Critical Overview

Falling almost exactly between the events depicted in Quills and the writing and publication of the play itself, the Grand Guignol serves as a significant reference point for the play. The Grand Guignol was a French theatre founded at the turn of the twentieth century that specialized in over-the-top, grotesquely staged horrors. In current parlance, the name has become a descriptor for operatically staged comic horrors. Indeed, in many of the reviews for stage productions of Quills, along with the film that was adapted by playwright Doug Wright, the Grand Guignol is name-checked to quantify the gleeful sordidness that characterizes the play. Those critics who praise this approach describe Quills using words like “wicked” and “delicious,” commending the play for its larger-than-life approach.

The majority of the detractors fall into two main categories: those who find the subject matter distasteful (particularly in light of the dark comic overtones) and those who fault the play’s historical accuracy. One of the main areas of contention in the latter area is the representation of the events of the life of the marquis. Quills, as written and performed, depicts a marquis of agile mind and a robust, feline sexuality. In actuality, the notorious writer was quite old at the time of the play’s action, with most of his scandalous (and well-known) writing behind him. His estranged wife, who figures prominently in Quills’s plot, was already far out of his life. Most importantly, the marquis died quite naturally, not subject to the murderous intents of Dr. Royer-Collard. Still, a perusal of Wright’s work (particularly his genre-bending first play, Interrogating the Nude) reveals that Wright is not trying to create documentary drama. Instead, the playwright’s goal is to fashion history as a kind of parallel to (and commentary upon) twentieth- and twenty-first-century issues. Quills is history as allegory, an impression of the past rather than a record of it.