you to get inside someone’s head. The play’s conversation is frequently interrupted by characters professing how much they love one another. Gina, Teresa’s former mentor, recognizes that her protégé is disconnected from the particular: “You’re whoring yourself to popular opinion. . . . I despise the world you’re trying to create.” You can’t love popular opinion. Teresa is shaken by Gina’s words. Crying, she worries that she doesn’t “really know how to love at all.” Her fear of motherhood indicates the inability to sacrifice her body to the particular: “You’re turning your fear of motherhood into false machismo. Don’t invent a war just because you’re afraid to give your own body away to something higher.”
We don’t die for ideologies—or at least, we shouldn’t. Gina knows what it means to sacrifice one’s body, and if there is any resolution to be found in the play, it is in her words. When Teresa claims that “Western civilization” can only survive by being pro-life, Gina says: “Teresa, that’s absurd. I put my body on the line. I had eight C-sections. After the first, every single doctor told me to tie my tubes, to stop having children, that it would kill me. But I kept having them. I didn’t do that for white Western Civilization, I did that for God.”
Perhaps conservatism, like Teresa, needs to relearn the labor and love of childbirth—of giving your “body away to something higher.” We are not pro-life for “white Western Civilization,” but for particular human beings. We do not do what we do for “white Western Civilization,” but for God, who became a particular, incarnate man.
As Gina reminds Teresa, in the “space between your intellect and your animal nature is the tiny cave meant for the Holy Spirit.” Heroes of the Fourth Turning offers no tidy answers, but it succeeds by inviting you to contemplate what this means for yourself—by immersing you in the space of Wyoming.
Heroes of the Fourth Turning runs through October 27 at Playwrights Horizons in Manhattan’s Theater District.
Veronica Clarke is a junior fellow at First Things.