In 1974, Paula Vogel, then a 22-year-old graduate student at Cornell University, read Sholem Asch’s 1907 play Got fun Nekome (God of Vengeance) at the suggestion of her professor. Today, 43 years later, her play Indecent based on Asch’s play premieres on Broadway, directed by Rebecca Taichman who wrote her Yale thesis on the 1923 New York City obscenity trial that Asch’s play endured.
Indecent, which has four Lucille Lortel Award nominations (including for Best Play and Best Director) is as layered as this genesis suggests. It examines and extrapolates from the original iteration of Asch’s play—94 years after God of Vengeance premiered on Broadway at the Apollo Theater—and what made it so controversial: a lesbian kiss decried as indecent at the time.
The play, for Vogel and Taichman who created it together, is an interrogation of the many definitions and interpretations of “indecency.”
It is about the indecent attacks on free expression, and it is about the horrific indecency of fascism, as those performing the play in the Polish ghetto in the 1940s are rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Indecent reaches Broadway after productions at Yale Repertory Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, and the Vineyard Theatre off-Broadway last year.
Throughout Indecent “blinks in time” both freeze the action, and link it to another moment. The actors on stage play many roles, and all do so with aplomb. Only one, Richard Topol as Lemml, the loyal and idealistic stage manager of the original 1907 production, stays static in our eyes. Matt Darriau, Lisa Gutkin, and Aaron Halva play a variety of instruments—among them the clarinet, violin, and accordion—and weave around the actors, underscoring how central music has been to Jewish history and its telling. This is a piece of theater about theater.
Vogel was amazed, she writes in Indecent’s Playbill program, that such a play with a positive lesbian love theme existed at all. The key scene in God of Vengeance features two women “marrying” (one of them adopting the guise of the groom, this so long before the vista of marriage equality) and a lovely kiss in refreshing rain.
The pulp novels of lesbian life Vogel had found as a young woman featured protagonists “crying to heaven: why can’t I be normal?” Or women returning to husbands, or killing themselves. Picking up God of Vengeance, “I couldn’t put the play down. A young married man, Sholem Asch, wrote this love scene between two women in 1907?”
The wonder of that moment, and then the wonder of performing that moment, becomes a central moment of Indecent. We see how Asch is rejected by his artistic fellows for wanting to make such a controversial play. He is resolute that art should be challenging, but I.L. Peretz, the founding father of modern Jewish literature, tells him: “You are pouring petrol on the flames of anti-Semitism. This is not the time.” He says Asch should not take the play into the wider world, but for Asch that is the whole point of art.
Peretz tells the playwright to burn “this hateful play.” Asch dissents. “How do we as artists question our sins in front of a greater audience?” he asks. “How do we as Jews show ourselves as flawed and complex human beings?
The play is performed way “outside the tent” in St. Petersburg, Berlin, Moscow—and many other places besides, like Constantinople and Bratislava—and Taichman has a lot of fun remounting over and over again the key scene of Yankl, the father in Asch’s play, discovering his daughter Rifkele’s illicit secret, and threatening to bring a Torah down upon her head.
We also see Rifkele and Manke, one of the prostitutes in the brothel that Yankl owns (“indecent” can also refer to his hypocrisy over sexual propriety), fall in love with each other.
Asch’s wife, Madj, stands square behind him as he struggles to get the play produced. “It’s all in there,” she says, having read the play. “The roots of all evil: the money, the subjugation of women, the false piety… the terrifying violence of that father… and then oh Sholem, the two girls in the rain scene! My god, the poetry in it—what is it about your writing that makes me hold my breath? You make me feel the desire between these two women is the purest, most chaste, most spiritual…”
Indecent can feel a little cluttered in its staging. Actors scurry this way and that. It is not always clear who is who, and who is speaking. Yiddish when spoken and sung has a translation projected on to the back wall. This uneven structure and pace can feel a little like casting an eye over a dense thesis with too many footnotes.
