The Marquis de Sade—a brilliant, possibly mad writer of edgy erotica. Both passionate and petulant, he is a contrary figure who manipulates everyone inside and outside the asylum.
Abbe de Coulmier—a naïf given the unlikely task of taming the marquis, halting his incendiary writings, and encouraging him to embrace a new morality.
Dr. Royer-Collard—in charge of the Charenton Asylum, he seeks order at any cost, including torture. The doctor is a man for whom reputation and appearances mean everything.
Renee Pelagie—the disgruntled wife of the marquis who seeks to silence her husband in order to restore her sullied name.
Madeleine LeClerc—a cleaning woman working at Charenton alongside her blind mother. She delights in the marquis’s sordid tales.
Monsieur Prioux—a renowned architect in charge of remodeling the doctor’s house to meet the desires of the doctor’s wife.
A lunatic—an imposing Charenton resident who is heard but not seen.
The Marquis de Sade was a real person, and a notorious one at that, so the playwright is faced with a unique challenge in depicting him. We, the audience, are obviously meant to be repulsed by some of his ideas, but at the same time we must root for him in his struggles against the authorities of Charenton. To accomplish this, Wright imbues the marquis with an almost childish sense of mischief. In many of his exchanges with Coulmier, it seems as if he is more interested in the outrage he provokes than the material he writes. This is born out of a need for dramatic irony rather than historical accuracy. If the marquis comes across as too evil, too sick, or too heartless, the audience’s sympathies will fall with the establishment instead of the rebel.
The second tool that Wright uses to maintain this balance is pathos. Despite his bravado and ingenuity, there is a pervasive undercurrent of desperation about the marquis’s actions, as if being provocative is all he has left. In many ways, Wright’s marquis is the equivalent of an aging rock star who lives in fear of his coolness ebbing away. Trading stories for Madeleine’s kisses, the marquis intends to come off salacious, but the need for affection and human contact underscores his advances. The hypocrisy of his persona in relation to his true feelings is shown when he openly grieves Madeleine’s death in front of Coulmier, who notes that he is human despite his apparent misanthropy.
The marquis may be the most famous character in Quills, but the play belongs to Abbe de Coulmier because his character changes the most. The doctor and the marquis remain mostly rooted in their ways from the beginning of the play to the end. Yet Coulmier is in a constant state of torment due to his dealings with them. It is his character that ultimately takes the longest and darkest journey.
The real question at the heart of Quills is whether Coulmier is an innocent who is corrupted or an inherent sadist whose true nature is revealed through the events of the play. At the beginning of the play, he hails the virtues of mercy, prayer, and forgiveness.
By the play’s finale, he has sunk to depths lower than even the marquis himself. Wright wisely leaves the root of Coulmier’s character somewhat...
(The entire section is 948 words.)