Indecent (Yiddish Lesbians & Jewish Patriarchs)

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Some quick thoughts (and a possible spoiler alert) about violence, time, art, love, religious hypocrisy, life, death, and resurrection in Indecent, the recent play by Paula Vogel at the Vineyard Theater downtown. The play is about a play, The God of Vengeance written by a young Sholem Asch in 1906. Its subject is the love between the Jewish daughter of a brothel owner and one of the prostitutes who works downstairs. Vogel’s play follows the creation of the play by Asch and the troupe of actors who play it, the scandal it provoked by a lesbian kiss, first among the Yiddish literary scene in Warsaw and then in America where it was staged in censored form on Broadway in 1923 to public controversy after a successful European tour.

Layers of violence run throughout the drama –the violence of the father who runs a brothel, his grip and the grip of custom on his daughter, the power of money, religion and the state to stifle and punish free expression, the both imagined and real fear of anti-Semitism, the trauma of persistent anti-Jewish violence and prejudice, the violence of small minds and madness. At the end of Asch’s play, the Moses-like father is about to hurl into an abyss the Torah scroll that he has raised up in the air in his moment of rage, the abused law and virtue whose honor he pretends to uphold.

Repetition is key to the sense of time. From 1906 to 1952, time unfolds under the full realization that this play about a play is being watched in 2016. The concluding lines of the father’s rage to the screams of his wife and daughter is repeated with a strobe-like flash-and-stop intensity to represent its staged performance across Europe. The rain scene is also given to repetition as the lovers’ kiss is imagined, read through, rehearsed, and realized. Another repetition, the troupe standing in lines, and the under-title flashing projected on stage in Yiddish and English, “a moment in time.” The sense of time is enhanced by the multiple roles played by the relatively small cast, and then finally the visual impression created by staged casting trick in which the figure of the son (the playwright Sholem Asch) is transformed into the broken father figure.

The play would not work without music. Among other things, Indecent is a play about faith in the power of art and the pathos of love to change people’s lives. The impression is carried by the close integration of klezmer music, not as a decorative element sequestered away in an orchestra pit or piped in electronically, but by the constant presence of live music performed by the three musicians continuously onstage as part of the troupe throughout the entirety of the play. Sand and water, respectively, are figures of death and figures of life. I won’t say much about either, but the staging of the rain scene as visionary, spectral apparition was a complete and magical surprise, almost “religious,” as if like a resurrection.

Indecent in this way might be too religious, not indecent enough, too much aligned with our own contemporary sensibilities. With its look back to the past, the question that will always hang over a production like this is whether or not any evocation of Jewish life and Yiddish culture in pre-war Europe can transcend kitsch to create a compelling theatrical narrative. Something like “Are you still a chaste Jewish daughter?” is the father’s question that repeats itself like a hammer throughout the staging of the European performance. That the implied answer is actually yes speaks to the innocent and intimate passion between the two young women. But it also speaks to the problem with Yiddish in American today. The moral lessons are overdrawn, too keenly sweet and aching. We’re given no convincing sense of anything truly mean, vile, filthy, or vicious, nothing of any serious scandal.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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