Tortured Silence

Stages' latest offering is a production of Doug Wright's Quills, a polemic play clearly meant to argue in favor of one of the most rudimentary of American rights -- freedom of speech. In order to explore this seemingly simple argument -- for in principle, at least, most Americans believe in free speech -- Wright employs what could be a stunningly complex device: The central character of his play is an imprisoned Marquis de Sade, who is perhaps Western civilization's most infamous pornographer. Using de Sade to voice what many believe to be true about our rights to speak freely complicates the argument considerably. For the Marquis de Sade not only writes about all sorts of unusual and offensive sexual acts with all sorts of people (including children), the sexual acts he details include some of the most monstrous acts of torture and murder ever recorded. Women and girls (oftentimes pregnant) and boys have their tongues cut out, their hands cut off, their feet cut off, not to mention their clitorises and testicles; they get burned, hanged, whipped, knifed, kicked and stomped, just to name a few of the acts of torture listed in de Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom. And while all this torture is going on, dozens of men, most always very rich, are happily "frigging," "licking" and "discharging," as de Sade put it in the pages of his books.

De Sade (from whose name come the terms sadism and sadist) not only wrote about detestable acts, he also engaged in them: raping, flogging and poisoning (though not killing) women -- which brings up a question often asked (especially in today's world of media violence and sadistic song lyrics) concerning the relationship between the written word and action. Can words be held accountable for bad behavior? And if words are accountable, is there anything that a civil and democratic world can do about it?

In Quills, the Marquis de Sade, played with tremendous intelligence, wit and theatrical grace by William Hardy, has been locked away in the Charenton asylum because he authored "a tale so pornographic that it drove men to murder and women to miscarry." The asylum, in this production, is a beautifully frightening dungeon of a place, complete with iron-barred doors that rise up on chains, vicious-looking hanging cages and underground cells. The inmates chatter, chant and giggle off-stage; the lights are dim and damp and the whole world created is macabre, gothic and very creepy. De Sade spends his time in a cell with little to do, and as a result writes as furiously as he ever did when he was free. And his tales are still prurient, violent and horrific, much like the world he now occupies. Clearly, one of Wright's central points is that an asylum such as the one in which de Sade finds himself will do little to cure him of his "corrosive habits." In fact, it becomes a sort of muse for the horrifying behaviors he explores in his books. (In real life, de Sade started his writing career in prison and was terribly prolific each time he found himself there.)

Doctor Royer-Collard -- played by James Belcher with lots of over-the-top, frequently very funny, melodrama -- is determined to stop de Sade's writing. To that end, the doctor and his helper, Abbe de Coulmier (Jerry Miller), take away de Sade's paper and ink. Then, when the Marquis continues writing, using wine as ink and his bed sheets as paper, they strip him of those. Finally, when de Sade starts writing his stories across his clothing, they strip him literally. The tension that develops as each writing implement is taken away is beautifully torqued, so that toward the end of act one, the utterly naked but still writing de Sade becomes a sort of triumph of the human will to create and survive under the most terrible of circumstances -- that is, until something diabolical happens. The terrible and completely surprising turn of events (which I won't give away) ingeniously challenges every principle the play seems to have been promoting up until this point. Contrary to what has been said earlier in the play -- that stories are not real life and words are not real weapons -- it becomes clear that words can have profound and even irrevocable effects on the world into which they are hurled.

And thus comes the second half of the play's theme: Even if words do affect the world, what, if anything, can we do about it? Act two is devoted to the paradox that lies within language's tyrannical nature; that is, that when one silences diabolical and violent speech, one engages in the same sort of violence that the worst sort of speech promotes. And the silencer turns into the very thing he or she is afraid of. When the tender Abbe de Coulmier, whom Jerry Miller plays with a great deal of sympathy, is forced into silencing de Sade, he becomes everything that de Sade's novels imagine. De Coulmier cuts out de Sade's tongue to silence him; when that doesn't work, off come de Sade's hands and feet and, finally, his head, the real force behind all the terrible words. All these final images in the play come right out of de Sade's own writings. Clearly, we are meant to see that the silencer becomes that of which he is most afraid. In the end, the lights come down on a jailed de Coulmier begging for paper and a pen -- just like de Sade himself.

Though the point about silencing speech is one well worth making, Quills' second half feels forced, particularly in the writing. Even though the play borrows from the style of the Grand Guignol, a sort of Victorian precursor to old Hollywood horror flicks, and has a larger-than-life feel, the leap that Miller, as de Coulmier, must make from bleeding-heart to bloody murderer is too extreme and too unjustified to be fully successful. Also, it's an awful shame to have to silence William Hardy as de Sade. He's so good that the production loses a great deal of punch whenever he's not on-stage.

Still, Quills is a thoughtful play, and the first act is so stellar, and the acting so marvelous, and the set so ghoulish, that it makes the second act worth sitting through. Besides, if you don't see this production, you'll miss Sally Edmundson in one of the funniest performances I've seen in months.

Quills plays through November 16 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 52-

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Lee Williams