Nov 6, 2019

“The haunting nature of an idea, vehemently expressed”: The complete Will Arbery interview

Will Arbery (photo by Korde Tuttle)

Like August: Osage County, Will Arbery’s play Heroes of the Fourth Turning is much, much better than its clunky title. Also like August it’s a veritable feast of a play about a white American family, drawn intimately from its author’s life and observations, though in this case it’s not primarily a blood-related family he puts onstage. Instead he sets it on the back porch and yard of a home in Wyoming, where four 20-something alums of a Catholic college there meet up after a party to compare notes on how they’re faring, and their erstwhile professor, Ginawho is based on Arbery’s mom, Virginia Arbery, an actual professor at Wyoming Catholic Collegeshows up later on to take stock. Danya Taymor’s production at Playwrights Horizons has been justly lauded for its peerless cast and tonal range, which encompasses high-flown debates, fugue-like flights of language, bristling sexual tension, and as much political and theological grist as any play since Kushner was in his heyday.

I sat down a few weeks ago with Arbery for this story in America magazine. Like many Catholics who’ve seen and enjoyed his play, my America editors hoped I would suss out Arbery’s own religious and political commitments. Though he wouldn’t reveal them to me (a liberal Protestant, for the record), we nevertheless had a rich conversation about his work and his relationship to the white, conservative, Catholic culture in which he was raised.

The following interview has been edited and condensed (but only slightly!) for clarity. Not sufficiently conveyed here: the laughter that punctuated much of the conversation, even or especially on the most serious topics.

I know you grew up in Texas. Which part? Was it Plano?
That’s an unfortunate thingpeople assume I’m from Plano now because I wrote that play. I grew up in Oakcliff in Dallas. Where are you from?

I’m from Phoenix. And just to lay my cards on the table in regard to themes we’re going to talk about: I was raised a Missouri Synod Lutheran, which is basically evangelical-adjacent, politically if not theologically. But then I went to Jesuit high school and had my world opened up. I didn’t become a Catholic, but I was deeply influenced by the Jesuit approach to the social gospel, and to an ethos of exploring and questioning.
That was the exact kind of Catholicism I was siphoned away from. It sounds like a Catholicism I could get behind.

How would you describe Catholicism you did grow up with?
I mean, it was Roman Catholic. It was very informed by my parents’ work. They both teach; my mom teaches political science, political philosophy, and my dad teaches literature. Both of them sort of thrive in great books curriculum. So there was a lot of literature: Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Dante, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, up through Melville, Faulkner. Building this Western canon.

So, a literature-steeped Catholicism. Is there a certain Catholic order or tradition your family identifies with?
We hopped around to different parishes in Dallas. I did go to a Cistercian prep school from 5th through 12th grade, run by Hungarian monks who'd fled the revolution in 1956. And their life was sort of bottled up with Bernard of Clairvaux. But my family followed the Vatican, kept up with the pope. My family were good Catholics, and were sort of skeptical of anything on the fringes, like charismatic Catholics.

Did they go so as far as preferring the Latin Mass?
My parents wouldn't take us to Latin Mass. But because my sisters all went to Catholic universities, they would have friends who were really into the Latin Mass, and they would go. My parents would be like, “Oh, I see you're going to the Latin Mass…” There were different levels of intensity, I would say.

Were they skeptical of Vatican II?
I didn't grow up with a whole lot of skepticism of Vatican II. Or if there was skepticism, they didn't convey that to us. They really followed the pope. They were non-schismatic. They were very skeptical of schisms, or any rumblings of schisms.

So mainstream Catholics, but on the conservative side. I would say that for me, the Jesuit brand of Catholicism I was exposed to was a kind of an intellectual playground where we could try out ideasit felt like it was okay to ask anything or address anything. There was total confidence that God was in charge, so we weren't threatened by atheism or pop culture or by the larger world. We could talk about it all.
I would say our Catholicism did feel a little bit more threatened by all that than what you're describing. Even in the response to this play, I'll come across responses in Catholic cultural circles, and people are looking for cluesbasically clues about my soul, I would say. The question of whether I go to Mass or not, whether I'm lapsed or not, as some sort of indication of...

Of what the play means, is trying to say.
And that sort of response, that sort of myopia, just immediately sent me back to the feeling I had in high schoolin the play I call it the panopticon, like you're being watched.

You have to declare a side.
Right, you can't just question without an initial declaration.

