Will Arbery. Photo by Zack DeZon.
Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning, which opened at Playwrights Horizons in 2019, continued to work on me long after I’d emerged from the theatre into the megawatted midtown Manhattan night. The play’s world—much like the white, rightwing, Catholic, intellectual milieu of Arbery’s upbringing in Bush-era Dallas—wasn’t something I’d seen onstage before. We meet Arbery’s cast of five characters seven years out from an education of Plato and archery at an ultra-strict religious college. They hunger for passion, touch, reason, the pain and vitality of others, and for one another. They are characters to be reckoned with, if kept at a careful distance.
Arbery’s latest work, Corsicana, an excerpt of which appears in the Spring issue of The Paris Review, is a different kind of play, one that invites you in rather than takes you over. It is about gifts, the making of art, and, more poignantly, the sharing of it. Named for the town in Texas where the play is set, Corsicana opens in the home of Ginny, a woman in her midthirties with Down syndrome, and her slightly younger half brother, Christopher, who are grieving the recent death of their mother. Ginny has been feeling sad, depressed maybe, and Justice, a godmother figure to the siblings, introduces them to Lot, a musician and artist who uses discarded materials to create sculptures that he rarely shows anyone. Lot got a graduate degree in experimental mathematics, and, as he tells Christopher, succeeded in proving the existence of God, although he threw the proof away. “Art’s a better delivery system,” he says.
Arbery’s dialogue has an unnerving way of being at once caustically funny and prophetic; perhaps it’s no surprise that he is much in demand as a writer for television and film. Earlier this month, I called him in London, where he was working as a consultant on season four of Succession, a series that I, from my sofa in Brooklyn, was struggling, without much success, to resist rewatching.
You’ve recently picked up quite a bit of TV work. Are you eager to make your return to the theater?
I’m writing for film and TV a lot more than I did before the pandemic. Heroes of the Fourth Turning closed in November of 2019, and I went to Los Angeles and got some film and TV work lined up. I worked as a consultant on season three of Succession. Then the world stopped. But luckily, I was able to line up enough film and TV writing to keep me going during the pandemic. It ended up being three TV projects and three feature films. That’s way too much for one person to handle. I wouldn’t do it quite that way again. But I spent my twenties hustling in the theater and barely scraping by financially and having monthly panic attacks about making rent. So I thought, I’m going to take these opportunities because they might not come up again.
I was able to develop—for the first time—a writing routine that felt sustainable and enjoyable. It was something about having time away from the theater, and finally being able to move into my own apartment. But then, of course, I learned about the film and TV industry. In theater, you have complete control over what that play is. Every word in it. People have thoughts, and it’s collaborative, but in film and TV there are many, many notes. There are the core producers—I love those people. But when it gets to the levels of the financier or the studio or the streaming platform or the network, the notes start to feel more anonymous and by committee. You’ll start being on Zooms, and there are three people on there who you’ve never seen before. That makes me really excited about going back into rehearsal for a new play.
It sounds like you prefer to have more control over your projects. Or do you like to surrender a bit?
No, I don’t like to surrender. Letting go of the things you can’t control is a good quality, but creatively, it’s very difficult.
Was there a play that was formative, that made you want to write for theater?
When I was a kid, there was this production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard at Shakespeare in the Park in Dallas, where they put the audience backstage. It blew my mind—and it made so much sense dramaturgically. Here were the actors, coming from the stage back to us, giving us this privileged access. It felt very charged and exciting.
What inspired you to write Corsicana?
I have seven sisters. The sister directly above me in the order is Julia, who has Down syndrome. I grew up being this amazing person’s younger brother—and also her protector in certain ways. Whether it was true or not, it was what I took on as a kid: I’m going to look out for Julia. But she was also looking out for me. The dynamic of her reminding me over and over that she’s the older sister was a refrain in my childhood, and is still. I wanted to make a play centering a woman with Down syndrome in a way that wasn’t drawing too much attention to it or making it an issue-play but rather just having her be a part of an ensemble, with her own complicated wants and desires.
