December 23: From the Kansas City Star:
"From the Marquis de Sade Comes a Message in 'Quills'," by Robert W. Butler
The Marquis de Sade may have been many things: madman, genius, pervert and of course the inspiration for the word "sadism." But when Doug Wright considers the infamous literary bad boy of 18th-century France, he sees "our most intrepid interpreter of the dark side of the human soul." And it's just possible that Wright will make the Marquis more popular today than he's ever been in the nearly 200 years since his death.
About seven years ago, Wright penned a stage piece called "Quills." That funny and frightening work -- about the conflict between the imprisoned Marquis and the keepers entrusted with silencing his outrageous literary voice -- became a hit on the regional theater circuit (it was mounted at Kansas City's Unicorn Theatre in 1997).
But theater is one thing. A hit movie is another. And now that the film version of "Quills" -- adapted for the screen by Wright, directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix and Michael Caine -- has been named the year's Best Picture by the National Board of Review (it opens Monday in Kansas City), perhaps we should be bracing for a new wave of interest in the evil old Marquis.
Wright, for one, is all for a rediscovery of the controversial fellow. "I think he can teach us about the absolutely darkest reaches of the human psyche and the furthest extremes to which art can aspire," Wright, 38, said in a recent telephone interview from his Brooklyn home. "Of course, there are those who don't want to learn either lesson." The Marquis de Sade's sex-and-violence-drenched writing, augmented by his own unusual sexual practices, were considered so repellent that the man spent fully half of his life in jails or mental institutions. "Quills" depicts the battle of wills between the Marquis (Rush), who is driven to write at any cost, and a doctor (Caine) whose treatment methods are at least as vile as de Sade's writings. "He must have been a wildly irascible character," Wright said, "an ever-replenished well of rage that he indiscriminately hurled against the world. What makes him so hard to pin down, though, are his contradictions. He was utterly dissolute and infantile -- petulant, demanding, self-obsessed. But he also had a very caustic wit. If we're attempting to divine any recognizable humanity inside the monster, it is through his sense of humor. On one level he's this angry, mischievous, somewhat loopy kid in the back of the classroom who is hurling these poison darts at the teacher. He absolutely hated authority. After 30 years in prison for writing exactly what he feels, he was furiously angry. But a lot of his writing was simply to gratify himself sexually. After all, here's a man who spent 30 years in isolation. It's curious ... if you read his known works in the order they were written, you realize that what was titillating and pornographic to him in the first years of incarceration became progressively more extreme as time went by. He had to go to ever more Byzantine lengths to arouse himself. And at the same time he wanted to shock a world that had betrayed him."
Wright, who has devoured virtually every known piece of the Marquis' literary output, admits that de Sade's work isn't conventionally erotic. "It's too angry to be erotic," he said. "On the other hand, I find it cathartic, because it's so completely, recklessly mendacious. The Marquis believed that anything the mind could think of could become art. But, no, I certainly don't find his writing arousing. A psychiatrist friend of mine once said that everything is ultimately about sex except sex, which is about aggression. I think the Marquis would have adhered to that theory. The way his writing commingles extreme violence with extreme depictions of sexuality ... A lot of the sex he depicts is biologically impossible. It teeters on the brink of satire, a sexual cosmology that's impossible to consummate."
Keeping the spirit -- "Quills" represents Wright's first venture into the world of cinema, and he admits that it has probably spoiled him. In Hollywood writers usually are sent packing as soon as they've typed the last page of the screenplay. Wright, on the other hand, was asked by director Kaufman ("The Right Stuff," "Henry and June," "The Unbearable Lightness of Being") to be on the set throughout the production. "The biggest challenge for me in adapting my play to the screen was liberating the story from the play's dense language," he said. "The play was full of debate, very discursive. I kept being sent back to my room by Phil to cut, cut, cut. I'd be sitting there stewing because my precious words were being tossed out. But I kept reminding myself that there are no great movies based on George Bernard Shaw plays. The goal was to retain the play's spirit and ferocity and its message about art in an unstable culture. And I'm pleased that the movie is still true to the play's anarchic spirit."
