Will Arbery’s play is set at a specific moment—August 19, 2017—and among a specific set of conservative Catholics with a shared undergraduate experience, as students or the child of two professors who teach there. Here are some of the resources the production team used to build the cultural and intellectual world of the play.
Playwright Will Arbery and his seven sisters were raised by Catholic intellectuals—their father is now the president of Wyoming Catholic College, where his mother also teaches. He remembers staying up past his bedtime listening to his parents’ students and colleagues debating history and poetry and political theory, ancient texts and current political events. Heroes of the Fourth Turning is, he says, “an attempt to capture the feelings of drunken nights under the big sky, talking about God.”
Will gave a two-hour interview with Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell for their podcast Know Your Enemy. Deep dive analysis; best listened to after seeing the play.
Will in conversation with Tim Sanford, former artistic director of Playwrights Horizons; offers a readable overview of Will’s career as of January 2020, his affection for the world of his youth, and his analysis of the ways that political divides play out in interpersonal relationships. A good primer for the play.
In Will’s conversation with Catholic reporter and podcaster Stephen G. Adubato, he reflects explicitly on the work of trying to listen across a political divide. Most spiritually explicit of these interviews.
Some analysis of the cultural and political power of conservative Catholics from the 1990s to today.
How the Federalist Society Won: The conservative legal movement was pivotal in getting Roe v. Wade overturned. But does it have any control over what happens next? June 2022 New Yorker article
“The Radical Young Intellectuals Who Want to Take Over the American Right.” They hate the establishment. They want to destroy the system. Meet the illiberal upstarts trying to remake conservatism. December 2021 article in The New Republic
“To Understand the Modern GOP, look at the Reactionary ’90s,” From Rush Limbaugh to Pat Robertson, the most vitriolic and morally panicked conservative figures of the 1990s contributed just as much to modern American conservatism as Ronald Reagan did. August 2022 Jacobin article
The Man Who Won the Republican Party Before Trump Did, by Nicole Hemmer, based on her book Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries who Remade American Politics in the 1990s. An article in the New York Times from September 2022.
This is a 1997 book by William Strauss and Neil Howe which theorizes that all of recorded human history can be mapped onto 80-year cycles, comprised of four 20-year ‘turnings’ of stability, decay, crisis, stability once more. The theory was criticized as pseudohistory at the time of its publication and again in 2017 as Stephen Bannon joined Donald Trump’s administration. (Bannon also made a 2010 documentary called Generation Zero about the book’s theories.)
Neil Howe also maintains a website with a lot of detail on each “turning” and the archetype.
A book by Rod Dreher that one character characterizes as saying “we’re not gonna win this thing and we should just retreat.” You can read directly from Dreher on his website. The Benedict Option offers an analysis of a post-Christian culture and calls for Christians to create parallel social structures—homeschools, authentic churches, traditional families—so they can “withstand the pressures of post-Christian America,” and be ready to reemerge when it becomes clear that the post-Christian world has failed. Or as Dreher writes: “when we say ‘living the Benedict Option,’ or ‘BenOpping,’ we mean trying to purposefully live a Christian life in a culture that is no longer as Christian as it used to be.”
The college in Heroes is called Transfiguration College of Wyoming, but it is closely based on Wyoming Catholic, where Will’s mother teaches political theory and where his father is the president. We spent time with the college’s After Dinner Scholar podcast, the overview of its curriculum and outdoor leadership program, as well as its Facebook page to get a sense of the landscape and student body of the college.