Which is what your character Kevin tries to say to Gina, the professor: You say you want us to question, but you all want us to come to the same conclusion, really.
Right, so any sniff of not getting to that conclusionthe questioning actually gets shut down and the debate stops, because suddenly the unholy has entered the sphere, the secular has entered it somehow. At a certain point I remember feeling very lonely in my questioning. Which is inevitable for anyone.

The feeling that people want to know about your soulit's touching in a way, but also a little scary. When I read Rod Dreher’s piece about your play in The American Conservative, it really reminded me of the way people who have long felt underrepresented onstagepeople of color, gay people, immigrants, trans people, people of lesser economic meansthe way they respond when a good play is written about them, by someone who’s part of their culture. They feel very represented, they feel seen. There's a version of that happening with conservatives and Catholics and your play.
This is something I've been thinking about a lot. First of all, I have to say: I can't help but point out that there is a bit of irony in this thrill of representation from people who tend to be either mildly or vocally annoyed when other kinds of representation happen. And I think it's a little overblown, the idea that these are characters we never see. We've seen so many Catholics and so many Christians, and so many conservativesthey have been represented for a long time. I think that something else is happening here that goes beyond representation. That's why I sort of still feel called to exist in this spacemy mom called it the fissure space. I am in that fissure space right now, and I feel responsibility toit's weird, I feel called to deny both sides a full, complete understanding ofyeah, my soul. Because both sides are clawing for it, like, what does he think?

I wonder if I could ask how much calculation you put into which arguments go into which character’s mouth, and what tone they take. The pro-life argument that Teresa makes, for instance, sounded so strident to my ears, but Rod Dreher quoted it approvingly in his article.
I think that gets to the heart of what is actually going on with this piece. It's basically a mirror. In their responses to it, people reveal themselves. It's as much about what they don't object to as what they do, and as much about what they notice as what they don't. I think what's happening, in large part because of Teresa, is that things are getting said more bluntly than they usually get said. And whether that thrills you or terrifies you says more about you than it does about me.

Your play does feel like a big idea play, where people argue out their differences. A lot of plays I admire, by Shaw or Brecht or Kushner, say, are polemical plays, dialectical plays, where even though they take in many points of view, what they’ve done in part is built an argument. You've portrayed an argument, certainly, but is your play making an argument?
If it is, it's an argument for something more mysterious. Maybe the simplest way to put it is that it's an argument for listening. But the play was designed to linger in people's minds long after they saw it, to create conversations that couldn't be resolved in one post-show drink. I'm not providing a diagnosis, I'm not providing an answeryou won't find an easily articulable conclusion. But that's not to say that I don't think that there's a real shape to it. It goes beyond words for me, but I feel itI feel the shape of that piece. I know how it's working viscerally. Even with the arguments, I'm not someone who likes arguing.

I like listening. And I'm interested in the animal nature of debate and the way ideas can take over a body, and what talking for a long time very fast does to a body, what listening does to a body. These are the things that interest me more, and I sort of have to cultivate a level of delight and curiosity in the nuances of these ideas that hadn't really been there before. My goals with this play were more primal than they were intellectual, at least at first.

Still, you put a lot of meat on the table with this play. And folks like Tony Kushner, who also have characters arguing all sides of things onstage, are pretty clear about their politics outside their work. I’m not trying to pin you down too hard here, Will. But the magazine I’m writing for wants me to at least ask where you stand.
I guess I just wonder what that question...I'm just so suspicious of it.

Do you identify as a Catholic person?
I don't think I have any choice.

Another way to address this: With many plays based on a playwright’s life or worldview, you can often tell which character onstage sort of stands in for them. With yours, I really didn’t feel like any of them were you.
No, they're not.

So you really were a listener.
I think that if you are a listener, truly, and you're listening more than you're talking, and if you don't want the focus to be on you that much, it's inevitable, I think, that… (15-second pause.) I think that listening is what I'm offering to everyone, and arguing for. Catholic conservatives ignore that call at their own peril, that's how I feel about it. And that's how I always felt growing up; there wasn't enough listening to what the other side was actually saying.

Right. When you say this play is in favor of listening, we liberal New York theatergoers receive that as, "Oh, you mean we have to listen to all these conservatives." But you also mean they're not listening to each other, or to the world outside their bubble.
Yeah. I would almost argue that progressive publications are modeling a better kind of listening than is happening at conservative publications. Why can't conservative publications go see A Strange Loop with the same level of openness and willingness to be challenged that progressives had going to my play?

