The Haunted Worlds of Will Arbery

Will Arbery’s childhood was marked by a dinner table full of conversation. The second youngest of eight, Arbery recalls being more spectator than participant at a table with his parents and seven sisters. Both of Arbery’s parents are academics, who spent most of his childhood working at conservative Catholic colleges, first in Texas and then Wyoming. His father is the President of Wyoming Catholic College, and his mother teaches political science at the same school. “It was almost a symposium,” he said of his family dinners. “We gathered at the table and often the conversation was between my mother and father, and we were sort of witnesses to it.”  

It's this dynamic—listening to conversation ping around him—that led Arbery to write three plays inspired by his family. "Having a huge family...all of whose voices were bouncing around in my head all the time, whose perspectives I was juggling. It just felt like the most natural fit to be able to let them speak, rather than impose my own perspective on the reader.” It was through this practice, of listening and recapitulating the experiences of those around him, that led him to develop an ear for the mysteries within the stories. “Every play I write is a ghost story,” Arbery has said. “If I’m writing a play and sitting with these characters, there’s a good chance I’m feeling haunted by some element of the world of the play.” And it’s true. His plays don’t just haunt him. His work leaves puzzles unsolved, riddles unanswered, and is shrouded in mystery.  

Wheelchair, Arbery’s Off Off Broadway debut, follows Gordon, a man facing eviction who has Moebius Syndrome, a craniofacial disorder, as he gives away all of his belongings to a young man he has been having a relationship with online. Gordon believes himself to be a lamed-vavnik-one of 36 righteous and divine individuals on earth. When he eventually is evicted, Arbery turns up the volume on a conversation that had been running under the main action of the show—the spoken thoughts of Gordon’s furniture, their vulnerable hopes and dreams: the oscillating fan feels stuck, the card table feels judged, and the broken chair hopes to one day be as useful as a wheelchair. Gordon and his chair hold a lot in common. Gordon’s longing to be righteous and yearned for is mirrored by his chair’s desire to blossom into something more useful and desired. The link between the protagonist and his furniture leaves a question as to whether a bit of Gordon’s soul was left in his chair, leaving it deified. Although the play is not based on his family, it is a piece with roots in a standing relationship of Arbery’s, who wrote Wheelchair to be performed by Matthew Joffe, an actor with Moebius Syndrome. 

Arbery’s next play was rooted in the stories of three of his sisters, using their experiences to explore the personification of shared trauma. In Plano, which opened Off Broadway at Clubbed Thumb in 2018, Arbery created a literal haunting. The play follows three sisters as they each have otherworldly encounters with the men in their lives. Genevieve is haunted by her ex-husband Steve. After he cheats on her, they get divorced, and he splits into two Steves. Then, she discovers she is followed by yet another: “A third Steve, making music in the garage,” Genevieve tells her sister. “He won’t leave. And the other two Steves are really proud of him.” Meanwhile, her sister Isabel is being pursued by a man with no face. All three sisters are preoccupied by the absence of their father, so much so that the absence itself looms like a central character. The third sister, Anne, asks repeatedly “Why is Dad always gone?” Their mother talks about him as if he had become possessed: “Somewhere along the way your father felt the dark wing wrap around him. A dark wing wrapped around him and would not let go.” All  these women process their anxieties while a Faceless Ghost appears behind them, briefly, before disappearing. Arbery describes the character simply as “a male presence.” 

If Arbery’s theatrical gesture in Wheelchair was to bring forth the silent witness of Gordan’s former possessions, in Plano he dealt not in stage props but in stage time. In a convention one critic likened to a Tilt-A-Whirl, a character would promise to discuss something later, and within the same breath say, “it’s later” (“Okay I’ll introduce him later. It’s later, here he is.”) The play moves with an internal metronome, with almost no space between dialogue, and little to no silence. 

Silence is not hard to find in Arbery’s Pulitzer Prize finalist, Heroes of the Fourth Turning. The play takes place in a backyard in Wyoming, as alumni of a conservative Catholic college reconnect, drink, and discuss their views on America. The backyard belongs to Justin, who, in the near-silent opening moments of the play, shoots a deer—a doe—and carries its corpse onto the stage to gut it. Periodically throughout the play, he tries to remove the blood stain from his concrete but finds that it won’t disappear. The taking of a life looms over the play as the characters speculate on the ways Catholics can exist in a divided country.  

Arbery began writing Heroes of the Fourth Turning immediately after the 2016 election. He reflected on his hometown, and the community who raised them. Not just their specific brand of conservatism, but also, their compassion, their oddities, and their sense of humor. “I felt that I had a responsibility to provide audiences with access to those conversations” he wrote. But clearly there was a haunting here as well. “Where do I end and the characters begin?” he asked in the “Playwrights Perspective” published alongside the play’s premiere at Playwrights Horizon. 

Heroes of the Fourth Turning is full of characters that resemble people Arbery grew up with. In a time when it is difficult to find common ground, Arbery continues to observe, much as he did as a child, and alchemize them into a play. His work exists in the friction between the mundane and the celestial. Remembering those childhood dinners, Arbery said, “The table was the meeting of poetry and politics and the fissures between them. My mom used that word when she saw the play. She was like, ‘it’s about the fissures’... And I think fissures is the perfect summation of what I’m trying to do with the play. Some are thin and some are cavernous.” 

Emily Abrams