“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.
Context: This is a monologue based on the play Indecent, written by Paula Vogel. The person speaking is Sholem Asch, the writer of God of Vengeance, the play on which Indecent is based. This takes place just after Asch did a reading of his play, and the play was rejected.
I can’t believe them! They hated my play! Those men wouldn’t know a great play if it was staring them in the face!
They cannot stand the thought that maybe we are not all perfect citizens. “We have to stand up for our own.” Easy to say when all you do is sit there and tear down the dreams of writers like me, just to make sure your vision of Jews remains inoffensive to gentiles.
I saw something more real within us Jews, that must be shared with the world. That’s why I wrote my God of Vengeance. We must accept that some of us do grievous wrongs. So, what if people hate us?! They are going to hate us whether we give them a reason or not! All I tried to do in God of Vengeance was show the purest love imaginable between two people, and obstacles in their way. Just because their circumstances aren’t normal, you hated them! You think that just because these characters aren’t real that they don’t have real problems? These characters are more real than any of the men in this room, they’re more passionate and more loving.
Gentiles think we think that we’re better than them. If only they could see this play, see the love between these two women, how they are together in the face of terrible adversity. Then maybe they could understand that we don’t try to portray ourselves as ideal, but as real people.
Change is coming. There is nothing you can do to stop it! These old men are stuck in a time when we were laughed at when we walked down the street, when gentiles would point and say “Look! That’s a Jew!” We were not thought of as equals to the gentiles, but as curiosities. We were made to change ourselves so we looked like the gentiles. In that time, we did all we could to show ourselves as good people. Every time a Jew wrote about Jews he would make
them virtuous and perfect. It didn’t work. Gentiles still see us as different, as beings not worthy
of their attention or respect.
My play is a masterpiece of love. It will be spoken of and performed for generations!
People will come from miles around to hear of the passion between Manke and Rifkele. Just
because you can’t see the beauty and purity in their love doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Just
because I don’t show our people the way everyone else does doesn’t mean I am against our
kind. I am proud to call myself a Jew, and my play does not diminish this fact. My God of
Vengeance is a true work of art, one that must be performed!
We can’t keep hiding behind images of our people other Jewish writers create. That’s
why I wrote God of Vengeance! You wouldn’t understand it, because you are all too happy to
stay here and hope that one day you will be accepted by gentiles as their equals, even though
they hate you more every day. I cannot stand by and let that happen! I will take my play to
Berlin. Maybe there God of Vengeance will get the appreciation it deserves.
When you first step into the modest and quite plain Marvell Rep Theatre, the words you might deem perhaps more fitting are probably school auditorium, as it does not look to be too much of a theatre at all. You don’t expect much as you get a drink at a makeshift snack stand and go to sit on one of the many movable lawn chairs in the physical theatre. However, you are soon pleasantly surprised to learn that the play’s company is so fantastic at acting, it is hard to not be sucked into the world of the play almost immediately. [Read more…]