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.