Edmund White’s New Play Terre Haute Gazes on Timothy McVeigh

Edmund White has written a new play, Terre Haute, based on an imagined series of conversations between Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and author Gore Vidal. Both subjects have had their names changed in the play. The provocative approach White takes is raising eyebrows.

McveighFrom a new interview in The Telegraph: “Given its UK première last year by theatre company Nabokov in Edinburgh, it imagines a series of conversations between McVeigh (restyled Harrison) and a distinguished seventysomething American writer called James (modelled on Gore Vidal) in the run-up to the mass-killer’s execution at Terre Haute Penitentiary, Indiana, in June 2001. Inevitably the piece grapples anew with the familiar theme of whether acts of terrorism can be justified – but what makes it contentious, possibly incendiary, is that it flags up the possibility of sexual attraction between the two men: ‘If I thought you’d never know, I’d unzip that orange jumpsuit just a bit so I could see your chest. Touch it,’ says James. In the context of what his interlocutor has done, even notional physical contact carries a huge transgressive charge.”

White tells The Telegraph that he wrote the play for an actor with whom he was in a relationship:

“The desire to write a play was not, in the first instance, prompted by shared outrage but by the urge to provide a starring role for a young actor with whom he had embarked on a torrid affair, the details of which are relayed in an entertainingly un-self-censored chapter of [White’s autobiography] My Lives entitled ‘My Master’. ‘I said: ‘All you have to do is tell me to do something and I’ll do it.’ He said: ‘I look like Timothy McVeigh, why don’t you write a play about him, then I can be in it?””

Vidal_white_2The play has angered some who have seen it for White’s humanizing of McVeigh, whose truck bomb detonated outside the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in April ’95, tragically ending the lives of 168 people, including 19 children, and injuring 850 others. It’s no surprise that White’s drama has touched a nerve.

White tells the Telegraph that he feels McVeigh was “vulnerable sexually” without saying flat out whether or not he believes the terrorist might have been gay.

He also reveals that it wasn’t difficult for him to write from the point of view of his friend Gore Vidal, but that the perspective evolved into White’s. White finally drops an explosive confession of his own:

Terre_haute“White continues: ‘I thought, ‘How can I do that? I can’t imagine writing lines from McVeigh’s point of view.’ Then I remembered Gore Vidal had been in correspondence with him. I thought: ‘Well, they never met, but wouldn’t it be interesting if you changed the names and let them meet?’ I’ve known Gore. We’re roughly the same age group, we’re both Europeanised Americans, we’re both gay. I was presumptuous enough to write things from his point of view but as I went on writing the play, it became much more about me. Gore later told me: ‘I would never have been attracted to someone like that.’ But I would have been.”

“The admission is so frank, so unapologetic, that for a moment I’m stunned into silence,” admits White’s interviewer.

Truman Capote did it in In Cold Blood and now White. What is it with gay literary authors sexually fetishizing their murderous subjects?

Has anybody out there seen the play? What’s your review?

Terre Haute is at the Trafalgar Studios, London SW1 (0870 060 6632), from May 8 until June 2.

Strange tale of sex and terrorism [telegraph]


  1. adamblast says

    You ask: “What is it with gay literary authors sexually fetishizing their murderous subjects?”

    It’s lots of things, including perhaps the kind of semiconsious death wish that played out fictitiously in “Gods and Monsters”. It’s also an acknowledgement that dangerous criminals are often active and athletic young men, prone to a corrupted idealism that leads to not only killers, but martyrs and suicide bombers as well.

  2. Mike says

    With all due respect, the two examples cited do not indicate that there is a statistically significant number of gay literary authors “sexually fetishizing their murderous subjects?”

  3. says

    That’s a slippery slope you’re on – I mean, what was the OJ trial but an extended orgasm of America’s general fetish for violence? It’s not just gay men. We’re just, as with most things, more unfettered about identifying it frankly.

  4. says

    “What is it with gay literary authors sexually fetishizing their murderous subjects?”

    That is really a great question. Does the writer see himself in a dominant role – instigator, seducer, ‘daddy’ – or as ‘boy’, the seduced, submissive – or as an equal?

