Terra Haute (2006)
Edmund White has written his first play in ten years, Terre Haute, about an imagined friendship between the writer Gore Vidal and Timothy McVeigh, who in 1995 killed 168 and wounded more than 800 in a bombing attack on the Alfred P. Murrah government building in Oklahoma. (Terre Haute is the Indiana federal prison in which high-profile Death Row prisoners such as McVeigh are incarcerated.) White, 66, wrote it for “T”, who was an actor. “I said, ‘You know, you are my master and you could command me to write you a play.’ He suggested I do something about McVeigh, whom he resembled.” White first met “Gore” at “Peggy Guggenheim’s place” in Venice in 1974 (the glamour!) and while they’re not close friends, they know each other well. “Gore didn’t mind me writing it but said he would never be interested in a ‘piece of rough trade’ from upstate New York. I knew that such a tough guy was my type. I put into the roles the anguish I was feeling about the 30-year age difference between T and me. When he finished with me I felt wretched. T was a fan of my work, just as McVeigh was an admirer of Vidal’s.”
In real life Vidal never met McVeigh, though they did correspond and Vidal wrote several articles defending McVeigh. McVeigh invited Vidal to attend his execution in 2001 (which he was unable to do). White makes clear: “I changed the names and created all the dialogue and situations.” In the play, Vidal becomes “James” and McVeigh, “Harrison”. White has found writing a play difficult: “With a book there is the authorial voice. But a play is just words, actions. You can win a reader over through the quality of your prose, but you cannot — unless you’re Shakespeare — do it through dialogue.” The play was mounted because three years ago a handsome straight guy turned White’s eye at an Edinburgh book-signing. He was an actor, though no longer, with the Nabokov theatre company that is presenting Terre Haute in Edinburgh. “My life has been led by sexual serendipity,” says White.
He is fascinated by McVeigh. “The media portrayed him as this madman. But then I found out he did have his reasons: he was a war hero, he got medals from the Gulf War. He was very idealistic when he went to the Gulf but felt military service had altered him. When he got home the army said they’d overpaid him and he ended up losing his car.”
McVeigh went to Waco to watch the final act of the FBI siege of David Koresh’s Davidian compound, in which 80 people died, an episode that White thinks is “one of the worst in American history”. White was also in Waco at the time; his mother lived near by and had just died. “I watched it on TV even though I was there. I did the same when the World Trade Centre was attacked in New York where I live. I sleepwalk through history.”
For White, McVeigh is less madman and more angry and disillusioned with the agencies of American power and influence. The Bush Administration, claims White, is trampling over civil liberties in the name of the war on terror. “I think McVeigh had a humanity. The tragedy is he might have turned out an exemplary citizen.” But he did murder a large number of people, I say.
“A woman in tears said the same thing after we did a reading of the play at Sundance,” White says. “She asked why we were trying to ‘understand’ McVeigh. But that’s a writer’s job, surely. James is very sympathetic to Harrison until he realises he has a deep vein of madness and violence within him. He becomes embarrassed he ever defended him.” It reminds me of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, in that it poses questions about a writer’s motivations when getting friendly with a prisoner. Yes, says White, although the criminals in Capote’s book “were a lot more stupid” than McVeigh.
Ageing is also at the heart of Terre Haute. But in Harrison’s cold dismissal of James and the latter’s unmet sexual needs, White notes: “When you’re old, if people like you, they see you as venerable; if they don’t, you’re invisible. Sexually and romantically, you’re turned into a eunuch.” At the end of the play Harrison/McVeigh asks James/Vidal what he would want if he could hypnotise him. “Just to see your torso,” James replies.