'Indecent': A Play About A Yiddish Play That Was Ahead Of Its Time

Apr 29, 2017
Originally published on May 1, 2017 4:25 pm

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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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Nominations for the Tony Awards come out Tuesday. Among the favorites for best play is Paula Vogel's "Indecent." Paula Vogel is one of this country's most acclaimed contemporary playwrights. She got a Pulitzer in 1998. This year she's being honored for lifetime achievement at the Off-Broadway Obie Awards, but she has never had a work on Broadway until now with "Indecent." As Jeff Lunden tell us, it's the story of a controversial century-old Yiddish play following its productions across continents and decades.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: The actors are already seated at the back of a bare stage when the audience enters the theater. The lights go down. The performers get up and begin a ghostly dance to klezmer music as bits of ash fall out of their overcoats. One of them steps forward.

RICHARD TOPOL: (As Lemml) My name is Lemml. 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.

LUNDEN: And for the next hour and a half, this troop of actors takes the audience through the history of Sholem Asch's 1907 Yiddish play, "God Of Vengeance." Paula Vogel's play about the play is a collaboration with director Rebecca Taichman. It depicts the author of the original, the actors who performed in it, the controversy surrounding it, the lost culture from which it came. Richard Topol plays the stage manager.

TOPOL: One of the things that Paula and Rebecca 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 were no longer with us.

LUNDEN: "Indecent" follows the play through its debut in Europe to performances in New York and just past World War II. "God Of Vengeance" was controversial from the start, depicting a Jewish brothel owner who bribes a rabbi so that the rabbi's son will marry his daughters, says playwright Paula Vogel.

PAULA VOGEL: The only problem in the original play is that the daughter falls in love with a prostitute downstairs. So this was actually the first presentation, and it was of lesbian love.

LUNDEN: Vogel introduces the actors as they prepare for the initial performance.

AS FREIDA NIEMANN: (As Lenk) How do these women live? How do they dress? What do they do in bed, and how do they do it?

AS ELSA HEIMES: (As Verson) You mean prostitutes?

NIEMANN: (As Lenk) Good God, no. We all know what prostitutes do.

HEIMES: (As Verson) Oh. So - so you asked him about lesbians?

NIEMANN: (As Lenk) You better learn to say the word out, my girl. Four weeks from today we will be kissing center stage.

LUNDEN: The play may have been controversial, but it was a critical success when it was performed all over Europe and on New York's Lower East Side in Yiddish.

VOGEL: And then someone got the bright idea - let's translate it into English and put it on Broadway at which point everyone is arrested.

LUNDEN: Throughout the play's history, many of the objections to it came from Jews themselves, says actor Richard Topol.

TOPOL: Don't let people see this play. It's too inflammatory. And for them it's inflammatory mostly because of the way that it makes Jews look bad. 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.

LUNDEN: By the time the actors went on trial for "Indecency" in 1923, director Rebecca Taichman says the U.S. government had enacted drastic laws restricting immigration.

REBECCA TAICHMAN: Really the country shut down, and this wave of anti-immigration sentiment was sweeping the country. A huge part of what was happening was a sense that these sort of dirty Eastern European Jews were coming in and taking over and keep them out.

LUNDEN: The stage manager decides to move back to Poland after the "Indecency" trial.

TOPOL: (As Lemml) I am done being in a country that laughs at the way I speak. They say America is free. What do you know here is free?

LUNDEN: He continues to champion the play in his native Poland even as World War II begins. Paula Vogel finally shows the complete scene with its controversial lesbian kiss almost at the end of "Indecent" when the original play is performed in an attic in the Lodz ghetto.

VOGEL: Believe it or not, it's actually the purest love scene I've ever read in Sholem Asch's play that I put akin to Romeo and Juliet. And that is an extraordinary radical act, not only for 1907, but I would say for 2017.

LUNDEN: And it's in Vogel's juxtaposition of past and present, poetry and horror that the audience finally understands why they saw the ashes come from the actor's sleeves at the beginning of the play. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.