It’s a fair point. But I think the conservative response is, they’re already inundated with culture they feel is hostile to their values.
But are they really? Everyone's inundated. We live in a beautifully complicated world, and there are so many people in it. I think what's happening when they say that is, they're not being inundated by the people, they're being inundated by what they see as an agenda, and they're not actually listening. Those things that they're supposedly being inundated with are being categorized before they even have a chance to be observed by the viewer's soul.

Right, there’s a feeling of threat, that if you let in too many ideas, if you're open to all that, it’s a slippery slope. Why go see a play in which gay people are fully human characters if you already have decided, and have an ostensible faith commitment, that says they can’t be?
I would just sayI mean, I get it. That just sounds like fear to me. It doesn't sound like an actual Christian mode of being. Aren't we supposed to care about each other? I don't know. I mean, I know very intimatelythey worry that an agenda is being forced upon them, that they are being forced to, as it says in the play, not just tolerate but affirm something they think will ultimately lead to the destruction and collapse of their faith and the institution. Sort of like "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie."

But really, how strong is your faith if you feel it can't withstand the world it’s supposed to be saving? If it can’t face the world, what is it even for?
This is part of what has been sowhat you're witnessing in real time right now is part of what has been the entirety of my life, this sort of toggling back and forth between these two ways of seeing the world. That's probably why I get so touchy about the church question, because it seems to me that whatever I answer, it's: “Okay, if he's arguing for listening, if he's someone who apparently listens, let's see how that filters into his life.”

John Zdrojeski, Jeb Kreager, and Zoe Winters in Heroes of the Fourth Turning. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

One thing Tim Sanford thought I should ask you: You’re 30 now, and this is based on conversations that must go back many years. So why this play now?
It just takes a while. The first full-length play I ever wrote was about a priest going to confession, and the arc of that piece was this very torturous process of him finally just saying the words, "I'm a homosexual," and all the ways he dances around it and distracts from it, diverts from it. So I've been interested in writing about Catholics and those structures from the very beginning.

I think this play was something I had in me. It really came out of my experiences growing up in the house that I did, where they would always have students over. But also going to the boys school that I did, and the experience of sitting around a firepit late at night and hearing the competitive one-upmanship of provocative conservative ideas. To be honest, the initial idea that this play came from was going to be something called Douchebag, about just a bunch of guys sitting around and saying these horrible things. It took years for it to dawn on me that the much more provocative idea was to approach it with significantly more grace and love. And yet that feeling was what I was after, of sitting in the dark, and what the darkness does to an idea and the way it floats above your head and sort of oozes into your bodythe haunting feeling of that. The haunting nature of an idea, vehemently expressed. 

Hauntingthat’s a good segue to ask you about the supernatural elements in your work. There are a lot in Plano. In this one there’s that loud feedback noise that comes in unexpectedly at various times. I know that Justin first says it’s his generator, then admits he has no idea why it happens. Can you talk about what that’s supposed to represent?
Just dramaturgically, that noise functions as a sort of extremely aggressive, seemingly random antagonism and contradiction. It also has the effect of yanking us out of the potential of solving this here on this night. It's like: No, you're not going to get to reach a consensus. Even if all five of you got really close to consensus, that noise would somehow come in to mess that up.

Beyond that, everything I write is a ghost story. Within an hour of people in my family getting together, at a certain point it will start becoming about ghost stories.

Literal ghost stories?
Like, truly real stories, things that we've experienced. Stories from people that we know; this thing that happened that we can't explain. It's such a part of the fabric of the way that we communicate and love each otherit’s through the unexplainable, through these sort of disorienting messages from an invisible world.

Are you talking about actual dead people communicating from the beyond, or synchronistic coincidences, or what?
The noise in the play for me is the perfect example of something thatyou know, when my sisters or parents saw that, they didn't bat an eye. It's like, “Yeah, that checks out.” The example in Plano would be the red ribbon that sinks down the staircase. It's a real thing that happened in my family: It was going down step by step, tracing the outline of the staircase, in a way that just didn’t make sense. That's sort of links back to Emily's thing at the end, when she says, "We love pain, we love it." It hurts us to have these things that we can't explain, but we almost don't want them explained, because we love it.

When the professor, Gina, shows up later, she looks at these four stragglers and wonders whether the college has failed in raising up good Catholics. Do you feel like it’s failed, and do you intend that as a larger critique of Catholic institutions, even the church itself? Like, is it raising good people or breaking them?
It's important to note that Emily asks that question of Justin: Are they the weird lingerers? Justin says, “I think this school makes 99 percent great people, and I’m so heartened tonight seeing how everyone ended up, happy, healthy, humble, building families.” I think there is a sense that these are four characters who, for whatever reason, are not following that very Catholic model of starting to build a family within the first couple of years of graduating undergrad. A vast majority of their classmates have started that work, and here we are with, for four very different reasons, people who have not started that family building. I would never say that that's what they should do: “Well, if they just started building families they would all be fine.” But I do think that might be what the church and the school has modeled for them. So the fact that they're not contributes to their feeling of isolation and despair, and makes their energy go into those strange other places that we see them putting it.

