I've always viewed artists as fundamentally transgressive. To be an artist is to step outside the dominant culture and to examine it with an unflinching eye. It is to risk censure and outrage by insisting that society assess itself critically.
To date, I've written three works based loosely on the lives of well-known artists. Quills recounts the imagined final days in the life of the Marquis de Sade; Interrogating the Nude attempts to reconstruct the creation of Marcel Duchamp's masterpiece, "Nude Descending a Staircase"; and a screenplay I am currently composing entitled Pebble Beach, Salvador Dali's first major American tour. Why am I compelled to write about these admittedly extravagant, even controversial personalities? And what do these three rather titanic subjects have in common? Each of these men viewed art as innately subversive. They perceived themselves not merely as painters or writers, offering diversion to an idle leisure class. Instead, they seized the day as cultural provocateurs. They believed--as do I--that if certain civilized institutions exist to support and condone the "status quo"--government, for example, or the church--then art must exist to challenge it.
After all, any truly worthwhile human idea--one with substance and truth--can withstand the occasional barbed play, or stylistically threatening canvas. I'm certain, for example that--in spite of its protests to the contrary--the Catholic Church will survive the recent television program "Nothing Sacred", just as it has survived Christopher Durang and Martin Scorsese. Usually, one has to worry more about the survival of the incendiary art more than one has to worry about the welfare of the institution under siege in that art. And--if art's target is a fair and vulnerable one--it can even bring about social change, as evidenced by Clifford Odet's work in the 1950's, or the Errol Morris excoriating documentary The Thin Blue Line, which led to the reversal of a death row conviction. I firmly believe art still has the capacity to initiate revolution, in the progressive sense of the word.
As such, no human construct should ever be elevated beyond art's firing range. No human appetite is too base, no idea so holy, no institution so revered that it should be spared art's scrutiny. At it's best, art can function in a society as its collective conscience. And such a conscience is useless unless it can operate unchecked. Propaganda provides answers; art should stimulate questions. Dali, Duchamp and de Sade did more than churn out pages of prose or canvas after canvas. They each took center stage in their own time as agitators, while--at the same time--revolutionizing their respective crafts. I hope to follow their example.
Quills received the 1995 Kesselring Prize for Best New American Play from the National Arts Club and a 1995 Village Voice Obie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Playwriting. After premiering at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in 1995 and debuting in New York at the New York Theatre Workshop (where Rent was born) Quills has received over 20 professional productions at theatres all over North America. Mr. Wright is currently completing the screenplay of Quills which will begin shooting this summer, produced by Fox Searchlight and directed by Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of being, Henry and June).
Some of his other plays include Interrogating the Nude, Watbanaland, The Stonewater Rapture, Dinosaurs, and a musical, Buzzsaw Berkeley with songs by Michael John LaChiusa. His work has been seen at the Yale Repertory Theatre, the VVTA Theater, Lincoln Center, Southcoast Repertory, the Mark Taper Foruin New Work Festival, and the McCarter Theatre among many others. Television credits include four pilots for producer Norman Lear and teleplays for Hallmark Entertainment and HBO. Film credits include screenplays for Fine Line, Fox Searchlight, and Dreamworks SKG. He is a recipient of the William L. Bradley Fellowship at Yale University, the Charles MacArthur Fellowship at the Eugene ONeill Theatre Center, an HBO Fellowship in playwriting and the Alfred Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University. He has a bachelor's degree from Yale University and M.F.A. from NYU and is a member of the Dramatists Guild and New York Theatre Workshop. He has taught playwriting at NYU and Princeton University.
In Quills we are introduced to the Marquis de Sade--pornographer, prisoner and philosopher. Donatien-Alphonse- Francois de Sade was born in Paris on June 2, 1740, the extremely spoiled son of nobility--who became a wild rogue. In 1763, he married Renee-Pelagie de Mentreuil in an exchange--his family's noble title for her family's wealth. His first major scandal occurred in 1768 when he sexually accosted and flogged a beggar woman. Although she was paid to drop the charges, Sade was imprisoned for impiety, as the events took place on Easter Sunday. More scandals ensued, Sade fled to exile and eventually wound up in prison--due to the efforts of his aristocratic in-laws. They wanted to keep their embarrassing black sheep penned. He was in prison on and off for 27 years.
It was in the prisons that Sade began the career that would become his legacy. A prolific and eloquent writer, he passed his time wielding his quill. His name became synonymous with sexual pleasure through pain (sadism) due to his infamous novels such as Justine and Juliette. Wildly excessive and wickedly funny scenes of sex and violence alternate with philosophical diatribes on the nature of man in stories that are brutal satires of society and mores.
He spent his final years at Charenton Asylum. The director, Abbe de Coulmier, became a friend, allowing him to open a theatre in the asylum--which quickly became all the rage for Parisian society to attend. A stern Dr. Royer-Collard did show up and spoil the fun, but Sade died from natural causes in 1814. Later his body was exhumed by scientists who believed the shape of a person's skull divulged personality traits. They found Sade's skull "a perfect human specimen similar in all points to that of a Father of the church."
Playwright Doug Wright suggests that Quills harkens back to the sensational stagecraft of the grand guignol. This style of theatre was born in Paris in 1897 at the Theatre of the Grand Guignol. It took popular newspaper accounts of blood lust, sexual conflict, murder, insanity, mutilation, and rape even further by presenting wildly entertaining live stage versions. Evenings ran in a repertoire--three shocking horrors and three risqué farces--to offer the audiences alternating emotional reactions, or "hot and cold showers". The success of shows was judged by a tally of "fainters"--the average of four people per night! Fake blood actually coagulated on stage, and real animal eyeballs were used for gouging scenes (they looked real and bounced well). The grotesqueries enacted were filled with black humor and melodramatic flair, intended to produce a healthy dose of chills and laughter.
By 1910 the Theatre of the Grand Guignol was Paris's best known tourist attraction. It reigned for another 52 years until closing in 1962, usurped by Hollywood's successful borrowing of its techniques (beginning with films like Dracula in the 30's) as well as the real life atrocities of the Nazis.
Grand Guignol's influences abound today--from Hollywood horror flicks to graphic TV dramas to the evening news. Think The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Pulp Fiction and even The X-Files. Sensationalized plots, inventive deaths and bawdy humor are still big sellers.
In Quills, we return to the highly-charged theatrical roots of Grand Guignol, complete with the shadowy lights, suspense, comedy, gory special effects and melodramatic acting style. Expect to delight in your fears and fear in your delights !