What is the role of theater in dangerous times? The Music Theatre of Madison will attempt to answer that question with its production of Paula Vogel’s play Indecent, January 30-February 15, at UW Madison Memorial Union’s Play Circle.
Indecent tells the tumultuous story of God of Vengeance, an early 20th-century Yiddish play that proved a hit for its young Jewish author, Sholem Asch. The action revolves around a brothel owner who hopes to marry his daughter off to a rabbi, thereby gaining entrance into polite society. Asch broke new theatrical ground by featuring well-rounded Jewish characters and a heartwarming lesbian love story. God of Vengeance debuted in Berlin in 1907 and was translated into several European languages, playing to packed houses for decades. But when the play was translated into English for its 1923 Broadway premiere, the script was altered in hopes of avoiding public backlash.
Music Theatre of Madison’s founding executive director, Meghan Randolph, says while in the Yiddish version of God of Vengeance Asch offered “a redemptive message about same-sex love, in translation, they make it all about sex. The seminal scene between the two women was hacked and cheapened.”
The presentation of the lesbian love affair was a key reason Indecent playwright Vogel wanted to tell the God of Vengeance story. “The beautiful acceptance that Sholem Asch the writer felt towards women in love is something that I think is a beacon,” she said in a 2017 interview. In Indecent, the actors echo that language, calling the central love scene “a beacon of hope,” one that they eagerly watch from the wings.
Despite efforts to minimize the lesbian storyline for English-speaking audiences, six weeks into the Broadway run, the God of Vengeance producer and cast were arrested for obscenity. Ultimately, they were convicted and deported. A key witness for the prosecution was a prominent New York rabbi who opposed Asch’s portrayal of Jews and the Jewish religion.
In another 2017 interview, Vogel noted that the play’s 1923 English-language debut coincided with “a very steep rise in antisemitism in this country. Laws were passed in the Congress to stop immigrants from coming to America who were trying to flee the pogroms in Europe.” Compounding this anti-Jewish bias, she adds, was “‘fake news’ created by Henry Ford, that there were international Jewish conspiracies in banking and in theater—in everything.” Jewish leaders were afraid that God of Vengeance, with its lesbian content and brothel setting, would confirm stereotypes of the immoral and greedy Jew.
Vogel, who is Jewish and a lesbian, suggests that Indecent raises an urgent question for minority groups: “When do we critique our own community outside the community in dangerous times?” It’s a dilemma that will be familiar to LGBTQ+ audiences, with our perennial debates about respectability politics and straight passing.
Randolph’s passion to bring Indecent to Madison is driven by other questions: “What would’ve happened if we had welcomed these people and welcomed this play?” she asks of the American response to God of Vengeance. “What would our art landscape look like? What would our world look like?”
At a moment when immigrants, LGBTQ+ people, and Jews are facing increased discrimination and violence in the U.S., Randolph hopes Indecent will spark timely discussion about the lives of these populations and “how we don’t live up to our ideals in being welcoming.”
Randolph also thinks the play challenges how far we have actually come in terms of LGBTQ+ acceptance. After God of Vengeance, she asks, “when did we even start to see same-sex relationships portrayed in mainstream media or on stage again? It was a long time. Both Jewish and gay characters in later shows sort of became the joke—the one-dimensional, there-for-the-laughs tropes. What if we had just accepted and applauded this play in 1923 for doing something different?”
Crossing Cultural and Linguistic Boundaries
Indecent elevates the profile of another overlooked and stereotyped group: Yiddish speakers. Joel Berkowitz, a UW-Milwaukee professor of Foreign Languages and Literature and a scholar of Yiddish theater, served as a language consultant as Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman developed Indecent. He notes that no other play written in English probes Yiddish language and culture in the way Vogel’s play does. The play “touches on issues particular to Yiddish culture and the fate of its speakers in the 20th and 21st centuries, but also broader themes too—like the power of art to combat various forms of discrimination and persecution.”
Berkowitz observes that Yiddish has been called “a language without a navy. That is, Yiddish was never the official national language of any of the places where it was (or is) spoken. Thus, native Yiddish speakers have always had to be multilingual. This is also true of the real and invented characters who create and perform God of Vengeance in Indecent.”
He encourages audience members to “look out for the creative theatrical devices that the creators of the play conceived to give us a sense of how God of Vengeance, and the people connected to it, constantly crossed all sorts of linguistic and cultural boundaries.” One of those devices is Berkowitz’s translations of dialogue and stage directions into Yiddish that are projected on the stage as the action of the play unfolds.
Given the complexity of this play-in-a-play and the multitude of issues it addresses, Music Theatre of Madison is planning a series of educational events to provide historical and cultural background. “It’s really important to me that we present this in context,” Randolph says, “because you can come out of the show with a lot of questions: Why was this done this way? What did this mean for the Jewish community or the gay community at that time?” Education efforts will include panel discussions, talk-backs after performances, and a discussion guide.
Randolph hopes that complexity is the very aspect that will draw in diverse audiences to see the show. Indecent is “a hard play to summarize,” she says, “but the themes are going to be relevant to anyone who sees it. It not just a play about Jews, about same-sex couples, about theater. It’s a play about who we could’ve been.”