Q & A: Edmund White

Currently playing at 59E59 Theaters, Terre Haute Edmund White’s taut two-hander, examines the relationship between famed writer Gore Vidal and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, executed in 2001 in Terre Haute, Indiana, home to the federal death row.

Though in fact the two never met, they exchanged letters while McVeigh was in prison. Terre Haute imagines their meeting, changing the characters’ names Vidal is James and McVeigh is Harrison to reflect the fictionalization of their story.
White, known primarily for his novels (particularly the trilogy A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room is Empty, and The Farewell Symphony) took some time this week to answer some questions for musicOMH.

How did the idea come to you to write a play about these people, Timothy McVeigh and Gore Vidal, though their names are changed due to the fictional nature of the actual events on-stage?

I had a boyfriend who was an actor then who asked me to write a vehicle for him, something about Timothy McVeigh since he resembled him. I couldn’t think of a way into the subject until I remembered that Gore Vidal had corresponded with McVeigh and had written several articles about him. Vidal seemed a more approachable subject to me since I, too, am a Europeanized American and not that much younger, gay like Vidal and a writer, though much less famous.

How much should audiences viewing the play take the drama on-stage as fact, and how much is your invention? Or do you think the play is more about ideas than specific characters?

No, I think it’s about ideas and about characters. In England audiences didn’t know much about McVeigh so they approached the play more as an invention and as a fiction. Americans, of course, own this subject so there are stronger feelings in the audience. That pleases me, I must say.

You’re primarily a prose writer. What were the challenges of writing this play, your first ever, and what drew you to playwriting as a new avenue for your writing?

Actually I’ve written two produced plays previously but so long ago that no one remembers them. The first was The Blueboy in Black, presented off-Broadway in 1964 with Cicily Tyson and Billie Dee Williams. The second was done in the eighties in London, Leicester and Cork; it was called Trios.

Playwriting seems to me to be entirely different from fiction writing since in novels there is always a narrator, a mediating consciousness, the scenes can be very short and there is room for lots of reflection. In theater one is reduced to actions and words, nothing else, though in Terre Haute I do let the character James (the writer) reflect briefly on each preceding encounter with Harrison (the prisoner).

Were there any plays or playwrights that have inspired you in your own playwriting? I couldn’t help but think about John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins (if only for their humanization, if not quite vindication, of killers in that show).

I actually, to my shame, don’t know that musical though I admire both Weidman and Sondheim. I’m ordering it today! Perhaps I was somewhat influenced by Albee’s Zoo Story and Pinter’s The Collection, but only because I love those plays.

I see that the play was developed partly at Sundance Theatre Festival. That seems to be a breeding ground for quite a few new pieces of theatre lately. How did your involvement with the festival come about?

I appliedor perhaps I was invited. I can’t remember. In any event it was a wonderfully welcoming environmentand very challenging. It’s always difficult for a writer (at least this writer) to have his ideas questioned and his assumptions shaken, but Sundance is set up so that the actors rehearse one day, the playwright rewrites the next, rehearsal the next, rewrites the next and so on. At the end of the month the play is put on one time only for the others (about a hundred altogether) and then quite severely critiqued by the other directors and dramaturgs. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful dramaturg, Jocelyn Clarke, who is Irish and used to work at the Abbey Theatre. He’s also a fine playwright. What a brilliant man!

What are the challenges of writing a two-person play in particular? Was there ever the temptation to include other characters, and, if so, which?

There used to be a guard but we didn’t really need him and I felt bad for an actor who would do nothing but lock and unlock doors all evening. I think members of the audience feel their hearts sinking when they realize there will only be two actors in the play. There was a good reason the Greeks had three! But I try in the play to make the dialogue a constant thrust and parry and to have one situation reverse the preceding one and so on throughout the evening. I very much like the small theater at 59 E. 59th Street which is so intimate and where the seats are severely raked so that there are no heads in the way. Each member of the audience is alone with the play.

I think part of the success of the play is in allowing the Vidal-inspired character of James to give his direct-address monologues at the ends of scenes. How did this idea come about?

I thought that the James character is so worldly and devious that the audience wouldn’t really get that he was falling in love with Harrison/McVeigh unless I gave him those monologues. But they are not inner monologues; they are clearly addressed to the audience, which I trust makes the play more involving.

I think it’s ingenious that the play is structured into four twenty-minute portions to accommodate the prison setting. Was that something that you started thinking about before you wrote the play, and how difficult was it for the segments to eventually be staged in correspondence with this time restraint?

I’m not sure the segments are really of an equal length but if they appear to be, all to the good. I suppose I thought that the relationship was so explosive that each character needed time to rethink what he wanted from the other. Harrison/McVeigh wants James to justify him with his writing, to be a Homer to his Achilles, and James is less certain what he wants. He would like to get a scoop, to hear the exact details of the bombing, but he is also projecting onto McVeigh intense feelings about Bud, the great love of his life. I think the time lapses give each character the mental room to develop these sentiments and ambitions. But they also deepen for the audience (I hope) the sense of duration, of time going by.

How did the idea come about to give the character of James this physical attraction and curiosity toward Harrison? This seems to be the one invented element in the play that ultimately gives it its resonance.

Well, I certainly didn’t want to have the play just be a debate about ideas, though it is also that. I thought that if Harrison, who has never had sex, shares something sensual with James (even though Harrison is straight), it would deepen the human pathos of the situation. Ditto for James, who confesses he would like to hold and kiss Harrison.

Has the experience of crafting a play been a satisfying one? Do you have plans to write other plays in the future?

I have written another play, which my agent thinks is better than Terre Haute, but no one is interested in it. Maybe because it has a cast of five instead of just two and would be more expensive to put on. But I definitely want to write more plays.

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