Whereas the stage play was highly stylized in its presentation and acting style, the film unfolds in a historically recognizable Napoleonic France. For Winslet, Wright beefed up the role of the asylum laundress Madeleine; a relatively minor figure in the play, she now emerges as a key character who conspires to smuggle the Marquis' lascivious work to a publisher. And in the film she is the object of desire of the asylum's priestly administrator (Phoenix), a development not in the play.
Wright credits Kaufman with coming up with "a kind of demented fairy tale style. It's not a conventional bio-pic, and we do depart from history on many occasions. But it has the tenor of an old-fashioned fable, one for adults. Phil luxuriates in the storytelling aspect of the movie. He's almost like a wicked old granddaddy who has taken you on his knee and is relating a naughty tale."
The Oscar gossip machine is already touting Geoffrey Rush (who won an Oscar for "Shine") as a likely Best Actor nominee for his turn as the Marquis. According to Wright, Rush did extensive research on the historic figure, but also relied on his own creativity to put a contemporary face on the man. "We'd be about to do a take, and Geoffrey would walk over to me and say, 'Now, correct me if I'm wrong, Doug, but this moment is terribly Barbara Stanwyck, isn't it?' I mean, he had a toy chest full of wonderful actor tricks. We know Geoffrey's a great classical actor and can be hysterically funny. But I don't think we've ever seen him quite so vulnerable or furious as he is here."
Wright said he'd like to continue writing for the movies, but that he doubts he'll ever have a better experience than "Quills." "For a first-time screenwriter to have a director so completely in sync with the material, to have such a great cast, and to be allowed to be present for every take ... well, I feel the only decent thing to do is retire. It won't get any better."
November 26: From Movie Web: "About the Marquis on the Marquee", by Doug Wright (screenplay author):
When the Marquis de Sade died in 1814, he made a surprising last request for a man so wholly devoted to scandal and sensationalism: to be buried anonymously in a thicket, so that "all traces of my tomb will disappear from the face of the earth, just as I hope all trace of my memory will be erased from the memory of men." No such luck. For almost two centuries, scholars, critics and fellow artists have been rooting about in Sade's grave, in an effort to form a conclusive portrait of the man. Opinions are wildly divergent. Some heavy-duty thinkers - Artaud, Nietzsche, Kraft-Ebbing, Angela Carter and Camille Paglia among them - rank Sade as an overlooked genius; a professor emeritus of Evil. A few even praise Justine as a work to rival the satire of Jonathan Swift. The Surrealists adopted Sade as their patron Saint, citing him as "the freest spirit who ever lived."
Others - like Louis Bongie and Roger Shattuck - are far less generous; they're loath to see Sade resurrected at all. His writing is attacked as monotonous, his philosophy sophomoric, and his impact on the world of letters merely toxic. They claim that his sole contribution to world culture is entomological at best; the term "sadism"' is derived from his name. Shattuck even calls Sade a "vicious evangelist," and suggests that he is culpable for inciting the Moors murders of 1965 and the serial killings of Ted Bundy.
Whose assessment is correct? Was Sade a vile pornographer or an oft-maligned genius? Or ... more troubling still ... was he both at once?
Sade's fiction is more extreme than anything we might find in contemporary culture. His prose is scathingly funny one minute, repugnant the next; it careens from acute social satire to masturbatory fantasies to scenes so depraved - so preposterous they set a new benchmark for perversity in literature. In Sade's 1795 novel Philosophy of the Boudoir, an elderly dowager is forcibly infected with syphilis. In Justine (1791), a vampiric husband ritually bleeds his wife to death. And in Juliette (1797), Sade's most monstrous heroine performs a black mass with the Pope, disemboweling a pregnant waif on the Vatican's altar. Coprophilia, mutilation, necrophilia and pederasty are staples of Sade's oeuvre. Intercut with these prolonged sexual escapades are philosophical diatribes more nihilistic than Nieztsche; Chaos reigns supreme in a Godless universe, brute strength trumps morality at every turn, and violence is the only sure route to pleasure.
