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19.8.10

Quills

by Doug Wright

This seems to me to be the perfect play to perform for Halloween.

Is it a bad sign that many, many quotes from this play spoke to me?

Quills is about the Marquis de Sade - the foulest man in France. It takes place mostly in the prison (asylum) where the Marquis resides. It is the story of the slow destruction of a man, or more specifically a man's art. The people in charge of the asylum disapprove of the nature of the Marquis' stories and attempt to silence him in many ways. The Marquis' wife, who is shunned by society, yet still hopelessly in love with her husband visits the doctor to discuss her husband's care. She is informed that they feel that if he writes his stories down then he will be cured of his evil nature, purging his thoughts on to paper. She is surprised by this method:
I had no idea that art offered salvation from madness. I was of the opinion that most artists are, themselves, quite deranged.
Har. Har. Alas, how wrong the doctors were. The Marquis' prose does not become more and more reserved, as his jailers had hoped. Instead, they become bawdier. He writes tales of religious men turned depraved, saying:
What evils a man can commit when reason demurs to lust!
The only ounce of purity in his devilish life comes in the form of his seamstress, Madeleine. He loves her, not with brute force as he has no doubt in the past, but from the heart. She tells him:
Some things belong on paper, others in life. It's a blessed fool who can't tell the difference.
That being said, she and her mother heartily enjoy his tales of debauchery. Even taking it upon themselves to act them out in their free time. Eventually the Abbe of the asylum has had enough. He comes to confiscate the Marquis' paper and books, realizing that what he thought would cure this man has only made things worse. The Marquis is outraged and makes a convincing argument:
Must we record only those phenomena that ennoble us as creatures? What unites us, my precious? Common language? A universal God? Shared codes of law and conduct? No. These vary from one population to the next. Fads and habits, nothing more! Did you know, heavenly man, that in France a husband with six wives would be executed, while in darkest Borneo that same man would be crowned king? ... Primal desire - that's unchanging!
The Abbe is not swayed from his mission, however. He instructs the Marquis to read to pass the time, jibing:
A writer who produces more than he reads - the sure mark of an amateur. 
The Marquis, being without paper, pen or ink, resorts to writing on the bed linens in wine. Outraged, the Abbe and head doctor decide that more drastic measures must be taken to silence his wit. The Abbe, being a religious man, is hesitant to use violence but ultimately accepts:
And so he learns to fear punishment, rather than to pursue virtue for its own reward.
You'd think that they would realize that the Marquis is exactly the kind of guy who'd totally dig his own torture. I mean, sure it hurts, but to him it hurts so good. His motto:
In conditions of adversity, the artist thrives.
They strip his room of all linens and curtains, cut him off of wine, and de-bone his meat so that he will have nothing to fashion into a writing utensil. This doesn't stop the Marquis! He pricks his fingers and writes his stories on his clothes in his own blood. Madeleine, who does the laundry, discovers the chapters and when questioned by the Abbe about them, says:
Some men aren't mad at all. We only think them so, because their genius so far exceeds our own.
The Abbe then strips the Marquis of all his clothing, angered more and more at his continual failure to prevent the Marquis from writing. The Marquis is delighted at how effective his writing is. He thrills at the rise that it provokes in the Abbe. When the Abbe thunders at him that he will no longer write even his own name he responds:
Tsk, tsk, tsk. Are your convictions so fragile that mine cannot stand in opposition to them? is your God so illusory that the presence of my Devil reveals His insufficiency? Oh, for shame!
Now, with truly nothing left with to write, the Marquis resort to whispering his stories through the cells from one lunatic to another in the hopes that Madeleine will hear them and put them down on paper. His idea has catastrophic results when one madman, inspired by the Marquis' tale, kills Madeleine. This hits the Marquis deeply and it is the one vulnerable moment in the show.

The Abbe realizes that the time has come to do what he dreads. He cuts out the Marquis' tongue. Then he cuts off his fingers and toes. The doctor is concerned that the one thing they haven't cut off is his brain activity. The Marquis can still create, even if he has no way to express it, and therefore is not cured. The Abbe says:
I dare say, Doctor, we can't control his thoughts. We can only mute their expression.
Then he catches on that the doctor wants to kill the Marquis. The Abbe refuses, saying:
Violence in pursuit of pleasure is one thing. In pursuit of Justice it's another. 
But ultimately he succumbs and cuts off the Marquis' head. And to his own terror he discovers that he felt pleasure when committing these acts of violence. With the death of the Marquis, the men feel they are safe, and society is safe. But not even death can stop the devilish writer. His fingers, toes, and head, all in separate boxes, wriggle to life in the final image of the play, and we hear the Marquis' voice as he constructs his next tale.

It is a wonderfully horrific tale of murder, depravity, and love, which borders on the absurd. I saw the movie a few years ago and remember loving it, but I think I like the stage version even better. There are some moments that are just more powerful when seen in live performance. Those almost magical elements that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Then there are the moments where you think, how the hell are they gonna stage that?

Monday Play-a-day: Five Women Wearing the Same Dress by Alan Ball

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