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literature

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Wright, Doug (b. 1962)    
 
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Following the disappointment of Buzzsaw Berkeley, Wright moved to Los Angeles to work for the television producer Norman Lear, creator of such classic television comedies as All in the Family, Sanford and Son, and Maude, among many others. Wright's one-act play Dinosaurs (1988), a satire concerning an evangelist and a country-western singer who battle over the site of a dinosaur theme park, written while Wright was still a graduate student, had been brought to Lear's attention.

Lear offered the young playwright a three-year contract to work on television shows for his production company. Wright ultimately worked on four sitcoms for Lear, but none was produced.

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Wright struggled with the television sitcom format. As he later explained, "It's like writing a really rigorous poem. There are three acts and each has to fit into a seven-minute time frame. I couldn't stay interested in a character from week to week."

Writing a play, in comparison, Wright clarified, is like writing a cookbook. "It's giving a list of ingredients: who the characters are, where they move, what they say. You need other people to attempt to follow those instructions."

At the end of his three-year commitment, Wright's contract with Lear was not renewed.

Quills

Wright returned to New York and began working on what would eventually become his award-winning play Quills. The play concerns the Marquis de Sade's final years in the Charenton mental asylum located outside of Paris and the repeated attempts to suppress his incendiary writings.

Wright's interest in the Marquis de Sade began when his partner at the time, a psychiatrist, gave him a biography of Sade as a Christmas present. While his relationship with the psychiatrist did not last long, Wright's interest in Sade was overwhelming.

Upon finishing the biography, Wright immediately turned to Sade's own writings.

"This was the most toxic prose I had ever encountered," Wright declared, "beyond anything by our contemporary shock jocks. Liberal as I happen to be, it challenged my tenets about freedom of expression."

The writing of Quills was also fueled, Wright has explained, by the "culture wars" of the late 1980s and early 1990s, especially the outrage expressed by Jesse Helms (among other conservative politicians) over a retrospective of the works of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe that was sponsored, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

The controversy focused mainly on the gay sexual content of several of Mapplethorpe's photographs, although conservative leaders also found some of Mapplethorpe's portraits of African-American men "racist," and branded the nude studies of young children (both male and female) "child pornography."

Helms denounced the use of federal money to fund the Mapplethorpe exhibit and demanded that the NEA end its sponsorship of "morally reprehensible trash."

Ultimately in Quills, Wright presents the Marquis de Sade, as the writer Gerard Raymond has noted, "as a representative of artists everywhere whose work is silenced by moralists on behalf of the public good."

Quills was first presented off-Broadway in late 1995. Wright won a 1996 Village Voice Obie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Playwriting and the Kesselring Award for Best New American Play from the National Arts Club for Quills.

He went on to write the script for a film adaptation of his play, making his motion picture debut. The 2000 film, directed by Philip Kaufman, and with a cast that included Geoffrey Rush, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Caine, and Kate Winslet, was named Best Picture by the National Board of Review and nominated for three Academy Awards.

Wright's screenplay was also nominated for a Golden Globe Award, and he received the 2001 Paul Selvin Award, presented to the writer "whose script best embodies the spirit of the constitutional and civil rights and liberties which are indispensable to the survival of free writers everywhere," from the Writers Guild of America.

I Am My Own Wife

In 1990, before he had even begun work on Quills, Wright took a trip to Berlin. While there, he received a letter from his high school friend John Marks, who at the time was the U.S. News & World Report bureau chief in Germany.

"I've found a true character," Marks wrote. "She's way up your alley. (And, believe me, I use the term 'she' loosely.) I think she may well be the most singular, eccentric individual the Cold War ever birthed. Have I piqued your interest?"

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