“The purpose of theatre is to wound our memory so we can remember,”
writes Paula Vogel in the Playbill for Indecent. Currently running on Broadway in the
Cort Theatre, Indecent, written by Vogel and directed by Rebecca Taichman, was
nominated for several Tony Awards this year, including Best Play.

Indecent is a play about another play, God of Vengeance, and how it was
received when it was performed during the 1920s. God of Vengeance told the story
of a Jewish man who ran a brothel, and whose daughter fell in love with one of his
prostitutes. This play was the first on an American stage to present a kiss between
two women. It had a beautiful, pure love scene, often compared to Romeo and Juliet’s
balcony scene, depicting these two women enjoying the rain. A main character in
Indecent, Sholem Asch (writer of God of Vengeance) experiences dismay when his
play is not well received by his community of Jewish writers in Warsaw, for in a time
of strong anti-Semitism, any depiction of Jews as less than upstanding members of
their community was a strike against them. Asch responds by taking the play
touring throughout Europe (where it was better received), and eventually to New
York. Then, in 1923, shortly after God of Vengeance’s Broadway opening, the
producer and all of the cast were arrested and convicted of obscenity.

Indecent is a play that tugs on your heartstrings; it is truly a play that
“wounds” its audience in the hope that they can learn something from the past. It is
particularly moving because it shows that the actors were very devoted to God of
Vengeance and faced many challenges in performing the show: besides the obscenity
trial, the romantic rain scene is cut during one production, dramatically shifting the
tone of the play from love to manipulation. The cast returned to Europe during the
1930s and continued to perform, despite the increasing danger of Hitler’s Final
Solution, and even performed while in hiding, hoping to inspire their desperate
audiences. Finally, the cast was discovered and all perished in concentration camps.

The overall tone of Indecent is not entirely depressing—moments of comedy
and music lighten the mood—but the flawless direction makes the ordeals borne by
the characters resound deeply. One memorable scene depicts a Jewish writer
pleading outside the gates of the United Nations. This man, at first, is begging to
speak to the English ambassador, but is not received. He then begins switching
languages, from English to French to Russian and finally to Chinese, and grows more
and more desperate as in each language he is denied admittance. Asch stands next
to him, reading a letter that he received from this man, pleading with Asch to use his
influence to stress to the U.S. government the dire situation of the Jews in Nazioccupied
Europe. This scene was evocative of the hardships of Jews during this time,
because their pleas were unheard, just like members in the audience couldn’t
understand all the switching languages.

It’s hard not to relate Indecent’s themes of fear, xenophobia, homophobia,
and anti-Semitism to our current politics. Vogel states that “theatre is a living
memory,” and Indecent certainly leaves you questioning what you would devote
your life to, and in light of the fate of the cast of God of Vengeance, what you would
give your life for.