At the time, I had just written Heroes, which was a draining and dark experience in a lot of ways. The idea of writing something that at least on its surface was a little bit gentler appealed to me. Then of course, once I’d written a draft, I started wondering, How do I complicate this? The play could be deceptively gentle, but I wanted it to have edge in the way that people have edge. I started with the central idea of, What would it be like if it was just me and Julia on our own? Some things stayed the same—some things about Ginny and Christopher’s dynamic are pretty much exactly as we are—and other things changed. The characters became their own people, not perfectly mapped onto us anymore. Then these two other characters, Justice and Lot, emerged out of some mysterious place. Sometimes if you’re writing something really close to home, it helps to place it a little bit to the side. I went to a residency in an old building on the main street of Corsicana, a town forty minutes south of Dallas, which feels on the cusp of being a ghost town. That felt like a good place for these characters to be talking to me. Then I wrote it over the course of three years.
What does Corsicana, the place, mean to you?
It has a quiet energy. The two things the town is known for are the local fruitcake business and the Netflix documentary CHEER—based on the cheerleading program at Navarro College. My months there had a profound effect on me even though I didn’t get any work done, and I was really hot and lonely and scared of this building and mostly spent my time watching YouTube videos and eating too much Domino’s. I felt a heavy sense of history in that place. I went exploring, and I found these old closets where there were still these weird garbs from societies that met there in the early twentieth century, like the Odd Fellows society. I visited the town cemetery, where there’s a grave that reads simply “Rope Walker”—as I discovered, there was a man who wanted to tightrope walk across town and then fell to his death, but nobody knew who he was or what his name was. History doesn’t feel far away in Corsicana. You just still feel it in the air. I imagined the dinosaurs walking around there.
Heroes of the Fourth Turning was set in a world of intellect. As Teresa says, “I don’t know what the artist does. It doesn’t matter.” What does it mean that in Corsicana, everyone has an artistic passion and fraught relationship to the ways in which their art is revealed or hidden?
In and around Corsicana, I started meeting more of the folk art community in Texas—incredible untrained artists from Texas and nearby states. I got curious about people who were making things that they didn’t know if anyone would ever see. This art is not for sale. It’s not to make you famous. It’s just for the thing itself, which comes out of you and finds a shape. There seemed to be a connection between that mode of making things and Julia and her relationship to music. She has an amazing voice and an incredible love of music. She loves singing for people, but she also gets very shy. Once she asks everyone to stop talking so she can sing, it takes a long time for her to actually start singing because she feels all the eyes on her. And yet I know that when she’s behind closed doors in her room listening to something, she’s dancing like crazy and really letting it all go. I wanted to capture that feeling, which is like when you open a door and glimpse something beautiful, but you know that it’s not really for you, and so you close the door again.
So many of these characters are interested in forming ties through their art: Christopher’s letter, Justice’s book, Lot’s sculptures. Some of them are cagey about it, but it’s not necessarily because they want to be.
Even though I did not design this to be a play with an agenda, it’s a play that’s actively engaged in breaking down certain barriers to access. It’s certainly one of the biggest roles I can recall for a performer with Down syndrome in a theatrical play. There’s a temptation in that kind of work to put all of the meaning in one character, but the more I was writing it, the more I thought about how creativity and collaboration and community form. I was interested in the idea of granting access to people who wouldn’t otherwise have it, and then sort of denying it and feeling that loss by the end of the play. That’s my own subtle way of addressing some of the history around “outsider art”—even that term is viewed by a lot of people as being problematic. I watched a documentary about the artist Bill Traylor, who is similar to the character of Lot. He grew up in obscurity, and then his work was discovered after he was dead. It accrued value and was put on museum walls and began selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars. A lot of his drawings and paintings were just sitting on the top shelf of a closet in his relatives’ house. They were surprised and a bit blindsided to find out, “Oh, actually, this stuff has a lot of value.” There’s something inherently a little bit gross about it. It’s important to me to try not to be a part of that grossness and instead look at the characters as people who make things instead of fetishizing what it is they’re making.
