New Broadway Drama Explores Jewish and Theatrical History
A production photo from Indecent. Photo: Provided.Paula Vogel’s powerful play Indecent explores a shameful time in American theater and Jewish history. It’s about events surrounding the 1923 Broadway production of Sholem Asch’s provocative, groundbreaking drama God of Vengeance, which was written in 1906 in Yiddish and then translated for the American stage.
Asch’s play follows a Jewish couple who run a brothel in their basement, and whose daughter falls deeply in love with one of their female prostitutes. The production caused an uproar when it debuted in New York, and the producer and cast were arrested and put on trial for obscenity.
“The charges were initiated by Rabbi Silverman of Temple Emanuel in New York City,” explains playwright Vogel. “During that time, there was a prevalence of antisemitism. In the news, Henry T. Ford was talking about Jewish conspiracies taking over banking, theater and music. It was the perfect storm for antisemitism, and Rabbi Silverman feared the theme would promote more hatred against Jews.”
Asch was an internationally renowned writer at the time of the trial, and because of his fame, he wasn’t arrested along with the rest of the creative team. However, the scandal still had an impact on his career.
God of Vengeance captured Vogel’s attention when she was a graduate student at Cornell. “A professor looked at me the first week of the program, and said you should read God of Vengeance,” recalls Vogel from a hotel lobby near the Cort Theater, where Indecent recently opened on Broadway.
“It was his way of saying I know that you are gay, and I want you to know your history. I stood in the library turning the pages thinking [that] a young newlywed man wrote this play in 1906, and it astonished me.”
As a playwright, Vogel always wanted to bring Asch’s story to the stage. Then she met the perfect creative partner — director Rebecca Taichman, who is Jewish and whose grandfather was a Yiddish poet. Taichman wrote her Master’s thesis at Yale about the trial.
“Seven years ago, I got a phone call from Rebecca,” says Vogel. “She told me she always wanted to do a play about the obscenity trial, and she needed someone to write it — and my name had been suggested. I told her I [thought] there [was] an even a larger story to tell, and she agreed. Rebecca gave me the trial transcripts and all of her research.”
Asch had written a second act of his play, which clearly showed the two women in love, kissing and openly declaring their love. “The Yiddish theater embraced the play with Asch’s original intention. No one said it was obscene, but Harry Weinberger, the New York producer, felt that they couldn’t [show] two women in love,” Vogel says.
Indecent opens in Sholem Asch’s bedroom, where he and his wife are discussing his play and sexuality. The show covers the trials and tribulations of the God of Vengeance’s journey, and ends in 1952 in Connecticut, five years before Asch’s death.
As Vogel worked on the storyline, she felt that having a three-piece klezmer band was essential; she listened to several hundred songs, and chose some to infuse into the story.
Although Asch’s play was written almost 100 years ago, and Vogel began writing her play seven years ago, Indecent couldn’t be more timely today, with the rise of neo-Nazi views, the plight of immigrants and the dissolving of some gay rights. “I couldn’t have imagined it would have been as current as it is,” she says. “I didn’t expect that in 2017, the same conditions of antisemitism, immigration and homophobia would again create a perfect storm,”
Vogel considers Indecent part of her heritage. Her father was Jewish (though her mother Catholic), and she had a very close relationship with her paternal grandparents. “Growing up, I increasingly felt more Jewish as I encountered antisemitism, such as watching my father get turned away from memberships, hearing antisemitic words and seeing the quota system in higher education,” says Vogel, who was born in Washington DC and raised in Maryland. “I married into a Jewish family, and as younger family members turn towards an observance of faith, I too am drawn towards my Jewish identity.” (Her wife is Anne Fausto-Sterling.)
It was in high school where Vogel became interested in playwrighting. “I wandered into this room, and it turned out it was the drama club,” she recalls. “They said I could join them, and within a half hour, I never wanted to leave the room. I tried acting but I was terrible, and I ended up being a playwright.”
After attending Bryn Mawr College, Vogel transferred to Catholic University to enroll in their theater department. (She told them that she was Jewish so she didn’t have to take religion classes.) She earned an MA at Cornell, and later led the graduate playwriting program at Brown University. From 2008-2012 she was the Chair of the playwriting department at Yale. Last year she earned her Ph.D. from Cornell. Her first play was produced in 1976.
Vogel’s heartbreaking play Baltimore Waltz, set in a hospital room, was about a brother and sister who embark on an imaginary European trip. It was her 12th play, but it was the one that gave her national recognition. It was a tribute to her brother, Carl, who died of AIDS in 1988.
In 1998, Vogel won a Pulitzer Prize in Drama for her play How I Learned to Drive, about a pedophile uncle who teaches his young niece to drive.
Vogel is at her best when she’s pushing the envelope. Her work, which often focuses on complicated and controversial subjects, is hardly done. Vogel has a few projects in the pipeline, including a play about her childhood and the many walks of life she encountered during those formative years. Given her track record, it’s sure to give audiences something to think about.
Indecent, The Cort Theater, 138 W. 48th Street. Tickets (212) 239-6200. Indecentbroadway.com