‘Indecent’: The Story of a 1920s Yiddish Play and its Obscenity Charges Comes to Broadway

Photo: Carol Rosegg

Nate von Zumwalt

Broadway previews for “Indecent” begin April 4. Click here for discounted tickets by using the code INSUN224.

The year was 1923. Sholem Asch’s Yiddish play God of Vengeance had steadily traveled Europe and parts of the U.S., enchanting audiences and racking up rave reviews from Berlin to Chicago. In an era plagued by volatile religious and political sentiments, Asch’s play about the daughter of a Jewish brothel owner falling in love with one of her father’s prostitutes was a fiery exhibition of freedom of speech and a daring portrayal of Jewish culture. Upon reaching more commercial ranks, and in the face of 1920s anti-Semitism and staunch immigration reform, the Broadway debut of Asch’s play survived only one performance before the cast and producer (Harry Weinberg) were arrested on obscenity charges (more on that here).

The year is 2017. Playwright Paula Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman’s play Indecent is set to make its Broadway debut in April. In an era set ablaze with the challenges of a century ago, Vogel and Taichman’s new work tells the story of Asch’s original production, weaving behind-the-scenes moments together with scenes from the original play in a piece of theatre that bends both time and space. Its timing is bittersweet, bridging together painful periods in U.S. history set nearly 100 years apart.

Indecent comes to the Cort Theatre on Broadway at a time when issues of censorship, LGBTQ rights, immigration, and other rousing matters permeate the collective consciousness in America. Vogel and Taichman, well aware of their play’s growing relevance since its premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2015, recently spoke with Sundance Institute Theatre Program Artist Director Philip Himberg to retrace the play’s winding trajectory, their time with the project at the 2013 Theatre Lab, and the troubling nature of Indecent’s newfound pertinence.

Philip Himberg: Rebecca, you’ve directed all over the country, and Paula, your plays have been produced all over the world and you have a Pulitzer Prize. But for both of you, Indecent marks the first time you’re going to something called Broadway. What does that mean to each of you?

Vogel: It doesn’t yet feel real. I think as artists we’re always thinking about this ideal theater in our heads and up until this time the ideal for me has been any black box that takes me in. So, I haven’t yet been able to visualize the play on Broadway, and I think something significant is going to happen in the way that I look at my play once I see it.

Taichman: For me the answer is complicated, but one piece of it that I find extremely moving is that I have feared that the memory of the life of the play and the stories of the creators would be lost to history, and by putting it on Broadway it has a better shot of not being forgotten. I find that incredibly moving. I remember our first preview at Yale and I looked at Paula and said, “If absolutely nothing else, the 400 people in this room on this day know this story, and they did not know it before.” That is profoundly meaningful. This feels like the story has a shot at being remembered.

Photo: Carol Rosegg

The time we’re in right now is a different time politically than when you started working on this play. Even when I saw this at Yale, it was before the election and the current landscape. Since then it feels like the world has shifted around us. How is that impacting your way of seeing this piece come to life?

Vogel: I believe more in the urgency of what our story has to say and the necessity to get that in front of audiences. I’m sure we all are tracking the daily rise of hate crimes … the bomb threats against the Anti-Defamation League, and synagogues, and schools. Some kind of insidious misinformation has been given, and i think it has a name – it’s called white nationalism. I think Indecent is telling a story that happened at the peak of white nationalism in the 1920s. Rebecca and I [have repeatedly] been looking at each other and saying, “Oh god, the play is more pertinent now than it was a month ago.” I’d love for it to be a historical play and not be pertinent.

Taichman: It’s really awful that the play has become more relevant than I ever could have dreamed it would be. It’s shocking and deeply upsetting. The parallels are stunning if you look back at the moment that [God of Vengeance] went to Broadway in the ‘20s in New York – it was a moment of tremendous anti-Semitism and radical immigration reform. The parallels are eerie and they keep multiplying. It gives more and more of a reason to want to tell a story, and the urgency and timing of it feel important and resonant in a different way – I wish it were not so.

What were the initial impulses that led to making a play about God of Vengeance, and how did you two eventually come together?

