The Play

"Some things belong on paper, others in life.
It's a blessed fool who can't tell the difference." Madeleine LeClerc

"Happiness for you, my little kumquat, is achieved through strict adhesion to Society's mandates... But for me, happiness springs from a different course... To slice through social artifice, shatter her false conventions, and become one with Nature's Cimmerian Tide, where only the ruthless excel, and where brute force yields its own treasure! Past etiquette, past decency, past morals." The Marquis
Synopsis (from Dramatists Play Service):
Doctor Royer-Collard, head of Charenton Asylum, is visited by Renee Pelagie, wife of the asylum's most notorious inmate, the Marquis de Sade. Furious that her husband's sadomasochistic pornography has tarnished her reputation, she offers the Doctor any amount of money, if only her husband can be kept from writing. After confiscating the Marquis' quills and paper, the Abbe de Coulmier is surprised to find lascivious new stories circulating in public. The source? A lusty young seamstress named Madeleine has been smuggling material out of the asylum. Immediately, the Abbe bars the girl from seeing the Marquis, but ever resourceful, the Marquis pens his stories on his bedclothes in wine, blood and worse. Driven to a fury, the Abbe strips bare the Marquis and his cell, leaving nothing but stone and straw. Undaunted, the Marquis devises a fantastic plan to whisper his stories from lunatic to lunatic, until Madeleine can pen them down… As the second act unfolds, the Abbe is driven to increasingly desperate acts to silence the Marquis.

Main Characters (from Dramatica):
Name: The Marquis de Sade
Description: Brilliant, perverse, witty, anti-hypocritical
Role: Notorious Inmate
Motivation: Disbelief; Avoidance; Temptation
Methodology: Nonacceptance; Proaction
Name: Madeleine LeClerc
Description: Buxom and bouncy, street smart, yet innocent
Role: Seamstress
Motivation: Support; Help
Methodology: Acceptance
Name: Abbe de Coulmier
Description: Kind; slightly obtuse
Role: Asylum Administrator
Motivation: Pursuit; Faith; Conscience
Name: Dr. Royer-Collard
Description: Pompous, astute in his career, oblivious to what happens at home
Role: Chief Physician
Motivation: Oppose; Reconsider; Control; Logic
Name: Madame Royer-Collard
Description: Amoral
Role: Dr.'s wife
Name: Renee Pelagie
Description: Social Climber
Role: Sade's wife
Motivation: Consider; Feeling
Purpose: Desire

The Marquis: A man with an infamous reputation for creating pornography and committing perversions. Depending upon the political climate, he is held up as either a madman or martyr. The latter part of his life is spent in the Charenton Asylum, creating and disseminating his pornographic prose. The authorities of the institution make every attempt to stop him, to no avail. The man is destroyed, but not the author. The Marquis' fixed attitude toward freely expressing himself is illustrated in a letter to his wife: "Fanaticism in me is the product of the persecutions I have endured from my tyrants. The longer they continue their vexations, the deeper they root my principles in my heart."

The Marquis and Madeleine: The Marquis is driven by knowledge, which in the case of Madeleine causes a problem. It is his authoritative certainty that overrules her hesitancy...
Madeleine: Only one thing troubles me...
The Marquis: Fear of discovery?
Madeleine: No. Fear of the inmate Bouchon, the agent closest to me in line... he holds a torch for me. . .
The Marquis: What of it?
Madeleine: Well, sir, given the potency of your stories, and the fragility of his brain... it might cause a combustion; that's all.
The Marquis: What are we to do, dearest? Shuffle the patients in their cells? That's not within our power. Now, accept the danger or withdraw.
Madeleine: I accept.

The Abbe de Coulmier: At the outset, Coulmier is willing to take on the responsibility of overseeing the Marquis. He remains willing throughout the story, although he does not necessarily care for the methods he is forced to resort to to contain the patient. Abbe de Coulmier evaluates events as cause and effect. He sees each problem he has with the Marquis as a new issue, to be handled separate and apart from the last. This problem solving method fails, as the Marquis is able to counter his efforts with his own holistic methods. Both women and men will empathize with Abbe de Coulmier, a man with great empathy for the sick and ailing.

