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01.11.09

On Stage as Gore Vidal

The English actor of the stage and screen Peter Eyre on his new role in Terre Haute, a play based on Vidal's letters to the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh.

On the face of it, Peter Eyre makes an unlikely Gore Vidal. He is an English actor of the old school, as happy behind a proscenium as in front of a camera. He has shared the stage and screen with some of the finest: Ralph Richardson in Dragonslayer, Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day, Patrick Stewart in Hedda, and John Gielgud and Jason Robards in Julius Caesar.

When he stumbled across a script for Terre Haute, Edmund White’s play about the correspondence between Vidal and the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, he called White and suggested he play the part of America’s most persistent gadfly and well-connected contrarian. “I had met Edmund ever so slightly,” said Eyre between rehearsals for the New York opening of Terre Haute in preview on Tuesday at the 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan. “I told him, ‘I want to do your play,’ and he went very, very quiet. He wasn’t very enthusiastic.”

“I think people like plays like this in the way that people like reading biographies rather than novels. They have a distrust of the imagination.”

The hesitation was momentary, and before long Eyre was hawking the play from place to place, from a workshop at the Sundance Institute Theatre Program to a preliminary performance at the Edinburgh Festival, taking in a work in progress session at London’s Old Vic, followed by a full-blown and well-received production at the Trafalgar Studios in London. The play has undergone many changes since White first wrote it.

The idea of turning the brief correspondence between Vidal, the elegant, snippy liberal man of letters, and McVeigh, an anti-government militiaman and America’s most notorious politically motivated mass murderer, proved difficult. To begin with, the letters have not been published and many were destroyed, so the play is inevitably mostly a work of fiction.

While Vidal has written about the exchange in Vanity Fair, and quoted from the letters, he is prickly about the comparison between his reaching out to a murderer on death row and the obvious literary parallel: the part ghoulish, part flirtatious liaison between Truman Capote and the petty thief turned murderer Perry Smith that informed Capote’s best seller In Cold Blood.

Vidal has gone out of his way to distance himself from Capote, whose exploitation of Smith on death row became hugely controversial. “To show what an eager commercialite I am—hardly school of Capote—I kept no copies of my letters to [McVeigh] until the last one in May,” wrote Vidal, heading off criticism he was copying Capote’s modus operandi. While Capote’s pursuit of the caged primitive Smith was cynical and homoerotic, Vidal insists the motivation for his exploration of McVeigh’s explanation for the Oklahoma bombing was high-minded.

Vidal believes McVeigh’s version of events—that the slaughter at the hands of federal forces of the Branch Davidians at Waco in 1993 was an act of war that demanded an act of retaliation. The author of The Best Man and the historical novels Lincoln and Burr went to great lengths to explain that the Oklahoma massacre, in 1995, was not an act of insanity but a political act, a crude blow against creeping government authoritarianism. (McVeigh was executed in June 2001.)

Vidal’s connections to both the Gore and the Kennedy Democratic dynasties have left him with a fascination for political theory and the practice of politics at the highest levels. His interest in McVeigh was inspired by his belief that the American republic has strayed far from its noble beginnings.

According to Eyre, the portrayal of the Vidal character in Terre Haute has drifted away from mere caricature. “I think Edmund’s purpose was that he had a crush on someone who looked like Timothy McVeigh,” said Eyre. “The Gore Vidal character is an amalgamation of Gore Vidal and Edmund White.” Little wonder, perhaps, that Vidal, who at first encouraged White to embark on the project, has since withdrawn his approval.

Eyre has long abandoned trying to base his portrayal of the Vidal character on Vidal himself. “I have a friend who was a friend of his. I used to meet Vidal 25 years or so ago. I found him a charming man,” he said. “But he doesn’t like this play and at one time tried to stop it. He agreed to do it some years ago, so he can’t stop it now. Would you want your life to be recorded in a drama? I don’t know.”

At first Eyre did research on the events on which the play is based. “After the initial thing, where we proceeded to read Vidal’s account of the letters and listened to tapes of Timothy McVeigh...I found them incredibly tedious and not very helpful,” he said. “But all that has faded away now.

“I was rather embarrassed to think anyone should think I was impersonating him,” he went on. “I kept his voice rhythms, but I didn’t think for a moment of ‘being him.’ I do copy his speech patterns a bit, that East Coast patrician drawl.”

Eyre thinks that having a link to actual events is good for luring people into the theater, but it is of little value otherwise. “So many films and plays nowadays are biopics,” he said. “I did a play about Ken Tynan and his obsession with Louise Brooks. Then there is the film about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. And Helen Mirren as The Queen. And of course Frost/Nixon. When I saw Frost/Nixon on the stage in London, I didn’t think I was watching a documentary.

“The fact is, they are all fictions. However much research or journalistic evidence goes into the play, it is still a fiction. But people like to think they are seeing the real thing. I think people like plays like this in the way that people like reading biographies rather than novels. They have a distrust of the imagination.”

Eyre may be an archetypal English actor, but his background makes him feel entirely at home in New York, the city where he was born. His mother was English, but his father was Irish-American, an abusive character with an intimidating presence. “I think you would call him bipolar today,” explained Eyre. “I lived in America until I was 14. We were Catholics, I am one of seven, so there was no thought of divorce, although my parents were separated and went their different ways. I went with my mother back to England.”

And his acting style is entirely English—that is, when he is on stage he is acting, not trying to connect with the psyche of an imaginary character, as is the abiding influence that the psychological methods of the Actors Studio has had on the American profession.

“I really admire American actors,” he said, but added that they have not had the benefit that British actors have of “doing hundreds of plays year after year” on the stage. “A lot of actors think acting is about mumbling or shouting. It is because they don’t know how to use their voices.” And American actors “have to discover the anger in their character. If you want to bore an audience, there is nothing better than portraying anger.”

Having played Gaev in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, he was asked by a young actor, who was playing the same part in a later production, whether he had any advice. “It is difficult when you play a part because actors think they are better than anyone else who has ever played it,” Eyre confessed. “So I didn’t want to say anything. But I did say this: ‘Surely the part is about anguish rather than anger. I saw your anger, but not your anguish.”

NOTE: An earlier version of this article implied that Terre Haute was developed through the Sundance Film Festival. The article has since been updated to reflect that the play was developed through the Sundance Institute Theatre Program.

Nicholas Wapshott is the senior editor at The Daily Beast.