'Indecent': A Play About A Yiddish Play That Was Ahead Of Its Time
When audience members start taking their seats to see Broadway's Indecent, the actors are already sitting at the back of the stage. Eventually, the lights go down and the performers begin a ghostly dance to klezmer music as bits of ash fall out of their overcoats.
One of them steps forward. "My name is Lemml," he says. "You can also call me Lou. I am the stage manager tonight. Usually, you can find me backstage. We have a story we want to tell you about a play — a play that changed my life. Every night, we tell this story. But somehow I can never remember the end."
For the next hour and a half, this troupe of actors takes the audience through the history of Sholem Asch's 1907 Yiddish play God of Vengeance, which was controversial from the start. It told the story of a Jewish brothel owner who bribes a rabbi so that the rabbi's son will marry his daughter. Paula Vogel, Indecent's Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, says, "The only problem in the original play is that the daughter falls in love with a prostitute downstairs." Asch's script includes a love scene between the two women.
Vogel's play about a play depicts the author of the original, the actors who performed in it, the controversy surrounding it and the lost culture from which it came. Actor Richard Topol, who plays Lemml, says, "One of the things that Paula and [director Rebecca Taichman] are so adamant about is that the play make us understand that we can lose culture, reminding us that Yiddish was this vibrant culture that is almost dead. And part of what happened in the 20th century and the Holocaust made it so that there were a lot of Yiddish speakers who are no longer with us."
Indecent follows the play through its debut in Europe to performances in New York and just past World War II. God of Vengeance may have been controversial, but it was also a critical success — in Yiddish. "And then someone got the bright idea: 'Let's translate it into English and put it on Broadway,' " Vogel says. "At which point everyone is arrested."
Throughout the play's history, many of the objections came from Jews themselves. "For them, it's inflammatory mostly because of the way that it makes Jews look bad," Topol says. "And, at the time, they didn't want to have that out in the world where people who were already anti-Semitic had any more reason to be anti-Semitic."
By the time the actors went on trial for indecency in 1923, the U.S. government had enacted drastic laws restricting immigration. "This wave of anti-immigration sentiment was sweeping the country," says director Rebecca Taichman. "A huge part of what was happening was a sense that these sort of dirty Eastern European Jews were coming in and taking over."
In the play, after the indecency trial, Lemml the stage manager decides to move back to Poland. "I am done being in a country that laughs at the way that I speak," he says. "They say America is free? What do you know here is free?"
He continues to champion the play in his native Poland, even as World War II begins. Vogel finally shows the play's controversial lesbian kiss scene almost at the end of Indecent, when the original play is performed in a Lodz ghetto attic.
"Believe it or not, it's actually the purest love scene I've ever read, in Sholem Asch's play, ... akin to Romeo and Juliet," Vogel says. "And that is an extraordinary radical act, not only for 1907, but I would say for 2017."
It's in Vogel's juxtaposition of past and present, poetry and horror, that the audience finally understands why the play opens with ashes falling from the actors' sleeves.
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