Will Arbery, Heroes of the Fourth Turning (Theater Communications Group, 2023).
Will Arbery’s 2019 play Heroes of the Fourth Turning diagnoses the illness afflicting the hearts of young American Catholics as an alienation from Mary, the Church, and the natural calling to make a whole and complete gift of oneself to a religious or lay state of life.
Heroes received significant critical attention after its release, with both left- and right-leaning media seeing it as a hermeneutic for understanding the role played by American Catholic conservatism in the election of Donald Trump. However, the play has received little recognition for its more incisive anthropological and ecclesiological insights. While Heroes does spend most of its time arguing about politics—its setting being a waning alumni afterparty following the inauguration of a new student president at a Catholic Wyoming college—the play is less about politics than about the Church in America and what is lost when we see the body of Christ in exclusively political terms.
One thing the play suggests is that when viewed as a political body, the Church quickly loses its Marian dimension. Early in the play, Kevin—a graduate now working at a Midwestern Catholic textbook company while struggling with depression and pornography addiction—asks his former friend Teresa: “Why the heck do we love the Virgin Mary? . . . Why Mary? What does she have to do with our salvation? Like, like, who the heck is this woman? Why do I have to love this mom? ... [W]hy do you think I feel anger against the blessed, blessed Virgin Mary?” Kevin spends much of the play in a drunken stupor, spiraling into an existential crisis.
Beyond tedious self-loathing, the deferral of calls to priesthood and parenthood, and the reduction of procreation to politics, "Heroes" proposes that in losing Mary, the contemporary Church in America has lost the coherence of suffering.
Kevin attributes his depressed state to his being isolated from the college community. But Teresa has witnessed his behavior before. “Whenever we have a big conversation,” she tells him, “it’s really nice for a while, but 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.” In this exchange, we find something of the warning of Hans Urs von Balthasar, that a Church without Mary is “inhuman,” a “functionalist, soulless, [and] hectic enterprise without any point of rest.” With Kevin, a Church in which everything is “political, critical, bitter, humorless, and ultimately boring” is brought to the fore, so that just as “people in their masses run away from such a Church,” so too are Kevin’s friends clearly disgusted with him.
For Balthasar, when “the mystery of the Marian character of the Church is obscured or abandoned,” then Christianity necessarily “becomes unisexual (homo-sexual), that is to say, all male.” Teresa knows this all too well. After college, she moved to New York, where she writes conservative think-pieces and does “too much cocaine.” She’s engaged, but her fiancé is functionally a non-entity, and she is much more interested in rekindling a relationship with Justin, the stoic, “Benedict Option” outdoorsman and former Marine with whom she had a sexual relationship in college that almost got them both expelled. Teresa laments the “soy boy”-ification of American men, but her false machismo and “girl boss” veneer witness little to the femininity she ostensibly champions. As she confesses to Gina, her former mentor and the college’s new president, “I fear motherhood, I’ve been infected by the culture . . . and that’s part of the problem.” Though she is outspokenly pro-life, Teresa is unable to mount a defense of fertility that goes beyond the political. In a tense exchange, Teresa disagrees with Gina’s assertion that Catholics “on the issue of life . . . are called to be single-issue voters,” arguing that Gina’s “single issue isn’t really being pro-life . . . it’s Western civilization. Which only survives by being pro-life.” The preservation of Western civilization, in her rhetoric about the coming war between the left and right, seems less about maintaining a deposit of wisdom formed by Christianity and more about defending white culture against ideological attacks from other races.