I think this play, which doesn't get talked about a lot, is so much about motherhood and the woman's body and the way that the church sort of has real provenance over their bodies, and the effect that that has on women. And also fatherhood, and the ways men feel called to uphold thisto be the kind of man who can build a family, who can be the strong head of the household. All of that stuff is so alive in this night, and is sort of the unspoken link between everything that they talk about and everything that they're obsessed with.

I was thinking when you said motherhood, you were talking about Gina, who’s based on your own mom and is sort of a mother figure to these four characters.
I mean, that's part of it.

But the link to the pro-life argument is what you're talking about, right?
Yeah, and the argument that Emily and Teresa have about abortion; and the conversation that Kevin and Teresa have about the Virgin Mary; and Gina's ultimate takedown of Teresa, hinging on this idea of motherhood being the way white Western civilization will continue, and the pro-life movement being linked to that. Some people have said that the play is about the dangers of repression, and I don't think that’s actually what's going on. I think the restraint in the play is actually quite charged and sexyin the room, we were like, “This restraint is so hot.” I think it's actually more about the fear and the desire of creating a family and that level of commmitment. What are you willing to die for? What are you willing to put your body on the line for? Obviously Teresa has taken up this idea of a coming war, and she's using that language. I'm not saying Gina is right when she says, “You're turning your fear of motherhood into false machismo.” But I think that for them, the standards and expectations that they're living underthat's what's happening with these people.

So are you personally pro-life?
Well... (11-second pause.) I don't want to make it that easy for people. Look, I grew up with seven sisters. And this is what I'll say: My work is so much about women trapped in and upholding a system that's designed to limit their autonomy. Part of the reason I don't want to lay out really clearly, tempting though it might be, what my positions are and what my personal life is like is that part of what this play is trying to do is to topple some of our dependency on that as experiencers of art in this day. Can we get back to a place where we're experiencing the thing itself on its own terms, rather than looking to the creator for clues about where exactly it stands politically, and whether it falls into some sort of party line?

Susannah Flood, Crystal Finn, and Miriam Silverman in Plano. (Photo by Elke Young)

Did you ever consider the preisthood?
My mom certainly wanted me to become a priest.

I know firsthand that any serious, bookish, religious boy gets told that they should consider some sort of pastoral calling.
I never seriously considered it. But there have been times when I've thought it would be great to have that structure.

Was there a point after Catholic high school that you started to question your faith, or see other alternatives? Was it at Kenyon College?
No, I would say that happened before. I became an enormous film buff, starting in eighth grade. It was the Criterion Collection and Roger Ebert's great movies books and Pauline Kael. It was cinema.

Why did you end up writing plays? Do you want to write movies and TV as well?
I do want to. Plays I didn't quite anticipate. It was sort of spiritual. It was a charge in the room, and an experience of breath, and sort of a challenging calmlike, the event of calming down and listening did actually have a real sort of primal recurrence in my body. It reminded me of Mass. I just felt totally drawn: I have to be a part of that. I was acting and directing, and I'd been writing the whole time, I really wanted to be a writer and couldn't find a way to make it all fit. And then when I started writing my first plays, everything fit together. I also just felt like, to be honest, it was the hardest one. That's the hardest one to pull off. So if I can do that...

It's a fundamental craft. I have had great communal experiences in a movie theater, though that’s really about the audience, not primarily what’s onscreen.
Yeah, I've had great experiences in a movie theater. But something about theater for meit’s, yeah, I'm writing, but more than that I'm creating an experience. It's entirely about, what are we going to do to the people that come into that room?

Does your family like the play?
Yeah. What I said to them was, this was a really difficult offering, but thank you for receiving it. It is ultimately a gift. But it's a difficult gift. My dad said he felt a little soul-scouredthat was the word he used. Which...I'm not trying to scour anyone's soul!

Do you think your play gave him that panopticon feeling you mentioned earlier?
Yeah, I do think that my parents were a little taken aback at how closely I'd been watching and listening.

I’ve read that you also shared a draft with them before they saw it.
Yes. I shared a draft with them.

Did they give you feedback, or ask you to change things?
There were references or ways that I could make it deeper that proved really helpful.

