Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel discusses her newest play on Broadway, called one of the best plays of the year
Paula Vogel’s powerful drama Indecent explores a controversial time in American theater and Jewish culture. The play with music centers around events surrounding the 1923 Broadway production of Sholem Asch’s provocative, groundbreaking play God of Vengeance.
Written in 1906 in Yiddish and translated for the American stage, Asch’s play follows a Jewish couple who run a brothel in their basement and whose daughter falls deeply in love with one of their female prostitutes. It also featured the first lesbian kiss on Broadway. It caused an uproar when it debuted in New York, and the producer and cast were arrested and put on trial for obscenity.
Indecent sheds a light on that scandal. The play, which has transferred from the Off-Broadway stage to Broadway, opened at the Cort Theater in New York City April 4.
“The charges were initiated by Rabbi Silverman of Temple Emanuel in New York City,” Vogel says. “During that time, there was a prevalence of anti-Semitism. In the news, Henry Ford was talking about Jewish conspiracies of taking over banking, theater and music. It was the perfect storm for anti-Semitism and Rabbi Silverman feared the theme would promote more hatred against Jews.”
Asch had been an internationally renowned writer at the time of the trial and, because of his fame, he wasn’t arrested with the rest of the team. But the scandal had an impact on his career.
God of Vengeance was a story that captured the attention of Vogel when she was a graduate student at Cornell.
“A professor looked at me the first week and said ‘You should read God of Vengeance,’” Vogel recalls. “It was his way of saying I know that you are gay and I want you to know your history. I stood in the library turning the pages thinking how a young newlywed man wrote this play in 1906 — and it astonished me.”
As a playwright, Vogel always wanted to bring Asch’s story to the stage. And then she met the perfect creative partner — director Rebecca Taichman, who is Jewish, has a grandfather who was a Yiddish poet and she herself had written her master’s thesis at Yale about the trial.
“Seven years ago, I got a call from Rebecca,” Vogel says. “She said she’d always wanted to do a play about the obscenity trial but needed someone to write it. My name had been suggested. I told her I think there is an even larger story to tell and she agreed — then gave me the trial transcripts and all of her research.”
Asch had written a second act that clearly showed the two women in love, kissing and openly declaring their love. “The Yiddish theater embraced the play with Asch’s original intention. No one said it was obscene, but Harry Weinberger, the New York producer, felt they couldn’t represent two women in love,” Vogel says.
Indecent opens in Sholem Asch’s bedroom where he and his wife are discussing his play and sexuality. It covers the play’s journey and ends in 1952 in Connecticut, five years before Asch’s death.
As Vogel worked on the storyline, she felt having a three-piece klezmer band was essential. She listened to several hundred songs and chose some to infuse in the story and she wrote the play around the songs.
Although Asch’s play was written almost 100 years ago, and Vogel began writing her play seven years ago, Indecent couldn’t be more timely today, with the rise of neo-Nazi views, the plight of immigrants and the dissolving of gay rights. “I couldn’t have imagined it would have been as current as it is,” she says. “I didn’t expect in 2017 the same conditions of anti-Semitism, immigration and homophobia would again create a perfect storm,”
Vogel considers Indecent part of her heritage. Her father was Jewish and her mother Catholic, and she had a very close relationship with her paternal grandparents.
“Growing up, I increasingly felt more Jewish as I encountered anti-Semitism, such as watching my father get turned away from memberships, hearing anti-Semitic words and seeing the quota system in higher education,” says Vogel, born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Maryland. “I married into a Jewish family, and as younger members turn toward an observance of faith, I, too, am drawn toward my Jewish identity.”
In high school, Vogel became interested in playwriting. “I wandered into a room that turned out to be the drama club,” she says. “Within a half hour, I never wanted to leave the room. I tried acting but I was terrible, and I ended up being a playwright.”
After attending Bryn Mawr College, Vogel transferred to Catholic University to enroll in its theater department. (She told them she was Jewish so she didn’t have to take religion classes.) She earned an M.A. at Cornell, and after that led the graduate playwriting program at Brown University. From 2008-2012, she was the chair of the playwriting department at Yale. Last year she earned her Ph.D. from Cornell. Her first play was produced in 1976.
Vogel’s 12th play, the heartbreaking Baltimore Waltz, was the one that gave her national recognition. Set in a hospital room, a brother and sister embark on an imaginary European trip. It was a tribute to her brother, Carl, who died of AIDS in 1988.
In 1998, Vogel won a Pulitzer Prize in drama for her play How I Learned to Drive, about a pedophile uncle who teaches his young niece to drive.
Vogel is at her best when she’s pushing the envelope. Her work, which often focuses on complicated and controversial subjects, is hardly done.
Vogel has a few projects in the pipeline, including a play about her childhood apartments in D.C. and Maryland, and the characters from many walks of life she met during those formative years. Given her track record, it’s sure to give audiences something to think about.
Alice Burdick Schweiger
Special to the Jewish News