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By his own admission, Doug Wright wrote Quills in response to conservative opposition to the arts. The play was completed in the mid-1990s, on the heels of the very public battles over the “NEA Four.” The case involved four performance artists whose National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grants were revoked based on the content of their pieces. The opposition to these government-funded grants let to countless debates about the borderline between art and obscenity. While the NEA Four sued and eventually were awarded the funds promised, the scandal forever changed how the NEA granted monies and reverberated throughout the artistic community.

In researching the Marquis de Sade, Wright found an apt parallel to these culture wars. After all, here is a character whose entire function in this play is to fight an establishment that seeks to suppress his artistic work. While at its heart Quills is a character study, the weapons these characters use to fight each other are ideas. The marquis represents no physical danger to anyone, even the young maid Madeleine. Yet when Coulmier’s ideas fail him in his contentions with the marquis, he uses physical means to suppress Sade. Indeed, the marquis’s perseverance despite the loss of writing instruments, his clothes, and ultimately his own body only underscores the ideological nature of the conflict. Despite the strong contributions of Madeleine and the doctor, the real fight is between the marquis and Coulmier. Despite the physical “treatments” used to quiet the marquis, it is Coulmier who ultimately changes, not the marquis. In Coulmier’s descent into madness and violence, Wright seems to suggest that anyone is capable of the atrocities committed in Quills and none of us are as far removed from the depravity of the Marquis de Sade as we would like to think.

Extended Summary

Act I
In the opening scene, Dr. Royer-Collard, the chief physician of the Charenton Asylum, is in the midst of a meeting with Monsieur Prioux, a well-regarded architect. Royer-Collard states his desire to have a house built and decorated according to his wife’s preferences. Prioux points out the extreme cost of such an undertaking, but the doctor brushes this aside. He explains that his wife has an adulterous nature, and he hopes a home designed to her every whim will keep her from straying again.

In the second scene Renee Pelagie bursts into the office demanding to speak with the doctor. After Prioux politely steps out, Pelagie bemoans the many hardships she encounters due to her estranged husband, the Marquis de Sade. She informs the doctor that the marquis still writes from his cell at Charenton, and the dispersal of these writings outside the asylum continues to blemish her reputation. The doctor counters that he will require additional funds to pay for the marquis’s tightened security. Reluctantly, Madame Pelagie obliges.

Scene 3 finds the doctor calling Abbe de Coulmier before him to interrogate him about his methods of disciplining the patients. Coulmier balks at torture and beatings, instead praising kindness as a means to rehabilitation. The doctor then shows Coulmier a manuscript the marquis wrote and surreptitiously smuggled out of the asylum while under Coulmier’s watch. At this point, we meet the marquis, who recites selections from the work, a tome about pedophilia amongst clergy. Coulmier is shocked and vows to work harder at restraining the marquis.

Scene 4 shifts to the cell of the marquis, as a laundress named Madeleine LeClerc begs the author for a new story. He agrees to provide it at the cost of one kiss per page. She agrees and earns quite a few pages. When the marquis pushes for more substantial rewards, she slaps him and leaves as Coulmier enters to talk to him. Scene 5 continues with Coulmier chastising de Sade for writing behind his back. He debates the marquis on both the literary merits and moral content of his writings. When the marquis refuses to relent, Coulmier orders his quills and paper to be...

(The entire section is 1,480 words.)