A critique of Edmund White's "Terre Haute," about bomber Timothy McVeigh and Gore Vidal.
|Terre Haute *
Author Edmund White can’t keep his hands out of his pants, no matter what the subject matter. In Terre Haute he manages to manipulate characters based on Timothy McVeigh and Gore Vidal into a flirtatious dalliance – with McVeigh showing skin and slowly unzipping his jump suit from behind a plastic screen just hours before his execution. The audience loves it.
While Vidal and McVeigh had exchanged correspondence in real life, they never actually met, due to Vidal’s poor health. Vidal wrote a number of articles about McVeigh, essentially arguing that the public should not simply dismiss him as a madman. White makes it clear that while Terre Haute was inspired by real events, most of the details in his script are invented (or extrapolated). In recognition of this, he changed their names, with McVeigh becoming “Harrison” and Vidal becoming “James”.
The two roles were excellently cast in this production and both Arthur Darvill and Peter Eyre gave superb performances, perfect diction and timing.
Sexual titivation aside, what is truly remarkable about this play is the stream of rich and vivid images it evoked from start to finish, despite the sparse death row set and cast of two. White’s script delivers richly textured and detailed imagery. His portrait of Harrison is incredibly vivid, as we get to know him through his relationship with James.
Born in that explosive year of 1968, he lived what seems a normal, if not exemplary childhood. From a solid Catholic background, he was top of his class in maths. White evokes images of him playing Luke Skywalker in his boyhood Star Wars games. He grows into a gallant virgin soldier, and decorated Gulf war hero. He is in so many ways an embodiment of the best of American manhood. As James drools, “[like those] farm boys…their blond eyebrows sun-bleached, their eyes empty – young, dumb and full of come.”
Ironically, he takes American virtues to an extreme and commits an act of destruction that was at that time (prior to 911) the biggest attack on the USA mainland in history - the bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City.
By blending the two characters we get James’s intellectual rationalisation of Harrison’s action, with Harrison’s raw energy and sexuality to spice it all up.
Harrison’s attack on the Murrah building is portrayed as being primarily a reaction against what he saw as the illegal destruction of the Branch Davidian Sect at Waco, Texas by the FBI who claimed that they were stockpiling weapons. This specific incident was of course not the only example he gives of the FBI's improper interference, in his view.
This raises the question as to whether McVeigh did in fact act properly in defence of the United States constitution, the second amendment of which states that “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
Harrison and James’s contention that “[They needed] to protect the American Republic from the American Empire” is particularly pertinent today, where there is a widespread view that the current invasion and occupation of Iraq are also dubious (and without United Nations sanction).
The image of James as the gadfly of the nation is also taken to its extreme, and questions are raised about the effectiveness of his stance. Where he had spent a lifetime criticising from the safe vantage point of his Paris apartment, Harrison is an all American man of action and does something concrete about the problem.
While in Terre Haute James visits the home of Eugene Debs (the six time socialist candidate for President), and notes that the decency of Debs’ life and house comforted him. But today few have even heard of Debs, or Vidal for that matter. Have they been able to make any difference with their non-violent approaches?
James attacks Harrison’s violence and lack of empathy for his victims, with a major rift developing between them because of Harrison’s under-developed intellect and reliance on trashy conspiracy theories.
But James’s tirades against violence and the loss of innocent lives (the children) seem too contrived and hollow, as if White had felt compelled to include them as a form of disclaimer, to ward off accusations that he was promoting violence and destruction.
The play is intellectually engaging and raises a number of moral questions that are very relevant to our time. The audience is left with mixed feelings, as fleshed out under White’s pen, the possibility emerges of Harrison having all the qualities that we most admire, as an all-American hero and a lone defender of the constitution in a society gone bad.
London, Spring 2007
* Edmund White’s Terre Haute will be performed at venues around the country during April and May 2007. Harrison is played by Arthur Darvill and James by Peter Eyre. Directed by George Perrin.