By Ryan Pfeffer
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After the priest has cut out the tongue of the Marquis de Sade, he presents the meaty organ to the asylum's caretaker encased in a black box. Handing it over he comments, "It was so long and serpentlike that I had to wrap it around a dowel." Well, I bet that got your attention. So will Quills, Doug Wright's 1995 play about the last days of the famous writer of pornography, which not only uses Sade's life story as a screed against censorship but also indulges in forbidden thrills of which the marquis would approve. Picture that tongue, then, while I tell you more about the play, which is being given a spellbinding production at Florida Stage.
Set in France in 1807, Quills imagines the last days of the writer, who is imprisoned in a mental hospital by his wife in hopes of curing his degenerate behavior. Sade so provokes his caretakers that they yank out what they perceive to be the source of his evil. Needless to say, the man who invents erotica involving donkey hide, needles and thread, and virgin's tears, to name just a few items that appear throughout Sade's stories, is not stopped by the loss of the fleshy appendage in his mouth.
Long before they mutilate him, the priest, one Abbe de Coulmier, and the caretaker, Dr. Royer-Collard, seek to silence Sade in other ways. They take away his pens (the quills of the title) and ink, but he uses wine to write on the sheets. Rather than annoy the laundress with this ploy, though, he actually makes a friend. Madelein comes to his cell each day, begging him to tell her another erotic tale. Through her we get to hear the first of several Sade stories woven into the script. These tales, we learn, make their way through the asylum and out into the town. In one instance one such fable is said to be "winding its way to Paris," so powerful and popular are the marquis' writings.
And provocative, too. The Church doesn't like them, nor does the government. Censorship is always a prickly issue, of course. In our times we've responded to unpopular ideas by refusing to fund those artists who generate so-called offensive material -- as in the recent efforts by conservative congressmen to curtail the NEA. But for those artists not living in a democracy, now or in the past, censorship takes or has taken more openly brutal forms. It's not long, in fact, before the doctor and the priest begin chopping off more of the marquis' body parts.
Ribald and bloody, hilarious and intelligent, Quills is a play of ideas, driving home the notion that you can't get rid of a text you don't like merely by destroying its author. The playwright lets its protagonist defend himself with words: "Are your convictions so fragile that mine cannot stand in opposition to them?" Sade demands of those who want to silence him. We're asked to consider who is to blame when a piece of art seems to instigate violence. If someone tries to walk on water and drowns, wonders the marquis, would we blame the Bible?
But Quills is also a play of images. Wright reaches back to theater's Grand Guignol roots to horrify and shock us. When one Sade story incites an asylumwide orgy that results in one character's murder, the asylum caretakers react with unmitigated vengeance. The resulting drama is a collection of gory sound effects, exquisite lighting, and arresting visual images that will stay with the audience and prolong the discussion long after the words fade. (Call it The Duchess of Malfi meets Jerry Falwell.)
What struck me -- after sitting through dozens of plays this past year in which hefty ideas show up only in the dialogue -- is that Wright is that rare contemporary playwright who understands that theater can be more than people parading in front of us and speaking. He would be gratified, I think, to see the Florida Stage production in which such would-be, off-stage effects as Sade's covering the walls of his cell with writing are magnificently rendered by Jim Fulton's topnotch lighting design. Allen D. Cornell's inventive set employs a turntable that depicts, on one side, Royer-Collard's office, and on the other, Sade's increasingly sparse living space. Above all, Louis Tyrrell directs with a fluid hand and a wicked sense of humor.
Thanks to William Metzo, who gives an intensely skillful and endearing performance as Sade, the play also thrives on its acting. Dialogue that might easily be thrown away -- as when the marquis uses affectionate-yet-naughty phrases ("Oh, pumpkin," "Oh, suckling") in his conversations with the priest -- become in Metzo's recitation a playful symbol of the marquis' gamesmanship. More Cary Grant than Larry Flynt, he plays the writer as a rogue who knows the public enjoys his stories for the same reasons he does. (They're fun.)
Did I say naughty? Maybe this is the time to mention that Metzo performs more than half the play in the buff. It's a tribute to the strength of his acting, however, that he seems more vulnerable for lack of a wig than because he's missing his pants. Partly because of Metzo's virtuoso performance, the play comes across as pro-Sade. The writer is more interesting than either of his two antagonists, stand-ins for the Church and the state.