Story of vengeance
Gaby Rubin reviews 'Indecent', Menier Chocolate Factory, London (ends November 27). Written by Paula Vogel and directed by Rebecca Taichman
Some 40 years before the Old Bailey trial of Lady Chatterley’s lover, a play, God of vengeance, originally in Yiddish, was performed all over Yiddish-speaking Europe. When it was transplanted to New York - translated into English - it opened in a Broadway theatre in 1923. In March the cast and producer were arrested, after a performance, for “obscenity”. The story of the play, the trial and what happened to the cast is told in Indecent, which is currently on stage at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
And what was the obscenity in God of vengeance? A lesbian love scene. The playwright, Sholem Asch, a young Polish Jew, believed that the play showed Jews as human beings, able to love as everyone else and in line with ‘the Haskalah’ (the period of Jewish enlightenment). It was performed in various cities in Europe, to both great acclaim and great damnation. The most well known Yiddish writer at the time, IL Peretz, told Asch to burn the script. Interestingly, Asch went on to become a prolific writer of short stories, novels and plays. His house in Israel is a museum to his memory, notwithstanding the Israeli disdain for Yiddish.
As Indecent opens, the cast stands in a line and ashes fall from their sleeves. At the end, there are more ashes. The imagery is clear - from ashes we come, to ashes we will return.
God of vengeance was written in 1907, when Yiddish was the lingua franca of Jews in eastern Europe. It tells the story of a couple who run a house of prostitution. Their daughter falls in love with one of the prostitutes and there is a passionate, sensual love scene between the two. In revenge, the father makes his daughter work as a prostitute and the play ends with his holding the specially commissioned Torah above his head as if to throw it down. She has “defiled” it by her actions. For a Jew in Asch’s time, and for all religious Jews, to damage a Torah scroll in any way is almost criminal. Since the scrolls are handwritten, even making one error renders it unusable and then it must be buried as if it were a human being, with all the rituals. Any Jew of Asch’s time would have found the treatment of the Torah scroll almost more shocking than making the daughter a prostitute.
In English the love scene in God of vengeance between the two women was changed into a scene of manipulation, since “lewdness” was not permitted on stage by law.
When it was first performed in English, one of the radical New York Yiddish papers defended the play, while the orthodox papers decried it as enforcing anti-Semitic stereotypes (sexuality was one of these stereotypes at the time). In 1923 the entire cast and producer were arrested for obscenity. The next morning they posted bail and returned to the theatre in time for the matinee. They were found guilty - a verdict that was eventually overturned on appeal.
The cast then returned to Poland, where they remained together, performing the play and others, until they were interned in the Łódź ghetto in the early1940s. Having performed it for those trapped in the ghetto, eventually the cast were amongst those exterminated.
Indecent, having covered all this, then goes on to show the reaction of Sholem Asch to the play during his lifetime. He was horrified by the destruction of the Jewish communities in Europe after World War I, and more so after World War II. He forbade any future performances of God of vengeance, which went into obscurity until 2015, when it was performed at Yale University and then finally on Broadway in 2017. A film of Indecent was made in London after that - partially in the Spanish/Portuguese synagogue in Holland Park.
Asch himself was called before McCarthy’s House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and decided to leave the US. He died in London in 1957 (his great grandson, David Mazower, is a well-known writer and journalist).
Indecent alludes to some of the political machinations during the time. Following the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, immigration into the US was severely restricted. A sad scene shows the cast of God of vengeance waiting in the queue to enter the country, while other people are turned away. Further legislation followed, limiting immigration still further. New York State then passed the Wales Padlock Law in 1926, which prohibited plays dealing with “sex, degeneracy or perversion”, meaning effectively that homosexuals had to be portrayed as characters of vice, corruption or evil. This law was not repealed until 1976.
The Chocolate Factory’s Indecent has a cast of seven, who between them portray 42 different characters. The changes in scenery and characterisations are very clever. The stage has no curtains, so all changes are done by the actors themselves, very quickly, and in some cases during the action. Some of the effects are almost biblical - the verdict is literally written on the wall behind the actors. In addition there is a small traditional Jewish klezmer band of three, and in the more joyous scenes the actors dance and sing Yiddish songs - some of which I remember from childhood.
One character remains the same until the concentration camp extermination: the stage manager of God of vengeance (played by Finbar Lynch) was one of its most fervent admirers. He gets to know the play from its first reading at the house of Peretz, is involved in performances of it in both Europe and the US, and insists on it being shown in Łódź. The cast performs the play in the ghetto, even while starving. Somewhat understated, he cannot be ignored. When he is on stage, you are waiting to hear what he will say. Quietly, with great determination, he stands up for the play and the scenes of love between women.
As well as Finbar Lynch, another actor, Peter Polycarpou, should be mentioned. He changes effortlessly from one character to another, showing his range without a hitch, without a word out of place. Watching him was like watching a master class in acting.
The play highlights the anti-Semitism of the time, including comments made by supposedly well-meaning citizens who, of course, probably counted Jews among their best friends. One line of Sholem Asch’s made me laugh out loud (making the person sitting next to me jump slightly). It seemed to me to be a snapshot of our times. When IL Peretz makes a comment about a minyan (in orthodox circles, 10 men are needed to have a service and this grouping is called a minyan), Sholem Asch replies: “What’s a minyan but 10 men in a circle calling each other anti-Semites?” It reminded me of some of the shenanigans going on now, not least in relation to the Labour Party.
At one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission, the play does lag a bit at times, but the story, the glorious music, wonderful acting and clever stage action keep the audience engrossed. As a picture of the legal and political horrors of the 20th century, it is both a history lesson and a deeply moving theatrical experience.