Speaking of plays that make use of the actual physical presence of the audience, I got a chance to watch a production of Indecent a few days ago, and I am confirmed in my opinion that it’s my favorite script of the last twenty-five years.
If any of y’all aren’t familiar with the play, it’s a story about the Sholom Asch play Gd of Vengeance, from its writing in 1906 through its international success in the 1910s, to Broadway where it was closed by the police in 1923, all the way until it is nearly forgotten in 1952.
My Best Reader pointed out that in addition to my identifying with the story because it’s a Jewish story, I identify with it because it’s a theater story. This is very much true. I honestly do get a little weary of Holocaust stories—weary is the wrong word, perhaps, but I tend to feel that sometimes, for some stories, the Holocaust is used as a kind of talisman of emotional heft. As a fellow who is inclined to weep at sad stories, I resent having tears wrung from me on the cheap.
But it’s much more of a theater story than a Holocaust story. I suppose I could resent Paula Vogel for not ending the story of the play in 1923, but really, even if she had done that, it would have still been a Holocaust story, wouldn’t it? The destruction of European Jewish culture would have hung over the whole thing anyway. And ending the play in the fifties, with a disillusioned Sholom Asch refusing a new production of the play within the play is extremely powerful—and then you can’t just skip the Holocaust in between.
Sholom Asch came to feel—and it’s hard to argue with him—that the play, and that fiction in general—did not and could not save the world. The horrors of Europe in the fifty years after that play was written are pretty persuasive in that regard. Writers don’t save the world.
But in Paula Vogel’s play, that’s not the point. She knows that writers don’t save the world. That isn’t their job, she says. Dust we are, and to dust we return, she says, we all know that now, and art will never change that, but still it is possible to create beauty. Not just possible, but necessary. And the existence of one scene in Gd of Vengeance, a scene of two young women falling in love, dancing in the rain, finding beauty and pleasure in each other, the light of that one scene is enough. Or if it is not enough, it’s something, anyway, and it’s possible to live as if it were enough.
It’s ironic, I think (and I assume intentionally so) that if this is the message of Indecent, it is not the message of Gd of Vengeance. I have only read the latter in the Donald Margulies adaptation, but from what I can tell, the play is fundamentally not about those two young women, but about the brothel-master, who blunders away his (illusory) chance at redemption and ruins not only his own life but the lives of everyone around him. It’s a bitter, brutal sort of play, and while that one scene does stand out as the single example of beauty in it—the one bit when two people appear to be genuinely happy in the moment and not using each other selfishly—it’s not a triumph, but a brief, doomed, futureless blip.
Paula Vogel imagines a future for that scene that Sholom Asch did not. She imagines it without necessarily believing in it, or asking us to believe in it, but asking us to believe in the act of imagining it. Asking us to live as if that were enough.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
I saw a staged reading of God of Vengeance in 2019, and my impression was different from yours. Here’s what I thought when I saw it: “God of Vengeance is problematic because it portrays a bunch of Jews behaving terribly toward each other, and there’s a concern that negative portrayals will be used by anti-Semites to support or reinforce their views. God of Vengeance is beautiful because it portrays the clear parallels between prostitution and the selling of daughters with dowries, because it indicts the placement of objects as more deserving of care than people, because it brings forward the absurdity of money buying absolution and societal position, because it shows women as smarter and more caring and more valuable and having more agency than men, because it portrays a lesbian relationship as important to the plot without fixating on it and without negative judgment, and because it does all of this in 1907. In various ways it is dated and modern and entirely out of time.”
I don’t think the play is fundamentally about any of the characters in particular so much as about the society it portrayed. Maybe it’s relativism on my part, but I think the amount of time spent on the brothel-master is far less than it would have been in any other play at the time. He came across as figurehead and clown and foil, not hero or anti-hero.
Interesting! I wonder if we saw the same adaptation/translation. I agree with pretty much all the stuff you said about it, though.
When the play was popular on the Yiddish stage and in Europe, people seemed to think about it as being about the Father/brothel-master. At least in the sense that it was a vehicle for a Star Actor/Manager, along the same general lines as Lear or perhaps along the lines of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People. It’s true, though, that the audience has to wait quite a long time for his arrival, and then there are still longish scenes he’s not in—I agree that a different writer might well been far less interested in (or capable of) writing the supporting parts, particularly the lesbian ‘couple’, as full and memorable characters.