A “troupe” of Yiddish theatre players in the Guthrie Theater production of Paula Vogel’s play Indecent, directed by Wendy C. Goldberg. Photo by Dan Norman.
Indecent is one of the most powerful plays I’ve seen on the Guthrie stage. It is beautiful. At times, it’s funny. At moments, it’s transfixing. It is also unbearably sad.
Indecent begins with an opening tableau in which we see a troupe of Jewish actors in their overcoats, standing in a long line. They reach into their pockets and bring out fistfuls of Ashes that they let drop on the floor. One man comes downstage, “Lemml” or “Lou” (Ben Cherry). He will be our “stage manager for the night”, and he has story to tell us, a story about a play. “I can’t remember how it ends,” he says, but he knows how it begins.
The plot of Indecent spans from 1906 to the mid-1950s. It is, in part, a play about a play. The play is Sholem Asch’s 1906 Yiddish-language drama, God of Vengeance. Until Indecent, God of Vengeance was remembered – if it was remembered at all – for being “the first Broadway play to feature a lesbian kiss”… and for its being shut down shortly after its opening in 1923 on charges of obscenity, with the arrest of its producer and entire cast.
God of Vengeance tells the story of a middle-aged Jewish couple who manage a brothel. Filled with guilt over his own transgressions, brothel owner Yekel seeks to make amends with God and the Jewish community by raising a chaste and pious daughter (an ethereal Miriam Schwartz). His daughter, however, falls in love with one of the prostitutes (Gisela Chipe, in a rich, delicate performance). When Yekel finds out about the relationship, he curses them both and vows to make his daughter work as a prostitute alongside her lover (in the original play, the girl’s mother rescues her from the brothel). That’s the play within the play.
By the time God of Vengeance was shut down in New York, it had already enjoyed great success throughout Europe (in Berlin, it was directed by the great Max Reinhardt). The play’s tender depiction of lesbian love may have seemed provocative to some European audiences, but not all; it would not have shocked the Weimar Berlin audience of that time, for example. Indeed, it wasn’t the play’s New York play – just before the scandal on Broadway, God of Vengeance had played for months in Yiddish on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, without incident. So what was it about the English-language production, or about Broadway, or the times or the particular artists involved, that precipitated the shutting down of the show and the obscenity indictments? What did the courts find to be so “indecent”?
“It wasn’t the kiss,” Asch (portrayed by Hugh Kennedy, in a forceful and emotionally truthful performance) reflects in the play. What then? Vogel unravels the complex history and factors and influences that fed into the prosecution.
Kennedy portrays the young Asch as a nervous firebrand who rebels against his great mentor I. L. Peretz (Robert Dorfman). In a beautifully understated performance, Dorfman captures the quiet reserve and dignity of the Peretz (the “Father of Yiddish Literature”), who advises Asch to burn his new play – not because it is bad, but because it would be “bad for the Jews.” There will be anti-Semites, the Peretz argues, who will take the “bad traits” of characters like Yekel to be characteristic of all Jews and exploit them to slander the Jewish people.
Asch will have none of it. Still in his early 20s, and with the burnish of a young artist’s pride, he insists that he will write for any audience he wants to. Jewish writers should not have to censor themselves just because there are anti-Semites. (As the real Asch later said in a letter to the obscenity trial’s judge: “Jews do not need to clear themselves before any one.”)
About that rain scene: when Asch’s wife (also played by Miriam Schwartz) first reads God of Vengeance, she can hardly contain her enthusiasm for the scene in which the two women confess their love. “My God, Sholem,” she says. “It’s all in there. The roots of all evil: the money, the subjugation of women, the false piety. You make me feel the desire between these two women is the purest, most chaste, most spiritual.” In fact, we hear about the “rain scene” at least a half a dozen times before we get to see it performed – twice – near the end of the play. When it finally arrives, it is striking how emotionally realistic this scene is compared to other bits and pieces of God of Vengeance that are shown to us.
It starts to rain, and what the two women do in response is to laugh, dance, and hold each other in the rain – and kiss. They are in the courtyard, at night, dressed only in white nightgowns. They are no longer “prostitute” and “chaste daughter”, the identities that the world imposes on them. The rain washes that away, and now they are Romeo and Juliet in the purity of their love. And the scene is stunning.
The production of God of Vengeance that appeared on Broadway was a radically “sanitized” version, one that excised the rain scene, and any representation of lesbian eroticism besides that kiss. The relationship between the two women in that version was depicted as one of exploitation. Rebecca Taichman, the co-creator Indecent, summarized the sanitized version of God of Vengeance as “Love disappears”.
