March 6, 1923. The Apollo Theater, New York City. On stage is an English-language version of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, a provocative play set in a Jewish-owned brothel in Poland.
A success in Europe and Off-Broadway, the play’s Apollo run on Broadway is rattled when vice squad police appear backstage. They inform the producer, managers, and cast members that they’ve been indicted for participating in an “indecent, immoral, and impure theatrical performance” and must appear in court the next day. Later, at trial, all 13 individuals are found guilty on charges of obscenity.
This fascinating historical tale of artistic aspiration and condemnation fuels Paula Vogel’s 2017 Tony Award-nominated play, Indecent. Directed by local theater artist Sheila Daniels, it comes to the Seattle Repertory Theatre from September 20 through October 26.
Censorship, anti-Semitism, homophobia, religiosity, the aspirations of immigrants, and the impact of meaningful theater are among the many strands woven into Vogel’s richly textured script. Performed with klezmer music, choreography, slide projections, and occasional Yiddish-to-English subtitles, Indecent envisions the creation of God of Vengeance in 1906. It also dramatizes how the Broadway company coped with the censorship charges and shifts forward several decades to a poignant, real-life staging of the play in the Jewish ghetto of Nazi-occupied Lodz, Poland, in the 1940s.
Asch’s most unusual play for its time, originally in Yiddish, has inspired a modern odyssey for Vogel. She spent years writing Indecent, a “play within a play” that had its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2015 and went on to Off-Broadway and Broadway runs. It has been broadcast on PBS and widely praised as a work that, according to the Los Angeles Times, “reminds us of the power of art to tell us truths long before we are able to recognize them as such.”
Vogel wasn’t raised in a religious home, but she began to delve into Jewish history and Yiddish literature in graduate school at Cornell University in the early 1970s. “I was 22 and coming out as a lesbian, and one of my professors told me I should read God of Vengeance,” recalls Vogel, who is now 68 and has taught playwriting at Brown University and Yale University.
She found the play striking in its prescient boldness. It unveiled the hypocrisy of Yankel, the brothel owner who oppresses and exploits young women for gain, but who hopes to redeem himself as a worthy Jew and secure a good match for his daughter Rifkele by commissioning a new Torah. What he doesn’t bargain for is the lonely Rifkele’s growing infatuation with one of his prostitutes, Manke, who warmly returns her affections.
A scene where the two women tenderly kiss was considered scandalous in the early 1900s. Asch was a rising Yiddish literary star in Poland when he penned the play, and as Indecent shows, he was advised by literary luminary I.L. Peretz to burn the provocative script. But God of Vengeance was presented and well received (in Yiddish and German) throughout Europe for more than a decade before its US premiere in 1922 at Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, where it was performed in English without incident. However, once it hit Broadway, complaints rolled in. Rabbi Joseph Silverman, the head of New York’s prestigious Temple Emanu-El, largely led the campaign against the play, arguing that it would foment mounting anti-Semitism by “libeling” Jews as unsavory and indecent.
God of Vengeance didn’t land on Vogel’s radar again until more than 30 years after her initial reading, when she was approached by innovative director Rebecca Taichman. Taichman had done research into the play’s history and encouraged Vogel to write about its censorship trial. (The guilty verdict was eventually overturned on appeal.)
“I was interested in the censorship aspect,” Vogel explains, “but after several attempts to focus on the court transcripts, I decided the trial didn’t belong in my play.” What arose for Vogel was a mental picture “of dusty characters in an attic room rising from the dust to perform God of Vengeance. I knew it was the 1940s, and it was Poland. Forty drafts later, there was my play.”
Though Indecent was nominated for a 2017 Tony for Best Play (an award that went to Oslo, which came to ACT last year and was covered in the August-September 2018 issue of this magazine), the Broadway version collected Tonys for Taichman’s direction and Christopher Akerlind’s lighting. Since then, it has been staged in several major US cities. “Our dream is to tour it in Eastern Europe, to someday take it to Moscow, Odessa, Warsaw,” Vogel says.
Vogel hopes that wherever it is presented, the play will convey that love is love, whomever it touches. “There’s always been love between two women, and there was a young man who saw it as beautiful and wrote this revolutionary play about it.”
Indecent, starring local actors Andi Alhadeff, Julie Briskman, and Nathaniel Tenenbaum, runs September 20–October 26 at Seattle Rep. seattlerep.org