Lot is describing a woman who has come from some fancy literary magazine to investigate his “outsider art.” He says, “Seems to me like she’s collecting people. Like she shows up and takes pictures and writes and then takes it away by the writing. Suddenly it’s not what it is anymore.” That idea that the act of writing can take something away from our experience of the work—that’s a challenge for someone who’s writing a play.
I’ve been testing the idea that language is inherently always a bit of a lie or a compromise. But my girlfriend has a good retort to that: “What about Elon Musk and other people who want to put these chips in our brains to go beyond language because they think language is inconvenient and inefficient, and they want us to leapfrog over that entirely?” I hear that, and I think, No. No. I do love language. A person’s language and the way that they use it is like a fingerprint. Which is another thing Julia taught me growing up: I learned more about writing and dialogue from her than I did anybody else in my life.
Your play has original music in it by composer and musician Joanna Sternberg. In the stage directions, you give that Lot’s song is “impromptu and weird but awesome.” There’s a lot of space there not just for an individual vocabulary but an individual voice and melody.
Joanna writes music that is accomplished but also has a clarity and directness. I love Daniel Johnston, and I haven’t heard something else that went right to my heart like that. Joanna’s been writing the music for these songs and slowly adjusting lyrics. It’s been this beautiful back-and-forth of trying to find these melodies while also letting the songs remain a little bit jagged and raw.
Heroes is clearly a play about the right, and it’s a politically charged play all the way through. I initially thought Corsicana was more about art, as though it’s a hard divide. But there’s so much in it about failed utopias and anarchism, especially in the character Justice. How did your decision to use these ideas in the play come about?
It snuck up on me. Justice just started talking about that one day while I was writing it. Then I had to go back and do research and decide who her favorite communist writer would have been and fill in these surprising little details about her literary and intellectual obsessions. It was a huge breakthrough, because I always suspected that she was this secret glue or motor in the play. It was exciting to be inventing a book that that Justice was writing that I genuinely wanted to read. The play takes Justice’s intellectual pursuit seriously. If we were to look at her through the lens of, What polity is she trying to form throughout the course of this play?, then I think what the play shows the delicate nature of that work, the heartbreak that goes into caring for each other and listening to each other and listening to what people say about what they need and don’t need and want and don’t want.
Justice says the book she’s writing is about “the belief that when a part of the self is given away, is surrendered to the needs of a particular time, in a particular place, then community forms. From the ghosts of the parts of ourselves we’ve given away. A new particular body. Born of our own ghosts. I don’t know. It’s about Texas.” That’s what the book that we can’t read is about.
I’ve said before that every play I write is a ghost story. I’m not entirely sure why that is, but it probably has to do with the fact that 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. There’s another element, too, which has to do with what it feels like to be the author of a play and know that these words are going to be spoken and embodied by a real person. Just the idea of sitting and deciding what people do and say, and making bad things happen to them or difficult conversations happen—the more real they become, the spookier that feels. Some mysterious thing happens.
They become more mysterious and, at the same time, maybe more true. It makes me think of that Zadie Smith essay “In Defense of Fiction.” The essay starts out being about whether you can represent others in fiction, people whose experiences you haven’t yourself had. She writes that what makes her want to read more of a story is belief—belief, that is, in what has been written. I was thinking that, in theater, belief is both necessary and hard to achieve, because there’s no opting out of the fact that the people in play are real, even though there’s something uncanny about them. They need to haunt you, in a way. You need to believe that they’re having real drama in front of you—fictionally real drama.
For me, when theater is at its best, it’s not that you forget where you are, because you’re in a theater squished up against other people, and they’re coughing and sniffling. You always know that you’re in this room. But you find yourself wondering, How did these people on stage get here? Why are they saying the things that they’re saying? And why am I allowed to witness this? It feels like I shouldn’t be here. There’s this double haunting, where you feel like both the visitor and the visited. They seem so real, and you know that you could just go up and touch them. But there’s a threshold that you’re not willing to cross. It feels like, on a very basic level, a sort of séance. It’s a summoning.
Hannah Gold is a critic and fiction writer living in New York City. Her latest work can be found in Bookforum, The Drift, The Nation, and Gawker.
Performances of Corsicana will begin on June 2 at Playwrights Horizons.
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