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Will Arbery's play Heroes of the Fourth Turning has been nominated for Pulitzer Prize and has become a much-discussed production since it premiered off-Broadway in 2019.Handout

Since it premiered off-Broadway in 2019, Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning has emerged as one of the most talked-about plays in North America.

Set in a small, conservative Catholic college a week after the 2017 “Unite the white” riots in Charlottesville, Va., it features four alumni in their 20s and 30s who have gathered to celebrate the induction of their mentor as the school’s president.

The Pulitzer Prize-nominated play, which opened this week in Toronto in a co-production between the Howland Company and Crow’s Theatre, has sparked healthy debates on both sides of the political divide. Recently, it’s prompted writers to remark that it appears to predict big political events such as the January 6 storming of the Capitol and the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Its influence has been so powerful that when Frank Rich, one of the executive producers on HBO’s Succession – and incidentally The New York Times’s former chief theatre critic – saw the play, he persuaded the hit series’ creator, Jesse Armstrong, to hire Arbery on as a consultant and later as a writer.

Why all the fuss?

Arbery, who grew up in the same sort of conservative, intellectual Catholic background depicted in the play, knows how to make his characters complex and relatable.

So it’s surprising to hear that he had serious doubts about sending the play out into the world.

“There were periods when I thought, ‘Oh, this one’s going in a drawer and never coming out,’” says the playwright on a Zoom call from his home in Los Angeles. “There’s no way anyone will do this. And if they do, I’ll be run out of town.”

Arbery began writing the play shortly before the 2016 election.

“Things were already at such a fever pitch then – the world couldn’t believe that Donald Trump was the Republican nominee,” he says. “People still thought Hillary was going to win. But even before Trump won, people felt this psychological trauma. There was bewilderment and confusion that things had gotten to this point at all. There was hate coming from every direction, and people were making big, sweeping generalizations, saying, for instance, that anyone who voted for Trump was evil and you should never talk to them again.”

When Trump eventually won, Arbery says, he felt “more of a fire under his ass” to continue with the play, which up until then he had imagined as a one-act.

“That’s when I really started writing it in earnest, made it a full-length, two-act play and spent the next couple of years on it, getting it ready for performance and seeing if anyone was brave enough to produce it.”

The play was passed around various off-Broadway theatres and had a few readings, with several artistic directors expressing interest. But Playwrights Horizons was the only company brave enough to mount it.

At this point, Arbery was living in South Slope, Brooklyn, a particularly progressive part of New York – it hosts the Lesbian Herstory Archives, which includes the world’s largest collection of materials by and about lesbians.

“One of the characters in the play lives in the same area, and that became an ongoing fascination of mine,” Arbery says. “It made me think that members of the far right also live in places like this, places thought of as being progressive. The epicentres of their media empires, their power bases, their donors, are there too. I got a big kick out of imagining what it must be like to feel like a spy. Just as I felt like a fly on the wall or a spy in my family.”

Arbery grew up the only son in a family of seven sisters in Dallas. Today, his parents are both affiliated with Wyoming Catholic College, where his father became president in 2016. Arbery felt so nervous about his family seeing the play that he entered therapy a year before the show went up.

“I didn’t want to hide it from them, and I didn’t want them to feel trapped or blindsided by it,” he says. “So I flew out to Wyoming and showed my parents the script, and we had great talks about it. They added details that helped make the verisimilitude sharper. And they forced me to look at what I was trying to do and say with the play. When they came to see it, I don’t think they were prepared for what an emotional and visceral experience it would be to see live. It was a really profound experience.”

Being hired for Succession has changed his career. He was originally brought on to help with the character of Jeryd Mencken (Justin Kirk), the far-right Republican presidential candidate. But for the series’ final season he got to write an episode that wasn’t overtly political.

Now, with the Writers Guild of America’s strike resolved, he’s involved in various projects, including a feature film script for the edgy indie company A24.

But while he enjoys making viewers feel uncomfortable in front of their various screens, he says there’s nothing like theatre for letting you sit with ideas for a long time.

“You can’t scroll or refresh or clap back – all of the things we’ve become used to doing,” he says about plays. “Theatre allows you to really confront something and look at it.”

What’s refreshing about Heroes of the Fourth Turning is that it lacks a liberal character to act as the audience’s stand-in.

“That would have been too easy, too predictable,” he says. “With this play I didn’t want to be didactic or preachy. It felt more punk rock to not have a liberal character. It was fun to trace where the audience would slowly start to realize who these people were. Fun, but also difficult. The best things, the things most worth doing, are always difficult.”

Heroes of the Fourth Turning runs to October 29 at Crow’s Theatre’s Studio Theatre (345 Carlaw).

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