Read in sequence, Sade's novels do, in fact, offer a compelling - and unintended - profile of their author. It is impossible to separate the writing itself from the circumstances in which Sade wrote; a fallen aristocrat who weathered the French Revolution, he spent over thirty years of his adult life in prison, for crimes ranging from rape to pornography. His tales were hatched in dungeons, prison apartments, and mental asylums throughout late-eighteenth century France. The stories seem to spring like gorgons from a vast, ever-replenished well of rage. Sade writes to vent at the hypocritical forces which oppress him; to stave off his own madness; and to gratify himself carnally in the confines of prison, in fantasies which escalate with the correlative length of his interment. All his volcanic emotions - entombed within four walls for almost half his adult-life - erupt onto parchment with the force of a natural disaster. One moment, he is grandiose; the next, infantile. Like many of his characters, Sade registers as an amalgam of our basest appetites, stripped bare. He is grotesque and seductive at the same time.
"Play Aims Quills at Extremism," by Kyle Lawson, July 23, 2000 -
Doug Wright's on the phone. Calling from the wilds of Utah. Well, the Sundance Theatre Lab, anyway, tucked away on Robert Redford's spread outside of Park City. Just making the call is an achievement. Seems there are only pay phones at the lab and they've been hogged by homesick playwrights, or those who actually have an agent to call. "Well, here I am; let's talk," he says, sounding every bit as exasperated as he probably is. Wright is in Utah to work on his next project, but what he wants to talk about is the one that's made him famous - or infamous, depending on which of his critics you read.
Quills, which In Mixed Company opens at the Herberger Theater Center on Thursday, is an explosive play that targets political and religious extremism, particularly the right-wing variety. It decries censorship, while clinging to the fragile hope that if a free people confront the monsters in their society, the demons will turn tail and run.
It's a seething mess of a play, overwritten in parts, brilliantly incisive in others. In it, opponents of pornography are determined to put an end to the Marquis de Sade's sadomasochistic writings. They first take away his quills, and when he manages to circumvent that, they resort to other measures. Ultimately, they strip de Sade literally and spiritually, perverting their own values in the process and becoming as heinous as the behavior they sought to prevent. Wright needs only to point to the Oklahoma City bombers and Matthew Shepard's murderers to prove that it can happen here - and often does. No one likes to see him- or herself portrayed caustically, least of all extremists. That has made Quills controversial, which is no surprise to Wright. The play was born out of controversy.
WRIGHT: I wrote the piece in 1993, at the height of the art wars, when Congress was working to dismantle the National Endowment for the Arts. I was very agitated by that debate, and being a playwright, I wanted to respond in a theatrical way. I chose de Sade because I didn't want the play to be about a good guy being destroyed, but about how the good guys destroy themselves when they violate their moral precepts in the fanatical pursuit of "evil."
a&e: The play poses an interesting question. Is extremism its own worst enemy? De Sade meets each level of "correction" with a greater show of defiance. To defeat him, his opponents keep escalating their punishment. Things get out of everyone's control.
WRIGHT: We think of Jesse Helms and Robert Mapplethorpe as adversaries. I would argue that they are bedfellows. Together, they managed to get the arts on the front page with great regularity. I'm not sure if that was a good thing. In situations like that, artists feel they have to prove something. They become even more graphic and controversial, and moderate and temperate voices get lost. I think history proves that extreme right-wing behavior breeds extreme left-wing response, and the average guy gets shot down.
a&e: This puts you in a somewhat precarious position, doesn't it? In responding to attacks on the NEA's funding of controversial artists, you wrote a verbally explicit, nudity-filled play that places the argument in an environment guaranteed to breed more controversy.
WRIGHT: I won't argue that Quills isn't my most overtly provocative play, so I guess I'm guilty as charged of escalated response. In my defense, I think the play generates the kind of debate that works so well in theater. The theater is a sort of safe environment where you can take an argument to its extreme and see what happens and, with luck, be able to see your way out of the mess.
a&e: Ironically, even though American society seems to have become more reactionary, theaters across the country are producing Quills. This fall, the movie comes out with Michael Caine, Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet and Joaquin Phoenix, high-profile actors whose connection will give the debate even greater exposure.
