Aside from the threat of physical violence, few prospects have occasioned as much anxiety in American Jews than that of being “a shande far di goyim” — being shamed in front of non-Jews. Imagine the risk, then, that playwright Sholem Asch ran when his melodramatic 1907 play, “God of Vengeance,” about the lesbian relationship between two Jewish women — one the daughter of a brothel owner and the other a prostitute in her father’s employ —opened on Broadway in 1923.
Provoking the ire of both Jewish leaders and municipal authorities, the controversial production didn’t take long to land its producer, along with its 12-member cast, in jail on obscenity charges — charges that led to conviction and to the closing of the play.
Now comes “Indecent,” a new Off-Broadway play with music based on “God of Vengeance” and its aftermath. Written by Paula Vogel (who won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1997 play about sexual abuse, “How I Learned to Drive”), “Indecent” provides an imaginative backstage glimpse into the politics of both the original production of the play and some of its subsequent productions. And even as Jews have become acculturated and homosexuality has become more accepted, that glimpse back shows how the play still resonates almost a century after its Broadway premier Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva wrote the klezmer-style music.
“God of Vengeance” has been rediscovered in the last few decades; it features prominently in Alisa Solomon’s first book, “Redressing the Canon” (Routledge, 1997), was retranslated and restaged by Irish actress Caraid O’Brien in 2002 (and staged by her in a multi-mirrored former sex club near Times Square), and was then adapted and republished by playwright Donald Margulies in 2003. It was last produced in New York by the Marvell Rep in 2012.
Rebecca Taichman, who directs “Indecent,” conceived the idea for the play when she was studying at the Yale Drama School and realized that the transcripts of the obscenity trial were housed in the Yale Law Library; moreover, she found Asch’s own manuscripts and memorabilia in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book Room. Taichman, who grew up in Brooklyn with a Yiddish-speaking grandfather, told The Jewish Week that the play is a “lens to look at a swath of history” that began with the immigration restrictions of the early 1920s, when Jews were the victims of intense prejudice, and concluded in the 1950s, when Jews were again on the hot seat for their alleged Communist sympathies.
In Taichman’s staging, scenes from “God of Vengeance” are re-enacted from different angles, showing how the play’s most provocative incidents, including a lesbian kiss and the desecration of a Torah scroll (it was actually the latter that most offended the judge in the obscenity case), have different cultural meanings in different eras and locales. Taichman views the original production, at a time when Yiddish plays were first beginning to be translated into English and staged on Broadway, as torpedoing the “real crossover that Yiddish theater could have made” by pushing the envelope too far.
James Bundy, the artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre, where “Indecent” premiered last October, called the play a testament to “people who take risks to tell the most transgressive stories,” those that “cut most sharply against the prevailing social order.” Nowadays, he said, “we see fewer of those kind of plays — there’s a niche for everything.”
Josh Lambert, the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., and the author of “Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews and American Culture” (NYU Press, 2014), caught the Yale production of “Indecent.” He noted that “God of Vengeance” debuted at a time when concern about Jewish respectability was paramount, and when Jews were widely believed to be involved in prostitution (then called white slavery).
“The people who objected to the play were mostly Jewish,” Lambert pointed out, noting that it was Rabbi Joseph Silverman of Temple Emanu-El who initially lodged a complaint against the play. The rabbi and his congregants were, Lambert said, “worried about how Jews were being represented. How would we feel nowadays about a play that showed Syrian immigrants as criminals?”
Ultimately, though, for Lambert, “Indecent” is a “case study in how theater works.” It shows, he said, the “cumulative power of a particular play over its life span, about the collaborative effort of audiences, performers and theater professionals throughout time and space to create a work of art.”
“Indecent” begins previews on April 27 for a May 17 opening at the Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St. Exact dates have A CALENDAR HAS? not yet been announced, and the play has not yet been cast. For tickets and information, call the Vineyard’s box office at (212) 353-0303.