In an era of uncertainty and anxiety, New York theatre is shunning its obsession with private lives to throw a powerful spotlight on politics
It used to be argued that British drama is driven by a fascination with public affairs and its American counterpart by a preoccupation with private lives. On the evidence of a weeks intensive theatregoing in New York, I would suggest that hoary generalisation has been blown to smithereens. At a time of potential impeachment, political polarisation and profound uncertainty, American theatre seems to be heavily engaged with the wider world.
The most surprising and controversial new play I encountered was Will Arberys Heroes of the Fourth Turning at Playwrights Horizons. It offers a direct rebuttal to the stock charge that modern drama simply reflects the liberal assumptions of the theatregoing audience. Arbery writes about a group of deeply conservative Catholic friends who meet in Wyoming for the installation of a new president at their old college. The play neither caricatures nor cauterises these figures. It shows them to be passionate, articulate and as capable of quoting Hannah Arendt as Heidegger. At the same time, it suggests they are just as divided as any other section of modern American society.
What is startling is their vehemence. The most extreme figure is Teresa who admires Steve Bannon and is excited by the idea of a war to save western civilisation. Her ex-lover, Justin, sees proximity to LGBT people as a threat to Christian children and advocates training in marksmanship for the colleges students. But Arbery also presents us with the alcoholic Kevin who feels spiritually empty, and the more rapturous Emily who worked for an anti-abortion womens organisation helping domestic abuse victims. Everyone, it seems, loves Emily except her mother, the newly elected president, who turns up at this outdoor drinks party and argues for a return to religious orthodoxy.