WRIGHT: Happily, my work has never been censored, and that says something about the relative health of our society. It's true that some companies do worry about the response, but I welcome a lively debate. The mark of a free people is that they can disagree and still live together.
"QUILLS: MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD?" by Michael Hollinger -
Doug Wright spent two years in the head of the Marquis de Sade, and lived to tell about it. Not only that, but the fruit of his labors, Quills, enjoyed a very successful Off-Broadway run last year and won an Obie Award to boot.
But what makes an erudite, mild-mannered playwright want to hang out with one of history's most notorious authors? For Wright, the impetus was a Sade biography, which a significant other gave him one Christmas. "I think I knew then the relationship was certainly doomed," he says.
After a false start -- the beginnings of a play in which the Marquis finagles an audience with the Pope -- Wright stumbled across another historical incident that proved the ideal jumping-off point for Quills. With this factual germ, Wright immersed himself in Sade's oeuvre, drawing parallels with contemporary events and concocting a fictional plot as outlandish as the Marquis' own twisted tales (albeit with a good deal more humor). "For people who have never experienced the Marquis, it's more extreme than anything that exists in the current culture," says Wright of Sade's literary output. "It was written two hundred years ago, and it's still the benchmark for perversity in literature." Quills' assistant director had difficulty locating Sade's works in both the Free Library and our nearest book chain, relegated as these books are to locked cases or obscure shelves. His collected writings are reportedly #5 among the ten books stolen most frequently from center city booksellers; the Bible is #1. (Sorry, Marquis.)
Though Doug Wright's works cover a wide range of times, places and topics, a number of them trace their origins to biographical subjects. Among these are the play Interrogating The Nude, about French artist Marcel Duchamp, and a screenplay-in-progress about three boyhood friends in Spain -- future playwright Garcia Lorca, painter Salvador Dali, and filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Playwright Kate Moira Ryan, whose own works include Hadley's Mistake, The Autobiography of Aiken Fiction, and Leaving Queens, interviewed Doug Wright on the subject of "Adapting Biography for the Stage" just prior to Quills' premiere last year. Excepts from that interview follow, courtesy of the participants and the Dramatists Guild Quarterly, where it originally appeared.
Kate Moira Ryan: Tell me about the process of adapting biography for the stage and how you make that work on its own terms.
Doug Wright: I can't speak generally about the process. I've never truly adapted straightforward biography. The historical figures I've chosen to write about are extreme individuals -- Marcel Duchamp and the Marquis de Sade -- and to serve them in a way that felt honest and true to the spirit of their own lives, I had to write plays that were as extravagant in style as their own work was in its time. To write a scrupulously accurate biographical drama about Duchamp would be a violation of his whole aesthetic. I had to write a play that structurally imitated his work. And with the Marquis de Sade, to write truly about his life, I had to employ the same malicious glee that he must have felt when he wrote ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY DAYS OF SODOM.
KMR: How important is research?
DW: Research is crucial, but indulging in it to excess can be dangerous. It quickly becomes a terrific excuse not to write. Like, "I can't start this play yet, because I still have to read yet another tome on the life of my subject..."You need to know just enough to set your imagination free, and then once you're into the first draft, you discover the gaps in your knowledge and start to fill them in. But to read everything ever written about your subject before putting pen to paper is a mistake. It can paralyze you. Too many options, too many episodes to dramatize.
KMR: I find that in my reading or research, I come across one sentence that gives birth to an entire play. For example, I read that Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley were living in Paris, and then Hadley lost a year's worth of work. And that's the line that started HADLEY'S MISTAKE. Did your interest in the Marquis start the same way?
