Quills is a play about the last days of the Marquis de Sade, and it is a mind-wrenching look into the dark recesses of man's soul, Nietzsche's abyss, the "terrible beauty" that exists within it, and society's attempts to turn the common people away from it.
The play begins with the discovery that the Marquis (Floyd King), even while in the Charenton asylum on the outskirts of Paris, has been writing 1200 page tomes that depict the excesses of pornography, bestiality, and sadism, with dashes of nihilistic philosophy thrown in-between, in grosteque detail. This is partly due to the encouraging of the asylum's Director, the Abbè de Coulmier (Steven Dawn), who believes in rehabilation of the criminally-minded and that these writings serve to help the Marquis, rather than cause destruction. In 1806, seven years after Napolean consolidated his authority in France, Dr. Royer-Collard (Paul Morella) is appointed as the new Chief Physician at Charenton, and thus begins a clash of wills between the three main characters, the irreverant Marquis, the self-righeous de Coulmier, and the iron-fisted but insecure Royer-Collard. The chemistry between them is what playwright Doug Wright manages to bring to the forefront, producing a tale of irony, wit, and extreme philosophical insight.
There is little doubt that the Marquis was an articulate person for his position: he believed in a hedonistic anarchistic lifestyle where morals were arbitrary, and the issue of good and evil was purely subjective. There is also little doubt that the people controlling the lambs in society fear the mere existence of his words (and other like ones). The play, however, serves to show that speech, no matter what the methods used, cannot be supressed. In the end, the audience is left to ponder the question of who is really insane and depraved: the Marquis or his censors?
The play touches upon so many social issues that it's impossible to iterate them all here. The main focus is about censorship of speech and at no time during the entire presentation is there a convincing argument supporting the view that speech can be harmful. Even the death of the young seamstress Madeleine Leclerc (Mary Teresa Fortuna) at the hands of a vicious inmate aroused by the Marquis' tales is a strawman. Attempts at censorhip yield no positive results: cutting off the Marquis' various limbs only serves to make Coulmier the carrier of the Marquis' message.
It is a commonly held belief that would-be speech supressors seek to act the way they do because of their own fears and insecurities with regards to the speech, and they project what they have seen and experienced onto to the speech. Wright brings this aspect of censors elegantly to the forefront by depicting Coulmier and Royer-Collard, juxtaposted against the door of the Marquis' cell, interpret the most innocent of the Marquis' writings as pornographic and violent, projecting their own world-views onto the stories. Last, but not the least, the issue of what is good and evil is addressed when the Marquis' book is compared to the Bible and the question "which one tells the truth" is posed.
The performances are all excellent, and King, playing the most powerful character in the play, is almost overshadowed by Dawn and Morella. The set design also is of high quality, as Howard Shalwitz's direction (at the Woolly Mammoth theatre) brings out the powerful themes in this story in an appropriate manner. I think this is one of the most thought-provoking plays I've ever seen, both in terms of story and in terms of the acting and the set, and I highly recommend checking it out if you get a chance.
While the Marquis' story might not seem relevant to the current world, I recommend anyone interested in these issues to read the frightening case of Toni Marie Angeli. It is almost as if Royer-Collard and Coulmier exist within our midst.