In 1946 the Yiddish playwright Sholem Asch warned a company against producing his play God Of Vengeance in Mexico City because "the situation described in the play is dated and no longer exists".
Asch was not the first to try and ban his play. Earlier that year, the Lord Chamberlain had a Yiddish language production in London closed down on rabbinical advice. Most famously, the 1923 English language production on Broadway was also shut down, its producer and cast charged with “unlawfully advertising, giving, presenting, and participating in an obscene, indecent, immoral, and impure drama or play.”
Had another Yiddish playwright, IL Peretz been right when, at a read-through of the new play in 1906, he advised Asch to burn it? These are the questions considered in recent productions.
Daniel Teveles’s recent take, El Dogma was set against the events of the 1919 “Semana Trágica” riots in Buenos Aires. A powerful, recent Hebrew-language version of the play was produced at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv and there was a 2016 off-Broadway production in Yiddish with English surtitles.
Now Paula Vogel’s Tony-winning Indecent, a play about the play that has been a Broadway hit, is coming to London, opening at the Menier Chocolate Factory on March 13. It suggests that God of Vengeance has as much to say to audiences today as it did when it debuted in Berlin in 1908.
What was the fuss about? God of Vengeance tells the story of Yankl and his wife Shura, who run a brothel in their basement. Business is good and the pious seem happy to turn a blind eye to the source of the couple’s income, especially if it benefits them.
That enables Yankl to afford a Torah scroll, which will hang in his daughter Rivkele’s bedroom, and a dowry to catch a nice Yeshivah boy that will allow Rivkele to avoid her parents’ fate. But Rivkele is having a lesbian relationship with one of her father’s whores.
Asch’s play ends with daughter and lover being driven downstairs to work for Yankl in the brothel to the end of their days. In the Tel Aviv production Rivkele hangs herself, lending the play a Lear-like, tragic twist, but the original is more of a melodrama, closer in spirit to Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’amuse and its famous operatic adaptation Rigoletto, where a shamed father is unable to protect his daughter’s honour.
God of Vengeance played throughout Europe, and in a number of languages, without mishap until it hit Broadway. Was 20th century European society more sexually open than its American counterpart?
Paula Vogel, whose original fascination with the play was sparked by its lesbian theme, believes that other issues lay behind the scandal. Both she and her director, Rebecca Taichman, treat plays as living, breathing entities, not museum pieces to be left unaltered and revered.
This principle applies not only to 100-year-old plays such as Asch’s, but also their own work.
During rehearsals for the original off-Broadway production, Vogel suddenly felt impelled to introduce the great American playwright Eugene O’Neill, who had been one of those speaking in the play’s defence during the 1923 Broadway debacle.
“We needed a gentile who sees this play for what it is. ‘They’re closing it because of Homo Sexualis?’” — Vogel quotes from her play — “That’s bunk. They’re closing it because it shows every religion, even Jews, sell God for a price.”
One of the play’s biggest enemies was Rabbi Silverman who presided at the New York Temple Emanu-El, with, says Vogel, “a Jewish congregation, wanting to be accepted as Americans, then there’s this huge influx of Eastern Europeans, and the dirty secret is that these girls ply their trade through prostitution, because there is no other way to make money and feed themselves, and do you want Americans to see that?
"If it’s kept downtown in Yiddish, fine, but do you want this on Broadway, which is only three blocks away from Temple Emanu-El? Henry Ford is taking his billions and publishing the Conspiracy of the Elders of Zion, he’s created a paper that says Jews are polluting our stages, there’s a conspiracy in banking, they’re taking over our country.
"Throw in a racist priest and the KKK. So, who wants to shut down this play? Everybody!”
Vogel believes her play about a play makes God of Vengeance contemporary and relevant.
“We are on these parallel tracks, and it is dangerous now to be Jewish, trans, lesbian, gay or Muslim. People I love are being stopped coming back into the USA, even if they have a green card or even citizenship."
Indecent begins with the cast rising from the dust, an image that hit Vogel in the first telephone conversation she had with her director. Taichman herself had been enthralled by the story of the play’s 1923 trial years ago, but felt unable to write about it.
So she approached Vogel at the suggestion of her Yale professor. Both Taichman and Vogel were fans of the Polish director Tadeusz Kantor in whose play, Dead Class, deceased characters are confronted by mannequins of their younger selves. In reviving and debating Yiddish drama, Vogel is, of course, helping to resurrect a culture that was savagely destroyed in its prime.
While watching a London rehearsal for Indecent, she experienced another of her revelations. Unable to read the Yiddish original, she has depended on various English translations and the expertise of Yiddishists to come up with her own English version of the Asch original. She had always found the first, 1912 version by Isaac Goldberg, overwritten.
“But listening to the cast read it, I suddenly realised it wasn’t over-written at all… and what I hadn’t recognised is that the love scene in Act 2 is actually a love poem to Yiddish itself, that a young writer wanted to hear the poetry of this new language for him as a writer and how thrilling that was for everyone else.”
Vogel has described Indecent as “product placement.” She hopes her play will turn people onto the Yiddish language itself, which, in her play, can be appreciated in snatches of conversation, songs and surtitles. One hopes West End producers will be paying attention.
Indecent is at the Menier Chocolate Factory from March 13