Indecent Says Goodbye
Indecent, the play about the scandal-causing early twentieth-century Yiddish play The God of Vengeance, closed this past weekend. Originally scheduled to close in June, an outpouring of support allowed this play about Sholem Asch’s incendiary work (which featured the first onstage lesbian kiss in Broadway history) to stay open until the beginning of August. During that time, JWA’s resident Yiddish scholar, Elena Hoffenberg, and JWA’s Blog Manager, Bella Book, got the chance to see and discuss this award-winning, heart-warming, somewhat indecent play.
Bella: We did it!
Elena: We both saw Indecent before it closed!
Bella: How did you first learn about the play?
Elena: I heard about Indecent a while ago, when it was first staged outside of New York. I first heard about Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance in my years of studying Yiddish, as an example of Yiddish literature that challenges the assumption that it’s just about small town Jewish life, à la Fiddler on the Roof.
Bella: How interesting! We did get to see a little bit of that more typical portrayal in the character Lemmel, as he struggled to assimilate to life in America. I thought that the play did a fantastic job of capturing the pain of assimilation.
Elena: Definitely. The interpersonal drama isn’t just dramatic, it’s emblematic of the transition. In the history of Jews in America, there’s a progress narrative that Jews arrived from Eastern Europe speaking Yiddish and they did everything they could to ensure that their children would be able to succeed by casting away traces of "immigrant-ness," especially in accent. But this play challenges that narrative by showing the pain of letting go of Yiddish, and even resistance to do so, as well as including the stories of the people who had come to America and later returned to Europe before the Holocaust.
Bella: Exactly. I thought that the persistence of the people who loved this play and continued to perform it, even in the ghettos, was amazing. One of the most masterful parts of this story for me was that we could see so much of history and social change filtered through the life of this play. The story demonstrates just how not static plays and other works of art are.
Elena: Absolutely! If anything, it’s a reminder that art is even more important in challenging times.
Bella: And that people in all circumstances deserve access to, and can create, powerful and complicated stories.
Elena: Asch’s play itself was staged in New York earlier this year and, get this, it was in the original Yiddish! It was so popular it came back for another month of shows! The interpretation resonated deeply in this time, over a century after it was first performed.
Bella: I love that! I was so impressed by the actors’ ability to speak Yiddish and how well Yiddish was integrated into a play that is mostly told in English.
Elena: I definitely thought Indecent captured how important language is. We saw that sometimes in the early twentieth century the qualifications for actors included speaking unaccented English. That wasn’t a small feat. For a recently-arrived immigrant from Eastern Europe who had performed in Yiddish, it could be even more difficult to speak English on stage than today’s actor speaking Yiddish. When we see the play today, there were probably fewer native Yiddish speakers in the audience who would bristle at mispronunciation than there were native English speakers who would chafe against accents in the early 1900s.
Bella: And we definitely saw the power dynamics of language with the young woman who played Rifkele in Yiddish. When she couldn’t speak unaccented English, she was fired so unceremoniously. The dynamics between her and the male, more assimilated, producer were very complex. What did you think about the female characters in the play?
Elena: I liked Sholem Asch’s wife, Mathilde, and their relationship! It felt wonderful that the words he used to woo her wound up being spoken between the two young women in the play. Mathilde is a great character. We see how she is able to learn English and then work as a translator for Sholem, who struggled with English pronunciation.
Bella: She works as a social translator as well, understanding unspoken implications in the doctor’s office. She knows that the doctor recommending rest for Sholem “upstate” is code for sending him to a sanitarium. I also thought her sense of ownership of the play was interesting.
Elena: I noticed the idea of ownership throughout Indecent. We see Sholem go from being the play’s champion to agreeing to have it altered. The producer argues that certain scenes were too complicated for Broadway, while the cast and stage manager are fighting to have the play go uncensored. One character even says something to the effect of: the play belongs to the people who see it and who love it.
Bella: The story of Indecent’s almost closing and now closing certainly shifts when filtered through this idea of ownership. As the audience, we are now partial owners of this story and its legacy.
Elena: How does the play’s closing rest with you now that you’ve seen it?
Bella: It feels bittersweet. I wouldn’t have seen this play if it hadn’t been closing, and I saw it in a packed theater during its last weekend. The actors were crying, the audience was crying, and I left thinking about how market forces can hide stories. I also left thinking about censorship and how art isn’t only happening in designated spaces, like the stage or in galleries and museums. Real, complicated stories are being created and performed in people’s homes, in private, in spaces that can’t be censored in the same way. What about you?
Elena: To me, it was a reminder of the importance of the power of voting with my dollars, and spending money and time to support the arts. I should say, I don’t often see theater. I can't remember the last time I saw a professional play, much less bought my own ticket. I’m so, so, so glad that Indecent stayed open long enough for me to see it, and to be able to say I saw it on Broadway was great, but I’m also glad it will continue when it goes on tour in other cities.
Bella: I am glad that it gets to live on!
Elena: Absolutely! And, after all, the play is about stories living on past the final curtain, so there is no doubt that it will continue to persist.
How to cite this page
Hoffenberg, Elena. "Indecent Says Goodbye." 11 August 2017. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 24, 2022) <https://jwa.org/blog/indecent-says-goodbye>.