2020 Whiting Award winner Will Arbery '11 shares the inspiration behind a pivotal moment in his acclaimed play.
In March, Will Arbery ‘11, a playwright and filmmaker from Texas and Wyoming, was announced as one of 10 winners of the 2020 Whiting Awards. This prestigious prize is given to emerging writers in recognition of their excellence and their promise, and each winner receives $50,000 to advance their artistic pursuits. We asked Arbery to share a scene from his acclaimed play, “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” which had its world premiere in the fall of 2019 at Playwrights Horizons, in New York City, and was a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama. Here, Arbery shares the inspiration behind one pivotal moment, in which Kevin, a 20-something alumnus of Transfiguration College of Wyoming, has come back to the school to see the new president, his friend Emily’s mother, inaugurated.
KEVIN Yeah. I know you see the grace in everything.
EMILY Not in everything.
KEVIN Okay, not in everything.
EMILY There’s so much pain. And there’s so much time. So much time of me just sitting in my pain. And I get so angry. I get so small. I want to die. I want to die a lot. And that’s as graceless as you can get, believe me. It’s… nuh-uh. It’s really, really ugly, and it just… and I, anyway… sorry…!
EMILY Whatever it’s just the disease. It’s just the bug eating my brain. But we all have that inside of us. We all have a labyrinth in there & it’s just you and the Trinity, trying to find the way out.
EMILY Doing what right?
KEVIN Any of it. I’m empty.
KEVIN I just am. When I think of the Eucharist… when I think of what we actually believe that to be? We are talking about the murder of our God— we’re witnesses, every day, to the sacrifice He made for us, with His physical body. We’re talking about his blood, his wounds, and we are proclaiming his mangled body to be in the room with us. And then we eat Him and He literally becomes part of our cellular body. How are we not falling down on the ground and WEEPING – every time? Why am I ever bored? Just waiting to get out and have brunch? Because it’s been 2000 years and we know the story already? But the story is new every time because there are new kinds of sinning every day — and He dies for those sins, every time, every day, all over the world, in every church. He is dying He is dying He is dying, He is giving us His body so that we can LIVE, and meanwhile I’m just sneakily checking my phone and speed-praying by rote, just saying the words. I never feel anything… and I definitely don’t think in those terms… the labyrinth, the grace…
EMILY Why should you think in those terms? Those are my terms, don’t take ’em.
KEVIN A maze, a maze sounds fun, instead of this emptiness —
EMILY Emptiness is beautiful! It’s all beautiful. I don’t know. Please, can we just — every second we’re not destroying something, destroying someone, destroying the world, destroying ourselves — every second we’re creating and co-existing instead of tearing this place apart — I just think it’s miraculous.
EMILY You do?
KEVIN Yes — yeah. It’s the only thing I can get to, in my brain: gather everyone in a place, the entirety of the secular world, all their phones and porn and astrology and orgies, and then blow it up, as though destroying will let truth rise out of that — something solid and undeniable will emerge for us then, and we can look at it with our eyes, and know it to be true.
EMILY Yeah whoa
Your labyrinth is not my labyrinth.
1 Emily is chronically ill with an unnamed disease. Before this, Emily revealed that she’s inspired by Flannery O’Connor’s quote: “Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace.” >>return to excerpt
2 This character is inspired by my sister Monica. During her long illness she grew weary of people categorizing her as some sort of saint. >>
3 I’ll name the unnamed disease for you here. It’s Lyme Disease. I remember fingers fluttering fast against the skull, the heart. Get out of there, get out of there... >>
4 Like my sister, faith is deeply important to Emily. But as we see throughout the play, her faith is not easily categorized. It’s thorny. Wild. >>
5 Kevin is very drunk. >>
6 I was raised in a deeply Catholic and conservative environment. My parents teach at a tiny Catholic college in Wyoming. This play was an attempt to capture the feelings of drunken nights under the big sky, talking about God. >>
7 This speech was inspired by something my childhood best friend, Nathan, said to me once. He wanted a faith that was passionate and literal. He couldn’t stand the banality of most Sundays. >>
8 Kevin is addicted to the internet and feels deep shame about his desires and his tendencies. >>
9 I debated whether or not to delete Kevin’s confession here. He’s such a tortured fellow, which makes him likable to a lot of audience members. And what he says next makes the picture much more complicated. So it had to stay. >>
10 The upswell in astrological literacy, and the reverence with which people discuss it, is sometimes indistinguishable to me from the deeply religious background in which I was raised. >>
11 It’s hard for me to write anything without referencing Borges. My other play last year, “Plano,” had some labyrinth-talk as well. >>