    Each possibility could indicate something different about fiction.

    Do White and Capote see themselves as mastering the dark side of human existence, as submitting to it and seduced by it, or as equivalent expressions of it?

  5. nycredneck says

    Adding to mike’s comments, acting as if it’s unbelievable that someone could be attracted to the person reveals the coping mechanism of the assumption that these people are not people. Isn’t our whole, you know, argument, that you can’t help who you are attracted to? If these TWO authors were attracted physcially to these two men, and to the roughish, but obviously broken/disturbed, personalities within, i imagine they would have been attracted to them regardless of their heinous acts.

    Someone does not have to be some sort of demonic evil to commit these acts…at their core they are still people, people who someone will be attracted to. There are countless women who write to, date, and marry (if they get out) murderers…I don’t think it’s because they are murderers.

  6. MJ says

    McVeigh? Edmund White is probably another out-of-town snob who moves to Manhattan and then thinks he’s “cooler” if he hates the Irish locals (though, McVeigh wasn’t from NY…..I guess the name was just right for White).

  7. relby says

    A fascinating question. I would say that it has less to do with being gay than being submissive, or at least attracted to a perception of sexualized power (witness scores of women writing mash notes to serial killers on death row).

    It brings to mind Foucault, who basically said “We mustn’t think that by saying yes to sex we are saying no to power.”

    In other words, we always love the ones who hurt us.

  8. adamblast says

    Shades of Equus, wherein a deranged and perhaps dangerous young man is fetishized for his supposed “passion”… Modern critics have tended to see the play as little more than highbrow T&A.

    Women, of course, have long been suject to the “bad boy syndrome”, and this may be nothing more or less than (as Matt says above) gays being more open and frank in its admission, rather than something indicative of gays particularly fetishizing things dank and seedy.

  9. TONYG says

    I’m not really sure what’s so shocking about White’s statement. It’s very honest, and gay men of note don’t usually tip that particular hand – is that what’s shocking, that he’d admit it publicly? I remember all the controvery around Gore Vidal’s VF article on McVeigh, as if it’s criminal to ask questions of and about people who commit evil acts. White takes it a step further.

    Hasn’t loads of literature, film, tv and the like been created around the notion that evil can be sexy? Or maybe a better word is seductive?

    I was not really attracted to McVeigh – his crime and his ideology paint him as virulently antigay, which for me kills any attraction I may have felt – but I can put myself in the position of finding him attractive.

    Back when someone took a shot at the Pope in the early 90s – a Turkish man, I think – I remember a friend told me, “Before I even saw him, I knew he was gonna be hot.” And he was. :)

  10. anon says

    I’ve never heard of any gay rumors regarding Timmyboy, but Bowling for Columbine brings up an interesting connection between McVeigh and Klebold/Harris.

    Bold/Dangerous people develop and aura of power around them that some find attractive. Many cults are based on this human weakness.

  11. Tom says

    Remember all the drooling over Scott Peterson on the gay blogs? It’s called “thinking with your dick”.

  12. Leland says

    Movie plot SPOILER alert! First, the situation in “Gods & Monsters” isn’t remotely comparable because the death wish of the lead character played brilliantly by Ian McKellen is not an end in itself but only his imagined means to be reunited with his long-dead lover, as exquisitely, emotionally shatteringly dramatized in the fantasy of the hunky character played by Brendan Fraser [whom the old man tries to provoke into killing him] leading him to the foxhole containing that dead lover.


    Both actors were robbed of Oscars.

    As for White, look at that picture again of he and his well of chins, the lipless mouth and Cyrano nose; a puffy variation on Dorian Gray’s painting in the attic coming to life. The painting of a pathetic masochist as reflected in that chapter “My Master.” [“Master” is no longer speaking to him, BTW.]

    And, if one is to believe playwright Arthur Laurents [“West Side Story,” “Gypsy,” “The Way We Were,” et al.] Vidal was an unlikely subject to fictionalize here, not just because McVeigh wasn’t his physical type, but as a fellow masochist period. Laurents declares in his autobiography that one of the things he dislikes about Vidal is that Vidal insists on only being a top, both Greek and French, never reciprocating. So it’s hard, as it were, to imagine him and his own chins trembling at the touch of any man.

