Censorship is a powerful undercurrent throughout Quills. The conflict of the play revolves around the Marquis de Sade’s attempts to outwit the authorities of the Charenton Asylum and convey his dark, sexual writings to the outside world. In spite of this, the marquis never positions himself as an activist. He defends his writing purely on the basis of his own need to write it, not to pave the way for other scribes of erotica. Like Larry Flynt or Howard Stern, the marquis is an unlikely proponent of freedom of expression.
Sex functions in a similar thematic way: its presence is strong, yet elliptical. It is discussed and described in vivid detail, yet it rarely occurs in the play proper. The one scene that does depict sex presents it as a kind of necrophiliac fantasy when Coulmier’s lust for young Madeline is revealed after her death.
Most importantly, Quills is a play of veiled meanings and contradictory declarations. The marquis advocates sex as pain and pleasure, nothing more. Still, his undeniable emotional connections to Coulmier and especially to Madeleine are tangible throughout the play. The young Coulmier professes distaste for the kinds of corporal punishments the doctor deems necessary to maintain order in Charenton. Despite this, a darkness within him is slowly revealed over the course of the play. Most contradictory of all is Madeleine, who is presented as a kind of innocent, yet revels in the outrageous tales the marquis concocts. In Quills, or perhaps more specifically in Charenton, people are rarely who or what they profess to be.