The Quill is Mightier Than the Sword

Chris Clark – The Vital Voice, July 22, 2014

Doug Wright won an Obie Award for outstanding achievement in playwriting and the Kesselring Award for Best New American Play from the National Arts Club for his play Quills.

He went on to write the screenplay adaptation (nominated for a Golden Globe) and the film was nominated for three Academy Awards. He also wrote the books for the Broadway productions of The Little Mermaid and Grey Gardens.

His play I Am My Own Wife won him a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony Award for Best Play, the Drama Desk Award, a GLAAD Media Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award, a Drama League Award and a Lucille Lortel Award. He currently lives in New York with his partner, singer/songwriter David Clement.

By his own admission, he wrote Quills in response to conservative opposition to the arts. He completed the play in the mid-1990s, on the heels of the very public battles over the “NEA Four.”

The case involved four performance artists whose National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grants were revoked based on the content of their pieces. The opposition to these government-funded grants let to countless debates about the borderline between art and obscenity.

While the NEA Four sued and eventually won the funds they were promised, the scandal reverberated throughout the artistic community and forever changed how the NEA granted monies.

Tell me a little bit about your origin story – where you grew up and when you came to terms with your own sexuality.

I was born and raised in Dallas, Texas; a place some people refer to as the veritable buckle on the Bible Belt. From an early age, I knew I didn’t exactly fit in with the locals. My father was an attorney and used to travel to New York on business.

He’d come home from these occasional trips, and hold me rapt with his stories of the “big city”: the theater, the restaurants and the sheer, heart-stopping scale of the place. I fell in love with it then, and earmarked it as my future home.

He also encouraged me to go beyond Texas for college; an Oklahoma boy, he’d taken advantage of the GI Bill after World War II to attend school at Harvard. It changed his life. I ended up going East, too, to Yale.

My years in college afforded me the opportunity to come out; Yale was a progressive place, with an active gay community and a general sense of acceptance. It was a far easier place to proclaim myself than the conservative Lone Star State.

Tell me about the times and circumstances that prompted you to write Quills.

A former flame gave me a copy of the Marquis de Sade’s biography for Christmas one year. I should’ve known then the relationship wouldn’t last!

He was a dear soul nonetheless, and in giving me the book, he gave me a tremendous gift: the subject for a play. At the time, the culture wars were just heating up.

Conservative politicians like Jesse Helms were calling for an end to the National Endowment for the Arts, because funds had been used to finance a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition of homoerotic photographs. I was eager to address issues of creative freedom and censorship, and Sade seemed like a very instructive subject.

Your sin-sational, provocative and compelling story of the infamous Marquis de Sade’s final days of incarceration is challenging to the audience in that he is a bit of an anti-hero. Why did you pick this particular character to drive forth your message?

He’s the original bad boy of western literature. Even now, his writing still vexes and confounds me; in one paragraph, it’s spirited and brilliant satire. In the next, it’s mendacious pornography.

I didn’t want to pick a literary figure whose legacy had already been conveniently determined. For example, folks found D.H. Lawrence borderline obscene in his own day, and regard his books as classics today. People are still fighting tooth and nail over Sade. That makes him a lively subject for drama.

Do you feel that the play would have been written substantially different in any way if you had been heterosexual instead of homosexual?

Oh, that’s almost impossible to imagine. If I weren’t gay, I’m not sure I’d even be a playwright. Isn’t it fascinating that such a disproportionately large number of gay men and women work in the arts?

I’m sure entire sociological tracts have been written about that phenomenon, but to be an artist, you need to be removed enough from the dominant culture to examine and critique it.

When I was growing up in Texas, there were so many seismic feelings and thoughts I could never publicly express, for fear of condemnation, so I developed a feverish and sometimes over-wrought imagination; one which serves me to this day.

Is the message of the ill-fated Marquis and the play any different in 2014 than when you originally wrote it almost 20 years ago?

I don’t think so. Censors are very busy little bees. If it’s not Republican politicians decrying Mapplethorpe, it’s conservative school boards yanking And Tango Makes Three off library shelves. People most threatened by provocative art are usually terrified of their own appetites and impulses.

Were you ever worried that pushing the buttons of the NEA and artistic other powers that be would have negative impact on your own career?

I’m not sure I ever thought in such grand terms. When I wrote Quills in 1995, I think I was far more worried about simply getting my plays produced than I was about defending them to zealots.

In your opinion, what is the responsibility of the artist after they create a piece of art that is considered by some to be inflammatory?

I do believe that an artist or writer can tackle any topic, no matter how ostensibly profane, distasteful or mortifying.

If an audience is going to willingly “step into the dark side” they need to be rewarded with genuine insight and the revelation of an original, startling truth; otherwise, you’re just yanking their collective chain.

Is there ever a point where art can go too far?

Sure. If it’s sensationalist without being insightful, I’m not sure it deserves to be called art.

What are you working on now?

I’m in the beautiful mountains of Utah, workshopping a new play at the Sundance Institute Theater Lab. It’s about the final portrait sitting of the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. He, too, was regarded as an incendiary writer in his day. I guess I’m drawn to provocateurs.

Quills will be presented locally by Max & Louie Productions at the Wool Studio Theatre A&E Building of the Jewish Community Center’s Staenberg Family Complex July 31 through August 17.

Doug Wright will appear in a post-show talkback with ACLU executive director Jeffrey Mittman after the Friday, August 1 performance and with Muny Executive Producer Mike Isaacson after the Saturday, August 2 performance. Tickets available at or Brown Paper Tickets at 800-838-3006.