‘Quills’ by Doug Wright, a play performed at the New Repertory Theater, Newton, MA
January 30, 2005
pt at large scored a ticket to the sold out play ‘Quills’ at the New Repertory Theater in Newton, MA, thinking he would see a spirited clash of good versus evil. The Marquis de Sade universally known as the king of kink, the prince of pain in pursuit of pleasure, and a man driven to describe his passions in purple prose, had been incarcerated in a French lunatic asylum, Charenton, the play’s setting in 1807, for doing so.
The play’s two acts pit his jailor, the Abbé de Coulmier, against the marquis. In the struggle to prevent de Sade from writing his sexually explicit and taboo shattering stories, Coulmier degenerates from a compassionate warden to a tyrannically brutal captor, all in the name of morality. “Angels and devils inhabit the same soul,” he says as he describes his struggle with the Marquis. Who is creating the greater moral atrocity, the jailor or the writer?
The play’s creator, Doug Wright, has said, “People we view as extreme or eccentric actually possess all our qualities distilled”. Thus we witness de Sade driven to freely push the limits of his art with his writing and Coulmier responding with ever increasing repression to curb it. The result is disturbingly bloody, with both men destroyed in the process of serving their ideals.
Pornography, freedom of speech, and art are set in tension with the dialogue. When questioned by her complicity in spiriting de Sade’s writing to the outside world, a washerwoman declares, “His stories allow me to be the bad woman on the page and the good woman in life.” As an occasional reader of smut, pt at large must concur with this observation from the x chromosome side of the divide.
When the washerwoman meets a bloody demise when a deranged inmate reenacts one of de Sade’s stories upon her, de Sade cries, “Who is responsible for the viewer’s response to my art?” Although most of us mortals live well within the bounds morality’s pale, we can feel the resonance the question poses.
The play’s central tensions were often diluted by gratingly overwrought acting. Pivotal scenes were reduced to camp. Director Rick Lombardo’s attempt to question individual rights, the nature of madness, and censorship are as germane as ever but are bled dry by his overly theatric production. Thus, a good play lost its e”quill’ibrium.