The New York Theatre Workshop - Reviewed by David Spencer:
    …Meanwhile, I've just seen "Quills" by Doug Wright at the New York Theatre Workshop, a play in which the Marquis de Sade figures prominently...a play, too, in which depravity (imagined, implied, explicit, verbal and visual) increases geometrically as the play moves inexorably from dark comedy to Grand Guignol shockfest ... and yet, at the core, I find it to be entirely noble. I think that's because…it comes by its outrages honestly, and is, when all is said and done, despite everything, a passionately humane play.
    Oh, and by the way, have I mentioned that it's the best thing I've seen all year? Well, that, too, so order your tickets and then continue reading. I'll wait ... [Insert sound of aimless humming here.]
    Now you're back, here's the premise: In 1807, on the outskirts of Paris, the Marquis' wife, the Rubenesque Renée Pélagie beseeches the head of the Charenton Asylum, Doctor Royer-Collard to deal with her infamous husband. That husband is, of course, the Marquis de Sade, whose notorious excesses (most of them literary) have created havoc with her social standing. The Doctor makes it clear that his services won't come cheap ... but he guarantees satisfaction.
    He assigns a young priest, Abbé de Coulmier to minister to the Marquis' soul: at the very least, to see the wickedness of his salacious, even seditious writings. But the Marquis will not see. A flamboyant and charismatic figure, he will not see, nor will he concede, nor will he be silenced. He thrives on debate almost as much as he thrives on being provocative, and the more stringent the methods used to keep him from writing, the more creative and grotesque his ways around the censure.
    But -- curious thing -- the more the priest expends effort to still de Sade's obscene quills, the less clear the line of morality becomes ... and the higher the stakes become in the battle of wills ... until finally, not only is Doug Wright's play a ripping good, and brilliantly constructed thriller ...but it is also a breathtakingly conceived metaphor about the roles of censorship and pornography in modern society.
    One of the most exciting things about Mr. Wright's play is how offhandedly it flirts with danger, and then how exuberantly it embraces it. In an odd way -- and an appropriate way too, given the Grand Guignol effects -- Mr. Wright reminds one of horror writer Clive Barker, when the latter first burst upon the scene with his multi-volume short story cycle "The Books of Blood". Barker seemed to gleefully leap into places that no writer of the genre before him (no, not even that most reliable of entertainers Stephen King) had dared. Doug Wright, too, refuses to shirk the grisly promises implied by his narrative. And better still, each foray into the twisted darkness comes with a perfect dramatic rationale, and serves, in the larger scheme of "message," to further illustrate the complexities and ambiguities of the issue. Ultimately, I think the playwright does, indeed, take sides ... but never by open moralizing. On top of everything else that is wonderful about this stunner of a melodrama is the way the author cagily lets the audience draw their own conclusions.
    Carps? One. The latter half of the second act is overwritten, overlong and in sore need of editing. Not because it's dull, but because the story reaches a point at which its intended ironies become inevitable, and its plotting diagramatic. I won't go as far as to say that the playwright needs to be ahead of us at this point -- I suspect he revels a bit in our "dread" anticipation of what's inexorably to come -- but he indulges this impulse far too gluttonishly, and needs to trust that a little goes a long way, and that the audience is, indeed, "getting it." But, in light of all else, the indulgence is easily indulged.
    And playwright Doug Wright, from an inauspicious debut (the abysmal libretto for "Buzzsaw Berkley"), to a work of genuine promise ("Watbanaland" last season at the WPA), emerges for the first time (in the New York arena, at least) as a genuine force to be reckoned with. "Quills", though, is a lot to live up to. Let's not forget, in future, when he occasionally misfires (and he will; we all do) how important it is to nurture the truly gifted, and to treat his failures with kindness, even when we can't treat them with affection. Because out of that kindness will only come more stunning successes. And that helps all of us.

Commentary by Ram Samudrala (Spoiler alert!) -
    Quills is a play about the last days of the Marquis de Sade, and it is a mind-wrenching look into the dark recesses of man's soul, Nietzsche's abyss, the "terrible beauty" that exists within it, and society's attempts to turn the common people away from it.
    The play begins with the discovery that the Marquis, even while in the Charenton asylum on the outskirts of Paris, has been writing 1200 page tomes that depict the excesses of pornography, bestiality, and sadism, with dashes of nihilistic philosophy thrown in-between, in grosteque detail. This is partly due to the encouraging of the asylum's Director, the Abbè de Coulmier, who believes in rehabilation of the criminally-minded and that these writings serve to help the Marquis, rather than cause destruction. In 1806, seven years after Napolean consolidated his authority in France, Dr. Royer-Collard is appointed as the new Chief Physician at Charenton, and thus begins a clash of wills between the three main characters, the irreverant Marquis, the self-righeous de Coulmier, and the iron-fisted but insecure Royer-Collard. The chemistry between them is what playwright Doug Wright manages to bring to the forefront, producing a tale of irony, wit, and extreme philosophical insight.
    There is little doubt that the Marquis was an articulate person for his position: he believed in a hedonistic anarchistic lifestyle where morals were arbitrary, and the issue of good and evil was purely subjective. There is also little doubt that the people controlling the lambs in society fear the mere existence of his words (and other like ones). The play, however, serves to show that speech, no matter what the methods used, cannot be supressed. In the end, the audience is left to ponder the question of who is really insane and depraved: the Marquis or his censors?
    The play touches upon so many social issues that it's impossible to iterate them all here. The main focus is about censorship of speech and at no time during the entire presentation is there a convincing argument supporting the view that speech can be harmful. Even the death of the young seamstress Madeleine Leclerc at the hands of a vicious inmate aroused by the Marquis' tales is a strawman. Attempts at censorhip yield no positive results: cutting off the Marquis' various limbs only serves to make Coulmier the carrier of the Marquis' message.
    It is a commonly held belief that would-be speech supressors seek to act the way they do because of their own fears and insecurities with regards to the speech, and they project what they have seen and experienced onto to the speech. Wright brings this aspect of censors elegantly to the forefront by depicting Coulmier and Royer-Collard, juxtaposted against the door of the Marquis' cell, interpret the most innocent of the Marquis' writings as pornographic and violent, projecting their own world-views onto the stories. Last, but not the least, the issue of what is good and evil is addressed when the Marquis' book is compared to the Bible and the question "which one tells the truth" is posed.