  13. says

    Q: What is it with gay literary authors sexually fetishizing their murderous subjects?
    A: Capote [and almost certainly White] knew he was stealing from Jean Genet’s ‘Notre Dame des Fleurs’/’Our Lady of The Flowers’, in which the narrator gets a particularly enthusiastic crush on a trade-y criminal who appears in the daily newspapers, yet who has an angelic, baby face, according to Genet. Now you know where that comes from!

  14. Tim Wilson says

    Oh I’m sure many men could make Vidal and his chins quiver in anticipation. He may project an image of complete confidence in his ideas his own sexuality but I’m sure he’d bend over and/or open his mouth with fairly little persuasion from the right guy.

    And it would seem that this is sort of what this story is about. Someone giving in and doing something they normally wouldn’t do because they are seduced by something they know is wrong. It’s totally the bad boy syndrome.

  15. says

    There was a recent production of this play in San Francisco as well, at the New Conservatory Theater, but I didn’t see it.

  16. says

    I’m sure there are female prisoners that could turn on straight male authors and any other combination anyone could think of.

  17. Landis says

    I think I heard a story about women who fall in love with male convicts in Canadian jails. Its not as uncommon as one may think.

  18. Daniel says

    I will reserve judgement on the play until I see it. I’ve liked a lot of White’s writing, his fiction and autobiography. But, as a person, he makes me a little queasy. I met him once and found him to be very narcisistic, and a documentary that came out ten or so years ago didn’t change my mind. I also think he dwells completely within a literary, academic world and doesn’t have much empathy or experience outside his own rarified world.

  19. Terry says

    I saw the San Francisco production. New Conservatory is a gay theatre company. White did an interview with our local gay paper and it was reviewed there. He didn’t want to link it to Vidal but the UK publicists thought it would be a draw. It’s a pretty good play, and definitely echoed some of the motivations in the film Capote. Later White said that “he doesn’t like me any more” about his McVeigh-looking paramour. It’s only White’s third play I think.

  20. Leland says

    Straight, as it were, from the lipless author’s mouth on Slate:

    “I had trouble with only one person, the considerably younger man whom I describe in My Lives as ‘My Master’. He had long since dropped me (the subject of my chapter) as a sex partner, but we remained friends. I read him out loud the chapter about our strange and intense relationship. He seemed to be quite moved by it. When we’d first met two years earlier he’d asked me to write about him some day (never wish for something—you might get it). He said it was some of my best writing. He had to clear things with his ex-lover, whom he’d been cheating on the whole time we were having sex. Though they were no longer together, he felt he had to tell him. There was an outcry but no permanent damage. My ex-master asked me to give him an initial instead of a name, which I did. He had no other requests.

    Then the book came out in England and was about to come out here when he told me that I had betrayed him, and he no longer wanted to see me. Over the last 20 months I’ve sent him two or three little e-mails to see if he’d like to resume our friendship, but he doesn’t. The funny thing is that I liked him as much as I loved him, and his absence weighs heavily on me. After 60, it’s hard to make friends and he occupied a big place in my affections.

    Would I do it over again? Yes, since it is one of my strongest pieces of writing—and that’s the kind of monster every real writer is.”

  21. ShawnSF says

    Maybe White can write a bullshit play about Andrew Cunanan,Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer next…..

  22. Jon says

    “What is it with gay literary authors sexually fetishizing their murderous subjects?”

    Well, what’s with bondage, S&M, whips, chains, and some of the far darker things gay men do in their dungeons I mean bedrooms no I mean dungeons?

  23. says

    Terre Haute just finished a run in San Francisco at the gay theatre New Conservatory Theatre Center (http://www.nctcsf.org/). It closed on Sunday, May 6. It received mostly favorable notices from the local papers. The San Francisco Chronicle said “At its best, “Terre Haute” offers glimpses of a dramatic face-off between two distinct American personalities, and between right- and left-wing responses to government encroachments on civil liberties. But that drama remains largely unwritten.” A review on BroadwayWorld.com and SF Bay Times says, “Homicidal boys-next-door might not be your cup-of-tea. And maybe arthritic bisexual political-analysts aren’t your type. But playwright Edmund White ties this decadent pair into one of the most exceptionally-performed small-theatre dramas in San Francisco this year.” Variety review: “Putting an imaginative spin on the actual interview sessions between Timothy McVeigh and Gore Vidal (both given pseudonyms here), the uneven but compelling drama is well served by Christopher Jenkins’ U.S. premiere staging. Hot-button themes and modest production demands should make this script highly attractive to companies seeking attention-getting material.” We saw it opening night and enjoyed it a lot.

