Paula Vogel’s powerful drama “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 play “God of Vengeance,” which was written in 1906 in Yiddish and 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. It caused an uproar when it debuted in New York, and the producer and cast were arrested and put on trial for obscenity. “Indecent,” which moved from the off-Broadway stage to Broadway and opens at the Cort Theatre in New York City on April 4, sheds a light on that scandal.
“The charges were initiated by Rabbi Silverman of Temple Emanuel in New York City,” said Vogel, who grew up in Maryland and Washington, D.C. “During that time, there was a prevalence of anti-Semitism. In the news, Henry T. Ford was talking about Jewish conspiracies taking over banking, theater and music. It was the perfect storm for anti-Semitism, and Rabbi Silverman feared the theme would promote more hatred against Jews.”
Asch had been 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 team. However, the scandal had an impact on his career.
“God of Vengeance” was a story that captured the attention of Vogel when she was a graduate student at Cornell University. “A professor looked at me the first week of the program and said you should read ‘God of Vengeance,’” recalled Vogel from a hotel lobby near the theater. “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. And then she met the perfect creative partner — director Rebecca Taichman, who had written her master’s thesis at Yale University about the trial. “Seven years ago, I got a phone call from Rebecca,” said Vogel. (Taichman is Jewish, and her grandfather was a Yiddish poet.) “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 think there is 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 that clearly showed the two women in love, kissing, 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 represent two women in love,” Vogel said.
“Indecent” opens in Sholem Asch’s bedroom, where he and his wife are discussing his play and sexuality. It covers the trials and tribulations of the play’s journey and ends in 1952 in Connecticut, five years before Asch’s death.
As Vogel worked on the storyline, she felt having a three-piece klezmer band was essential. She listened to several hundred songs and chose some to infuse in the story, and she wrote the play around the songs.
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 gay rights, she said. “I couldn’t have imagined it would have been as current as it is,” she said. I didn’t expect that in 2017 the same conditions of anti-Semitism, immigration and homophobia would again create a perfect storm.”
Vogel, 65, considers “Indecent” part of her heritage. Her father was Jewish and her mother Catholic, and she had a very close relationship with her paternal grandparents. “Growing up, I increasingly felt more Jewish as I encountered anti-Semitism, such as watching my father get turned away from memberships, hearing anti- Semitic words and seeing the quota system in higher education.” said Vogel, who was born in Washington D.C. and raised in Beltsville, Md. “I married into a Jewish family, and as younger family members turn toward an observance of faith, I too am drawn toward my Jewish identity.” (Her wife is noted Brown University gender studies professor Anne Fausto-Sterling.)
It was at High Point High School in Beltsville where Vogel became interested in playwriting. “I wandered into this room and it turned out it was the drama club,” recalled Vogel, who graduated from High Point in 1969. “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 its theater department. She graduated in 1974. (She told them she was Jewish so she didn’t have to take religion classes.) She earned an M.A. at Cornell, and after that led the graduate playwriting program at Brown University. From 2008 to 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.
Her heartbreaking play “Baltimore Waltz,” set in a Baltimore 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 the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play “How I Learned to Drive,” about a pedophile uncle who teaches his young niece to drive. Set in the 1960s and 70s, it takes place in Maryland.
Vogel has very fond memories growing up in Maryland. “Living near Baltimore has had an influence on me,” she said. Brother Carl earned his undergraduate degree at Johns Hopkins University. “It was great to grow up near John Water’s community; it is a very idiosyncratic place.”
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 in D.C. and Maryland and the many people from all walks of life she met during those formative years. Given her track record, it’s sure to give audiences something to think about. JT
“Indecent” plays at The Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., New York. For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit indecentbroadway.com.
Alice Burdick Schweiger is a New York-based writer.