Indecent is Here to Stay! (Sort Of)
For the first time, ever, I decided to watch the Tony Awards earlier this month. This is unusual for me; even Rachel Bloom hadn’t convinced me to be interested. I know next to nothing about theater, but having studied Yiddish and been fascinated by how we tell the stories of Jewish immigration to the United States, I had tickets next month to see Indecent, a drama about a Yiddish play that featured Broadway’s first on-stage lesbian kiss in 1923. I was excited to see how this play would fare at the awards show. When Rebecca Taichman won the Tony for the Best Direction of a Play for her rendition of Indecent, I grew even more excited. It felt that, at least for a while, Indecent’s legacy was somewhat secure on “the Great White Way.”
Then, the news came: Indecent would be closing after its matinée performance on June 25. It was unfathomable to me how a play that had been recognized with a major award could close after just over two months. Then, more news came: in an unprecedented move, the executive producers would keep the play open, but only until August 6. I was thrilled: it wouldn’t be closing during Pride Month, and I could still see it on Broadway! Despite this extension, Indecent will still close by the end of the summer.
This isn’t just any show closing (and then not closing, and then re-closing): Indecent itself is about a play that closed. It tells the story of the production of God of Vengeance, a Yiddish play written by Sholem Asch in 1907. (You can read it online in Yiddish or in English translation.) The head of the household, Yankel, tries to separate his livelihood–the brothel he runs on the first floor of his house–from his family life as he tries to find a match for his daughter Rifkele. This is not so simple, as Rifkele has fallen in love with Manke, a woman who works in the brothel. Indecent tells the story of the play’s production, from its premiere in Berlin to the scandal when it was staged in English in New York and its cast was arrested on obscenity charges. As its current director, Taichman, said in her acceptance speech, “this is a story about love in perilous times and about speaking out and making art when one is at great danger.”
These stories are important to tell, and to keep telling. If we see ourselves in the creations of the past, we can see ourselves creating in the present. Indecent speaks to the importance of telling these stories and of preserving sources that give us full and inclusive history. This retelling came about through a collaboration between Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman.
Vogel had read Sholem Asch’s play in graduate school. “One of my thesis advisors came to me and said, ‘I think you should read God of Vengeance,’” she recalled, “which was his code word for saying, ‘I know you’re a lesbian Jew.’” Taichman also found it while studying theater at Yale, the library of which houses Asch’s papers and materials relating to the scandal surrounding God of Vengeance. (Yale’s rare books library also holds the archive of Paula Vogel herself, who in 2015 became the first female playwright to be included in the Yale Collection of American Literature.)
As Indecent shows, winning an award doesn’t guarantee success, but a lack of recognition doesn’t mean a lack of significance. Once she left the stage after her minute and a half-long speech, Rebecca Taichman articulated exactly why. A reporter asked her about having just become one of the few women to win a Tony for directing a play. Taichman remembered watching Julie Taymor and Garry Hynes win in 1998, and thinking, "‘Wow, women can win.’ It [Taymor and Hynes’ recognition] made it visible, and making it visible suddenly made it possible. The amazing thing is that it encourages women of every color ... and viewpoint to make theater that tell stories that deeply matter to them."
I think about the work of the Jewish Women’s Archive as an opportunity to highlight how Jewish women and their achievements inspire us today with the slogan, “If you can see it, you can be it.” By looking to the past, we find Jewish women, with achievements great and small, who serve as role models for us today. It’s not just about telling the stories of Jewish women, but showing what is possible for everyone when we create an inclusive history and tell the full story of our communities. The closing of Indecent isn’t the end, just as the closing of God of Vengeance didn’t mean the end of its ability to challenge prejudices and to push boundaries. The narrative we have about the past, and the collected sources that document this narrative, in all its complexity, are just waiting to inspire the next stories we tell.
Stories, especially those one might consider “indecent,” are critically important now. Political developments in our own time easily parallel those from when the play premiered. “We are at a point in time that is very similar to the 1920s and 30s,” remarked Paula Vogel, noting the anti-Semitism, homophobia, nativism, and misogyny of the time. Portraying complex characters, with all their strengths and their flaws, can be uncomfortable in politically-charged times. When the play opened in 1923, Sholem Asch addressed concerns that it would not portray Jews in a favorable light during a time of anti-immigrant and anti-Jewish sentiments. The play’s production in Yiddish earlier this year and Indecent’s premiere on Broadway provoked the age-old question of whether such theater would be “good for the Jews?” I can’t help but say yes, a little indecency is definitely good for the Jews. We won’t get anywhere by looking at history through rose-tinted glasses. Presenting the past in all its complexity and contradiction gives us the models of resistance we need in the present.
So, whether you want to celebrate history that’s a little indecent, see art created by and about complex Jewish women, or just like a good old-fashioned Broadway play, you have six more weeks!
How to cite this page
Hoffenberg, Elena. "Indecent is Here to Stay! (Sort Of) ." 23 June 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 21, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/indecent-is-here-to-stay-sort-of>.