Back in springtime, before the dune roses were out, I noticed The Cotuit Center for the Arts was planning an October production of Doug Wright’s play, Quills, about the Marquis de Sade – if you aren’t familiar with his work, The Marquis is the man sadism was named for. I’d seen the excellent movie version (starring Geoffrey Rush), charting the increasingly extreme methods employed by an asylum doctor and a young priest to stop the Marquis penning his scandalously pornographic, violent brand of literature. It’s racy, compelling stuff.
Billed as ‘a provocative theatrical experience for mature audiences’ featuring graphic language, nudity, and, erm, ‘situations’, this was a refreshingly risky proposition for local theatre on Cape Cod, and I’d been looking forward to seeing if they could pull it off, so to speak. When I took my seat it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, because something told me this production had to be either be a gutsy hit or a cringe-worthy shambles.
I read somewhere that the state of suspense can cause terrible stress, so to alleviate that I’ll cut right to the chase with a theatrical cliché – the play is a triumph. Wright’s excellent and award-winning script was treated to a most engaging and effective staging, by turns bawdy, funny, dark, thought-provoking and surprising, with never a dull moment. As well as being thoroughly juicy, Quills is meditation on the nature of morality, art and hypocrisy, with wit, irony and contemporary relevance to spare.
If you are able to catch it in its final days, here are some of the more lurid treats in store:
The entire second act performed in the nude by the Marquis
A cacophony of lunatics echoing cries of ‘Succulent oyster, succulent oyster, succulent oyster…’ (this was the only moment that reminded me I was on Cape Cod)
A devil with three a three-pronged schlong
A killer ending
Fun and games aside, the play functions on two levels as a morality tale, one focusing on freedom of expression, oppression and the accountability of the artist, and the other centering on the idealistic Priest and his ultimate corruption.
This second tale is brought about by his weak-minded concessions to the manipulation of an unscrupulous authority figure, and calls to mind atrocities committed under the Nazi Regime and countless others, a phenomenon documented in the notorious 1960s Milgram Experiments on obedience to authority. We chart the naïve priest’s decline into inhuman cruelty and eventually insanity in the name of a cause, in this case God. As this once gentle man begins to relish acts of cruelty like a true Sadian protagonist, his moral disfigurement is revealed as a byproduct of the suppression of the darker impulses of his nature which the Marquis gives such free reign. Yes, it’s that old chestnut, where lies the true nature of humanity?
Where the play enters a discussion on art and censorship there are no easy answers, and when a crazed fan reenacts scenes from the Marquis’ fiction upon a flesh-and-blood victim there is no doubting that art has consequences. The Marquis himself is given a secret heart of gold and an irrepressible spirit, and though hinted at in the opening, his past atrocities are largely glossed over (he felt his blue blood gave him the right to murder those of lower castes for sheer pleasure). The intent here is not biographical but allegorical, so the nature of authorship and it’s relation to audience is rightfully given more weight than posthumous attempts at character evaluation.
The play makes the most of a small cast of characters, brought to life with solid performances and a florid delivery. Aside from the excellent Marquis we have the Doctor, trying to assuage his beautiful wife’s infidelity by building her a luxurious chateau, the architect he employs to spend his ever diminishing fortunes, and the Marquis’ wife. She literally holds the purse-strings here, longing desperately to walk down the street ‘without falling debris’, lose the moniker of Satan’s Bride, and become the toast of that ‘fickle mistress’ Parisian Society – all impossible as long as the Marquis continues to publish. There is also a nubile chambermaid who relishes the Marquis’ fiction after a hard day’s work, gleefully reveling in its wildest excesses alongside her mother (this lye-blind washerwoman remains an off-stage character as do the other lunatics that populate the asylum).
Perhaps most impressive was the staging, which made great use of the small space available, working in all three dimensions and employing excellent sound design to exploit the possibilities of suggested space off-stage. There was also clever use of lighting to emulate effects more common to the cinema such as split-screen and intercutting. Quills is presented in the gothic tradition of the Grand Guinol, the ghost-train of the theatre world, complete with mechanical rats.
There are several moments near the end of Quills which might make a suitable ending, but I was longing for it to go out with a bang I was not disappointed; the play satisfies with an unexpected and sensational climax, courtesy of effects director Richard Archer. Quills runs until October 23rd and is accompanied by an art exhibition, sadly little time remains to see it. Kudos to the cast and crew, the playwright and especially to those in charge of programming at the Cotuit Center for the Arts.
- Section 1, “Life of Sade” – Roland Barthes’ Short Biography of The Marquis de Sade (biblioklept.org)