Taichman: We both happened upon the play in an unexpected way. I came to it through Alisa Solomon’s book Re-Dressing the Canon. I was looking for a director’s project to do in my first year of drama school at Yale and happened upon the story of this obscenity trial surrounding God of Vengeance. The play took my breath away. I was working with a dramaturg at the time, and we sort of looked at each other and wondered what would happen if we could find the trial transcripts. So we called the library at Yale and two hours later we were walking away with this several-thousand-page document. We discovered over time that all the papers were basically housed at Yale where I was in school for three years – the Sholem Asch papers and producer Harry Weinberger’s papers, who also defended the play in court. I became obsessed and desperate to tell the story, but was completely lacking in playwriting talent. It took a long time to work up the courage to ask Paula if she would join this adventure with me.

Vogel: I read the play when I was 22 and it astonished me. I started working on an obscenity trial play about The Well of Loneliness, and I just thought it didn’t resonate enough with me, so I put it aside. And then I heard about this extraordinary young director who staged the obscenity trials of God of Vengeance while at Yale … and I really took note of the name Rebecca Taichman. I started to track [her], and later I sat in Yale Rep and watched Evildoers and realized I have to work with [her].

You both have worked on multiple productions at the Theatre Lab, but are there any specific discoveries from the mountain while working on Indecent that you can share?

Taichman: Before we got to Sundance, Paula had done this extraordinary amount of immersive research and learned the history, the context, and the unbelievable depth [of the play]. I think what happened is that Indecent was written at Sundance and there was a lot of preparation to get there, but it was the environment that you guys made that birthed the play. It was one day on, one day off, and your guidance, Philip, of creating a very low-pressure environment where it just sort of poured out of Paula.

Vogel: One of the first visions I have of this is that Rebecca had these boxes of materials that she kind of turned over to me. Before I got to Sundance I was looking through these boxes thinking, “Oh my god, I feel like a paralegal!” And so when we got there, god bless you that you saw what it could be. I wasn’t sure yet that it was a play. We needed the music, and we needed people who would be able to learn the Yiddish lyrics.

The ability to go into other rooms and feel that power all through the campuses of [Sundance Resort] is an uplift that you really need in order to go deeper. I will never write a play the same way after Sundance.

Rebecca Taichman and Paula Vogel at the 2013 Theatre Lab. © 2013 Sundance Institute |
Fred Hayes

One thing about this play that is so unique is the way in which Paula has created this ageless, timeless company that effortlessly changes roles and moves through time and space. How did that come to be born?

Vogel: One of our early discussions was about this amazing Polish theatre director Tadeusz Kantor. I had seen his work and I had seen a videotape of one of this performances called The Dead Class. And there’s something about this man – it wasn’t just a play, it was a witnessing of his life that his company created. We started talking about this [idea] of actors resurrecting, rising from the dead – we originally called them the dead troupe … and that was kind of an homage to Kantor.

Taichman: I remember this astounding process to witness where Paula was gathering and gathering and gathering, and Kantor was a huge part of that. [There was] thinking, processing, reading, listening to music, and we went to my parents’ house and had a retreat there [to experience] the particular culture of the Yiddish world that I’m from. And then it emerged in this very whole way all at once from Paula. The idea of the troupe … the vision of the entire structure and of the company telling the story, I remember Paula birthing it in this very fully way after a lot of filling up the tank.

Vogel: At this point in my life if I get a chance to work with an extraordinary artist I want to write a valentine to them. I think there was a moment when Rebecca realized that Indecent was a valentine to her family. I wanted to impart the love that I saw in Rebecca’s family.

As you get ready to open on Broadway, what’s the biggest hope for the project as it moves into this next chapter at a commercial venue?

Vogel: I think the tagline of the show is very much what we believe, and that is “Art Matters.” In this time of incredible political danger when we’re having a hard time finding commonality and community, art matters. Let’s put art on every stage, not pull our punches, not underestimate our audiences, and speak directly as we can from our hearts.

Sundance Institute & Indecent

Indecent was developed, in part, in residency at the 2013 Sundance Institute Theatre Lab at the Sundance Resort and in a subsequent New York workshop with ongoing Post-Lab Support made possible by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Director Rebecca Taichman is a four-time alumna of the Theatre Lab, and also attended the Sundance Institute | LUMA Foundation Theatre Directors Retreat in Arles, France; writer Paula Vogel has attended the Theatre Lab as well as the Sundance Institute Playwrights & Composers Retreat at Ucross Foundation.

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