But Indecent’s roving eye, its busy-ness, its insistence to be about everything—homophobia, censorship, freedom of expression, tyranny—is as fascinating and genuine as it can be frustrating to watch. In New York in the early 1920s, the lesbian themes of the play migrate to a real-life affair between the actresses playing them—with not even one of them suffering a bed-bug infestation dampening their ardor.
GOV’s prosecution in New York is too-briefly captured: that much-repeated, excitable scene of the father holding the Torah above the daughter’s head, is interrupted by a policeman patiently waiting to stop proceedings.
That the play was prosecuted at all is never fully explained: Its producers in New York had stripped it of its overtly lesbian content, and instead made both women prostitutes (one the pimp of the other). Even without the lesbian content, this was presumably enough to have it prosecuted, and eventually found guilty, of “presenting an immoral performance.”
The increase in anti-Jewish prejudice in the U.S. at that time made the producers meeker in their intention to shock. Asch, living quietly on Staten Island, “signed the contract with the same hand that cashed the check.” The blunting of Asch’s radicalism is not made clear—perhaps it came through his own immigrant’s fear of being targeted or attacked.
As one character says, “Among the intelligentsia lesbians sell tickets. Uptown, for Mr. and Mrs. Smith, prostitutes in a brothel is all the excitement they can take.”
Indecent’s program is one of the most fascinating Playbills about a current production, charting the history, through the 1920s, of a rise in immigration panic (with laws such as the National Origins Act and Asian Exclusion Act), alongside greater censorious legislation, such as the Wales Padlock Law in 1926, prohibiting plays “dealing with the subject of sex degeneracy or perversion.” That law would not be declared unconstitutional until 1976.
Indecent’s own darting focus doesn’t take time to illustrate such specifics—and it might benefit from doing so, because unless your specialism is the history that is so familiar to Vogel and Taichman you may find yourself a little lost. The characters are too much tellers of direct history, or voices of glancing opinion, rather than characters we really get to know.
Asch stays in America, and in a moving sequence Vogel imagines him at his desk, as actors in the Lodz Ghetto in Poland in the early 1940s, terrified of being discovered yet determined to perform the play, do so surreptitiously, scared of every sound from outside.
We also hear their letters to him, and others, asking for help, and full of their own plans for desperate escape. The last performance we see of Asch’s play is in an attic: the performance of art the last defiant statement of strength against fear and persecution.
As those same actors stand in line at what we assume to be a concentration camp, we hear a lullaby. It is not made clear to the audience, but in the play’s script we learn that “Wiegala” was written by Ilse Weber, a children’s hospital nurse. “She sang this lullaby for the children in the wards. When it came time for the children to be transported to Auschwitz, Ilse Weber volunteered to go with them. It is said she sang this song in line to the chambers.”
Vogel imagines an audacious and successful escape by the two women who play Rifkele and Manke, or perhaps it is what Lemml, making a last wish, imagines for the characters themselves. Indecent continues in the 1950s—and Asch steadfastly refusing for his play to be performed in an America, now under McCarthy’s culture-squashing boot. Asch, a battered figure by now, wants the play to burn as he was once instructed to burn it.
But it lives on, both in its original form, and in Vogel’s play. Indecent’s final scene, using a stunning, showery piece of stage-craft also used in plays including Sam Gold’s production of The Glass Menagerie, imagines God of Vengeance’s final rain scene—which has not been performed yet in Indecent—played out joyously, and in Yiddish, for Rifkele and Manke.
This reporter, reminded of what Vogel had said in the program of that relentless litany of fictional lesbians killing themselves or being unhappy, wondered if she had imagined a resolutely un-deathly end for Asch’s lesbian couple.
That defiance and belief Asch had when he wrote God of Vengeance, of the confrontational nourishment of art, of same-sex love portrayed at its most natural, is also held by Vogel. At a time, she writes in the program, of increasing xenophobia, homophobia, and anti-Semitism, it is important to not only “reclaim the importance of our arts and culture,” but also for theater “to wound our memory so we can remember… Theatre is living memory.”
Indecent is at the Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th St., NYC. Book tickets, to Sept. 10, here.