Procreation, in this view, is not a privileged expression of divine self-gift but a means of outbreeding the enemy, a reduction of the human vocation to marriage and family to the purely political. From Teresa’s perspective, mothers (especially white mothers) are war machines, factories producing soldiers for the front lines. Teresa strives towards a disordered virility characteristic of women in a Church without Mary, without the total receptivity of the fiat and her complete surrender at the foot of the cross in letting her son be who he is. Teresa’s answer to Kevin’s question about Mary shows how deep this disorder goes, since for her, Mary’s importance is wrapped up in “the scandal of the particular,” the “fucking scandal that the god who created the skies and the leviathans would care about one particular person, one particular woman, so much that he would give her the son of God” even though “she’s so ordinary.” For Teresa, this particularity borders on an arbitrariness that parallels “our American identity as a representative of Christ on the globe.” Gina, who had eight children despite it threatening to kill her, finds Teresa’s position unfathomable: for her, birth is not about politics or asserting a privileged identity. As she tells Teresa, she didn’t have her children “for white Western Civilization. I did that for God.”
But beyond tedious self-loathing, the deferral of calls to priesthood and parenthood, and the reduction of procreation to politics, Heroes proposes that in losing Mary, the contemporary Church in America has lost the coherence of suffering. Gina’s daughter Emily suffers from a chronic illness, likely Lyme disease, and spends most of the play in pain, being talked over by her friends, and pining for Justin, Teresa’s old flame. Emily is an outlier among her peers: she’s the only one of them who went to college elsewhere, she has liberal friends, and she worked in Chicago with a pro-life advocacy group helping marginalized women at risk for abortion. Her time there taught her “how hard these decisions actually are” and “how the real problem is with men who abuse and rape and systems, systems that try to keep women down.” Later, when Kevin asks her “what is the system,” she simply responds “men.” At one point during the play, Emily tries to mediate a heated debate between her friends, saying that all she wants is for “everyone to love each other,” but all this means is the recognition that there are “so many young people our age who are so good. Like all of us, as a generation. Including people who work for Planned Parenthood, Democrats, a drag queen I know . . . they’re all good.”
Of all the inadequate answers Heroes proposes to the question “What is the Church in America?” Emily’s is the most dangerous. Beneath her facade of loving everyone is an emptiness that the play suggests, at first implicitly and then explicitly in its finale, is a type of demonic possession. Defending her friendships, Emily claims that “I have a full faith, it’s my rock, it’s my pain, it’s my everything—and I also am friends with whoever I want to be friends with. It doesn’t change the faith at all.” Later, when she confesses to Justin how mad she is at God over her pain, she tells him that she thinks feeling the pain “might just be dangerous. It makes me feel violated. Taken over. It makes me feel like a non-person.” Despite this, she tells Kevin, who is already struggling with feelings of emptiness, that “emptiness is beautiful! It’s all beautiful.” But at the end of the play, when everyone else but her and Justin have left the party, Emily reveals her true self, a self that thinks “your faith isn’t full, your faith is empty, your faith is stupid, there’s no one there, there’s no one there and he hates you.” Her desperate attempts to love and be loved by others are wrapped up in her hatred of them and herself, and this tension is rooted in her suffering relationship with God. God, if he exists, is the giver of pain. It is upon this point that Heroes turns: If the Church is Christ’s body, why does he allow it to feel pain? Does Christ hate his body?
Only Mary can untie this knot. Pain was the heart of her relationship with Christ, the immaculate heart of a woman pierced by unfathomable sorrows. But this pain was not something experienced incoherently or accepted quietistically. Mary accepted her suffering as a bride and as the mother of Christ, and it was these spousal and maternal dimensions that gave her suffering meaning and allowed its transformation into love. The body of Christ is only good if it is Marian. If it is not, then its members will die a spiritual death that will consume them from the inside out like a debilitating disease, an illness they will hold onto and celebrate and revel in precisely because it leads to self-annihilation. It is this malady that Heroes warns is afflicting the body of Christ in America, transforming even the natural call to make a total and complete gift of oneself in marriage to an act of war against one’s political rivals and stymying any supernatural call to the consecrated life through fear, functionalism, and restlessness. It is only by looking to Mary that we can find life again.
John-Paul Heil is a Core Fellow at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, MD. He received his PhD in history from the University of Chicago and his writing has appeared in Time, Smithsonian, and The Week.
Posted on November 7, 2023.