  24. says

    This was exceptionally naughty of Ed.

    Gore is FURIOUS (and believe me you don’t wnat to see his fury) for in effect this play turns him into his arch-enemy Truman Capote. Gore had no sexual interest in McVeigh wahtsoever. He isn’t his type for one thing.

  25. pacificoceanboy says

    OY VEY

    Jon uhm the heterosexual S/M and D/s community far far far outnumbers the gay simmular community.
    Not every gay man is into such things. I myself am into some kinks, but that is another subject. LOL

    Gay writers that have fetishised their murdurous characters are far far far far outnumbered by those who have not fetishised their murdurous characters. The percentage is surpased again by heterosexual writers who fetishise their murdurous male and female characters.

    The attraction to a “bad boy” is both a heteroserxual and homosexual thing and can find its roots in our very boring modern culture with no rights of pasage and no great adventures for the masses. Our ancestors swung around in the trees hiding from things that wanted to eat them for many times the amount of time we have been walking upright. Heck our coming down out of the trees was very recent in fact. Going back geneticaly to even our earliest mouse like ancestors running around hiding from giant teeth in the dark is hard wired into us.

    Our genes geared towards survival which are our oldest, strongest, and most numerous genes do have a pleasure component attached to the fight or flight matrix. Those ancestors whose genes did not provide for a pleasurable response from surviving a trauma didn’t try as hard to survive such traumas.

    The whole concept of attraction to things dark and deadly can be found in our genetic make up of fighting or fleeing danger and deriving pleasure from such an experience.

    Our modern boring and safe culture gives no sufficient outlets for such and people thus find such pleasure, sense of being truly alive, etc in dark, macabe, dangerous, and deadly things, situations, scenes, kink, and people.

    This is equaly a heterosexual phenomena as it is homosexual. Coo coo for coocoa puffs is not discriminatory :-)

  26. Drukler says

    Gore Vidal is well known in endless bios and autobios as a rather frosty top. He even fucked Jack Kerouac in the ass, according to Palimpsest.
    Also I’m very confused as to why White felt he needed to imagine this conversation. It was well-known they were in communication; much of that comminication was reprinted in Vanity Fair right before McVeigh was executed.
    Furthermore Vidal and McVeigh met many times. Vidal was front and center at his execution, at McVeigh’s request.
    Is White being disingenuous or is he just the worst researcher in the history of playwrites?
    The conversations Vidal and McVeigh had about politics and America were fascinating and important and widely written about and debated. They had absolutely nothing to do with sex. White’s need to re-imagine them as gay porn says more about him than about Vidal.

  27. Rob says

    Just came from this travesty of a play the other night.

    An absolute waste of time and money.

    There is no character development, and no real believable understanding or communication either.

    The homoeroticism seems to serve no purpose in the play, and the pseudo-sensual overture during the fourth interview seems totally discordant and out of left field.

    The script provides little more than lightweight character sketches without any real substance.

    Both Leads, Arthur Darvill and Peter Eyre, are competent and even excel with what they have been given; but this is really a dog of a piece.

    Worst of all the play makes the inexcusable error of being boring.


  28. Rob says

    Just came from this travesty of a play the other night.

    An absolute waste of time and money.

    There is no character development, and no real believable understanding or communication either.

    The homoeroticism seems to serve no purpose in the play, and the pseudo-sensual overture during the fourth interview seems totally discordant and out of left field.

    The script provides little more than lightweight character sketches without any real substance.

    Both Leads, Arthur Darvill and Peter Eyre, are competent and even excel with what they have been given; but this is really a dog of a piece.

    Worst of all the play makes the inexcusable error of being boring.