The controversy arose when a new student theater group, called The Company, sought to mount a production of Doug Wright’s play Quills at GW. As Matthew Rist summarizes in the Hatchet: “‘Quills’ is an award-winning production set in 18th-century France that tells a fictional story of the last days of aristocrat Marquis de Sade, who was notorious for his pornographic novels and sadomasochism.”
In one scene, Quills contains full-frontal nudity, a matter student director Paul Rozenberg thought he had cleared with the proper administrators.
The Company’s production was set to open at GW on February 19, but earlier this month Rozenberg was informed by GW’s Student Activities Center that the production would not be able to be staged as intended. As Rist reports, the Student Activities Center demanded “immediate ideas on how to cut parts of the production” to eliminate the nude scene.
The reason Rozenberg was given for the proposed censorship—rather remarkably—was that the scene violated the District of Columbia’s obscenity laws. If so, that would be news to just about everyone in the D.C. theater community, including the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, a professional company which produced Quills in its 1996–1997 season. As Taryn Colberg-Staples, the Woolly Mammoth’s production manager, said in an e-mail to the Hatchet, “if such a thing existed or was enforced, most theaters in town could not do their productions.” (D.C. in fact does have an obscenity law, which among other things declares unlawful “the preparation or presentation of…any obscene, indecent, or filthy play, dance, motion picture, or other performance”, but Quills—even in its seamier moments—can hardly be said to meet this threshold.)
Fortunately, Rozenberg was able to convince the GW administration to allow The Company to present its production of Quills intact, citing the 1973 Supreme Court case Miller v. California, which defines “obscenity” as something more like hard core pornography, rather than mere nudity. The show will go on, though the dispute has resulted in the curtain being pushed back to May. In the meantime, FIRE—this theater degree-holding staffer included—is left to wonder what about Quills so tripped up the GW administration. Were the connotations of a play about the notorious libertine so incendiary that a nude scene became impermissible? Did they really want be in the position of censoring a play about a man whose controversial writings were the targets of censorship and led to his imprisonment?
As Rozenberg aptly says, “[i]nstitutions still manage to tell people you can’t read something and look at something, watch something. This show speaks directly to it.”