DW: That's exactly what happened with QUILLS. In Maurice Lever's biography of the Marquis, I read that Sade was placed in the Charenton Asylum so that he might be cured of the nasty habit of penning porn. But instead -- with nothing to do all day and with plenty of time on his hands -- he was more prolific there than he'd ever been before. This angered the administration to no end; the felt totally chagrined. So they confiscated his quills and his paper. And that tiny event leapt off the page and screamed at me, "This is the beginning of a play!" That one simple event embodies the entire life of a man who was driven to write by the enormity of his own desire. Metaphorically, it also echoed the circumstances of working artists in this country. With the demise of the NEA and decreased funding for the arts, our quills are being torn from us. I wanted the play to pose a question fundamental to the Art Wars currently being waged in our country: "What is the cost we pay by attempting to silence extreme factions of the country? Is it ultimately greater than simply tolerating their art?"
KMR: Abbé de Coulmier, the priest assigned to subdue the Marquis, says, "How can you defend yourself in art's name? Your worst stories revolt, while your best induce vomiting." So I'll turn that around, Doug, and ask you what my mother asks me: "Why can't you write nice stories?"
DW: I'm a repressed homosexual Presbyterian who grew up in the Bible Belt, and that's why I'm inextricably drawn to the Unspeakable. I'm very troubled by the Marquis' writing. I'm titillated by it, and horrified at the same time. When I read his work, I found myself asking, "Does this really belong in the canon, or is it truly just pornography?" I wanted to write a play about an artist who would make liberals as nervous as conservatives. If you were to ask me today, "Does Sade deserve the mantle of artist, and should he be defended by the culture?" I'd be hard pressed to answer. After living with his material for two years, after sweating through this play, I still don't know. I hope my own ambivalence makes the arguments in the play lively and truthful.
KMR: The Marquis takes no responsibility after his story telling inspires [a horrific act of violence]. When confronted, the Marquis says, "What do you want to me to do?" Police my readers as you police me?" In essence, he's asking, "Am I responsible for the reaction my work incurs?" If he is writing such influential prose, is he responsible? Are we responsible for the work we put out? Or is the artist's job, as Tolstoy said, merely "to raise questions and not give the answers?"
DW: I definitely agree with Mr. Tolstoy. Art that posits answers is just propaganda. An artist is ethically and morally responsible for his work, and the ideas expressed in that work should have sincere convictions. But that shouldn't inhibit writers from exposing some dark, unpleasant aspects of human nature, or even exploring sensationalistic or socially inappropriate behavior. I disagree with arguments which suggest radical acts of violence can be casually linked to art. You can argue that a fragile and unstable mind is susceptible to almost any influence. I mean, how many crazy people have killed because God told them to? In the play, the Marquis says, "Suppose one of your precious wards had walked on water and drowned. Would you condemn the Bible? I think not!" It's really hard to substantiate claims that violence in art leads to violence in the world. You can't generalize from a small pool of very deviant minds. I mean, according to David Berkowitz, he was just following orders from his dog!
KMR: But specifically, is the Marquis responsible for [that act of violence] in the play?
DW: This episode in the play was inspired by a controversy surrounding the Walt Disney movie THE PROGRAM. In the film, young college football recruits were being hazed. Their teammates made them lie in the middle of the road and let huge semi tractor-trailers pass over them. That was their rite of initiation. And college men actually started to perform this stunt. So Disney pulled the film from the theaters, edited that scene out, and re-released it. I think the notion that Disney is responsible for the lame-brained behavior of a bunch of jock is preposterous. I wanted to write a correlative event in the play. The culpability of the Marquis in [that event] is provocatively raised, but isn't entirely answered. The Marquis says he's not responsible, the Abbe´ says he is. As the playwright, I think there's a tenuous connection, at best. After all, I've been reading nothing but the Marquis de Sade for the last two years, and if anyone was primed to go out in the deep dark bowels of New York City and commit atrocities based on their reading habits, I'm your guy. I'm happy to say I haven't. I have resisted every impulse to maim and strangle.
KMR: What are your hopes for the production?
DW: I hope that is scares the hell out of people. I hope that it amuses people, and I hope audiences hop on the roller coaster and take the ride with us.