So they were good literary notes, not so much personal objections.
They had questions around how much whiteness gets talked about. I think that that's been really interesting. It's been something we've started to be able to talk about a little bit.

I know that Vinson Cunningham keyed in on how some of the arguments hinge on race, and I guess this is a matter of, like you said, earlier, what you see and what you don't see. I did not hear race as a major theme in the playor perhaps I just factor that in as part of the noise of our current conversation.
It's not to say that it's the whole thing. But I will say in terms of, what's different about this night? One of the things that's really different about this night is that Teresa is talking about this, and it's something that doesn't get talked about and wouldn't get talked about in those circles. She's broaching it in a way that indicates that she has thought really deeply into it from the other side, as a progressive, so when she's talking there's a fugue state that she almost goes intoand it's why Gina says, “You're one of them.” Because she’s seeing things from that perspective in a way that seems like the ultimate violation.

You mean the speech where Teresa says, “You call us racist, we'll call you racist. You call us white, we’ll call you black.”
And everything she says before that too. The way she's bringing up Pat Buchanan and Barry Goldwater, and saying, “Look, [race] is what it's always been about in [progressives'] eyes, and we have to start treating that as true.” Basically she's admitting that she has accepted the critique, and now we have to come up with our rebuttal. We can't just ignore it anymore, we can't just pretend that it's not there, that it's going away.

But is she embracing the full white supremacist agenda?
She's not quite doing that, but she's saying that she sees their logic and has not found a way to rebut it, and is sort of owning that, yes, we are trying to save white Western civilization; we don't want our civilization to collapse. That's where motherhood comes back in, because in a sense each woman becomes a warrior for that cause and the man has to be strong for civilization to survive.

Zoe Winters and Michelle Pawk in Heroes of the Fourth Turning. (Photo by Sara Krulwich/NY Times)

You know, for several decades there has been the understanding from white Christians of conscience that the right thing to do is to not think in terms of color, to think we're all the same, we're all in this together. I would argue, one of my main arguments would be, that no, in fact, the Christian thing to do is to acknowledge your whiteness in this country and to spend some time thinking about what that means, and how that affects your fellow citizens. It's a very simple proposal, but it's one that makes people very uncomfortable. There's a sense in which we should feel very energized and comfortable in navigating that level of guiltinherited guilt is sort of the name of the game, and yet there's a way in which that's sort of pushed down. I would just challenge everyone to ask, why? Why can't we talk about this? Why can't we refer to ourselves as white? What are we afraid will happen when we do that?

These are all things I'm going to be writing about for a long time. There are a lot questions. Part of the reason I don't want come down too clearly in terms of my own identity is that I really hope to have the ear of both sides, as much as I can. Who knows? Maybe I'll get really sick of writing about, you know, things of this world. I might just want to write a mystery. But right now I want to be able to navigate both worlds. It feels really important.

You don’t want to be pegged as a conservative writer, a progressive writer.
That also links back to the "we love pain" speech that Emily has. So many of us claim to wish that things weren't such a binary, that there weren't these clear lines in the sand. And yet we love that battle, it's such a symbiotic relationship. So much of who we are now is defined by what we’re not: "At least I'm not them, not like that." I think really all I'm trying to do is to blur those lines a little bit. I think it makes people really uncomfortable, but all that it is is love. There's a real desperately dangerous lack of love happening right now. The nation doesn't love itself, and we don't love each other. We love our factions, we love our tribes, but we don't love each other.

What you said earlier about inherited guilt reminded me that we often talk about slavery as America’s “original sin.” But if Christians took that analogy seriously we would own that it’s in us, like sinthat we’ll never fully overcome it and must constantly be repenting for it.
Exactly. All I'm asking is that we look at it with the same level of humility that we look at original sin in the religious context, if that's what you believe. 

Your play doesn't go directly into the red/blue arguments we seem to be having every day, but it does capture the feelings I know I feel when I’m arguing with my red-state family and friends. Like, does someone need to win this argument? Can we still love each other when we disagree so much? You’ve put these arguments at a slight remove, in a world that feels a little exotic for most audiences, especially New York audiences, but it’s captured with such specificity that it really feels immediate.
In sixth grade, I remember my favorite teacher at the school walked in, and before he said anything, he just wrote in chalk on the board, in big cursive, "Attention to detail is the key to success." As soon as I saw that, I thought, that's what I'm gonna dojust be really, really detailed, because I think in that specificity is where you find...

They also say "God is in the details."
So that's the answer to, "Do you go to church?" God is in the details.