Indecent is superb on many levels. One thing that sets it apart is that Vogel does not take the easy path; her play does not provide simple answers to the complex questions it raises. You do not leave the performance thinking that you have the right answer regarding artistic freedom, individual responsibility, or the solution to intolerance.
We are all against government censorship, but Vogel makes us consider the question of whether there might sometimes be occasions where our obligations to our community call for self-censorship. We all hope that art and narrative can bridge boundaries, and create greater acceptance for religious, racial, and sexual minorities. But what if art, at least some art, can do more harm than good? Consider the context when God of Vengeance was about to appear on Broadway: anti-Semitism was already at dangerous levels in much of Europe and parts of the United States (Henry Ford was publishing new Jewish conspiracy theories in his newspapers), and the American government was always on the verge of lowering the already-low U.S. immigration quotas at a time when escape from Europe was about to become a matter of life and death for whole communities. Like other hated minorities, Jews were accused of being sexually predatory or “aberrant” and the concern that God of Vengeance might add fuel for such accusations is not un-understandable.
It was in fact other Jews, led by Rabbi Joseph Silverman of Temple Emanuel (played here by Steven Epp), who acted to shut down God of Vengeance in 1923 out of fear that the play, misinterpreted, would further fan the flame of anti-Semitism. However, Silverman’s effort to protect his community only led to its opposite: the obscenity trial became a platform for negative views of the Jews. The judge who presided over the trial used the words “immoral” and” “alien” to describe the play. Both in real life and in Indecent, at the time of the prosecution, Asch did little to defend the play beyond writing a public letter. He was too upset about the pogroms in Russia (Kennedy is excellent in portraying the changes in Asch from his earlier idealism to his later dejection, resignation, and regret). Of course, things only got worse in Europe. When asked to authorize productions after World War II, he refused. In the play, Asch explains his refusal by saying that the audience for his plays – six million of them – is gone.
We see other issues relating to art and artists. The troupe of actors objected to how the play was altered for Broadway (true love becoming exploitation, etc.), but ultimately assented because it was a chance to be on a big stage. In Indecent, the women in the troupe who play the lovers in God of Vengeance are backstage lovers, but when one of them gets replaced in the show the other doesn’t leave with her.
Vogel’s wit is as sharp as ever and she seamlessly weaves moments of dark humor – and particularly Jewish ethnic humor – throughout the dramatic action. Schwartz’s character is sweet and Chipe’s is spicy – Chipe also gets some of the play’s best one liners. Those moments provide relief from the dark subject, but also allow the audience to sample the kind of humor that was lost when the Yiddish theater was destroyed. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set – the ghostly, skeletal remains of a once elegant, now ruined and empty theater — is itself a major artistic achievement. The lighting, the brown and black period costumes, and the terrific Klezmer music that accompanies the performance all work to evoke this same sense of “lostness”.
It seems misleading, if not a betrayal, to single out any one factor or any one person in a production that feels so integrated and complete. Suffice it to say that Director Wendy Goldberg is a masterful conductor, and every one of the artists involved in the project serves Vogel’s play with as much devotion as the “troupe” within Indecent gives to God of Vengeance.
“Art doesn’t unite,” Vogel has said. You can’t count on art to change the world – the renaissance of artists, especially Jewish artists, during the Weimar Republic was followed by the Third Reich. Vogel does not fob off, or settle for, sentimental bromides about art being redemptive, or the thing that can get us through dark times – there is no “getting through” the Lodz Ghetto. To tag on some artificial mode of transcendence would be in a sense to reproduce the erasure that the play consistently indicts. More often than not, art doesn’t triumph. In some ways, Indecent can be seen as a story about art’s impotence, or at least its frequent failure to change the world.
Lemml is still stage managing. “Ladies and gentlemen, we perform ‘God of Vengeance’ every day.” Cherry as Lemml seems driven, almost on fire, when he announces the play. Dark currents of anger pass over his face. The actors perform because they are artists and that is what artists do (thus Beckett’s “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”). The actors come together to perform the play, to perform the rain scene, not in joy, but in dignified defiance. They are doing the play in the original Yiddish once again. The two actresses, now emaciated, frail, and sickly, start to enact the love story. Suddenly, just for a moment, they are once again Romeo and Juliet, under the moon. They look up to the sky, and it rains, and we watch in pity and in awe.
Indecent plays at the Guthrie Theater through March 24, 2018.
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