Now known as the Esquirol Hospital, the Charenton Asylum was founded in 1645, approximately 150 years prior to the Marquis de Sade’s arrival. Throughout its more than 350-year history, it has seen many changes in France, yet its most notorious resident still may be the marquis. Quills is far from the first work to dramatize the events surrounding the notorious writer’s incarceration. Perhaps the most famous work before it was The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, often simply abbreviated as Marat/Sade. The production was groundbreaking in its environmental approach to the play, which placed the audience “inside” Charenton and often in direct contact with the inmates.

In Quills, Doug Wright adopts a very different approach. The other inmates are not seen (and, save for the lunatic at the end of Act I, remain unheard as well). The play also restricts the setting almost exclusively to two specific locations within Charenton: Dr. Royer-Collard’s office and the marquis’s cell. The laundry room is glimpsed only insomuch as we see Madeleine hanging from its rafters, and the room where Coulmier prays over Madeleine’s body exists almost in a kind of dream world. In doing this, Wright makes it clear that his purposes for examining this period of history are very different. In essence, Wright provides the audience with two centers of power. Royer-Collard’s office is a kind of establishment stronghold, wherein orders are handed down to Coulmier and Madeline, among others. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the marquis’s cell represents chaos, depravity, and, quite pointedly, freedom.

Structurally, Wright mostly alternates scenes between those two locations as Royer-Collard makes orders within his office that are then carried out in the marquis’s cell. Ironically, it is the doctor’s office,...

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Quills Performance Suggestions

Quills consists of twenty-five scenes, some of which are less than a page long. Though it is restricted to a few locations within Charenton, the play demands a design that allows for quick transitions. In addition, the play is built upon intellectual sparring rather than spectacle, which lends itself to a more intimate staging. A three-quarter thrust stage, which extends into the audience on three sides, would allow the audience to remain close to the action and heighten their discomfort during the more disturbing moments of the play. The doctor’s office scenes might be played at the back of the thrust, away from the audience, while the marquis’s cell could occupy the area closest to the audience. This staging would reflect the tonal differences in the two locations: the truly emotional scenes happen in the marquis’s cell while those in the doctor’s office are appropriately aloof, removed from the realities of the inmates of Charenton. Multilevel staging might also be useful in the scenes where Madeleine’s body is revealed and the marquis appears as a kind of Christ figure.

The performers face unique challenges in this play. For an American cast, the question of accents presents an obstacle. For many audiences, the flat American accent would create a disjunction with a period piece set in France. Often, though it makes little sense, many American productions adopt English accents (regardless of the play’s time or location) as a generic convention to suggest period. Casting the four main roles (the marquis, the doctor, Coulmier, and Madeleine) is crucial to a production’s success. The marquis must be an actor who can be simultaneously charming and loathsome. The actor playing Coulmier needs to be able to communicate the character’s inner torment. For Madeleine, the actress must project vulnerability and innocence, but also intelligence. The wild card in any production of Quills is the doctor. If he is played as simply a boorish bureaucrat, then Coulmier’s descent into madness is largely his own doing. If the doctor is a truly malevolent figure, he becomes the villain of Quills, and both Coulmier and the marquis are his victims.

Ultimately, any director approaching this play must synergize the design and performance elements in a way that evokes the dark, comic world of the play. The pacing should be sharp but should also allow for the moments of genuine feeling that Wright has included.

Quills Bibliography

Brodie, John. 1997. “Hollywood Has a Rage for the Stage.” Variety 365 (January 6): 69(2). An article about stage plays adapted to film, with a particular focus on Quills and the unique challenges facing Doug Wright in translating his work.

Hecht, Randy B. 2007. “A Tony Winner’s Heart-to-Heart on Mermaids, Cross-Dressing, and His Major Hotel Fetish.” Variety 990 (August 14): S34. An interview with playwright Doug Wright.

Landesman, Cosmo. 2001. “Missing the marquis; film.” Sunday Times, December 21, p. 6. A review of the film adaptation of Quills, which contains both praise (for some of the performances and stylistic flourishes) as well as criticism (primarily regarding historical inaccuracies).

Wright, Doug. 2005. Quills and Other Plays. New York: Faber & Faber. In addition to the plays themselves, the text also includes an introduction penned by Wright. In it, he discusses his writing style, point of view, and the inspirations for writing Quills.