Ninety-four years ago, the cast and producer of the Broadway production of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance were jailed on grounds of obscenity. The jury trial that followed—a cause célèbre in New York State court—foreshadowed more protracted, better-remembered litigation regarding the merits of Ulysses by James Joyce and Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence.
God of Vengeance involves a brothel-keeper, his family, his whores, and a rival pimp; some scenes take place in the bordello. As though that weren’t enough to outrage a 1923 audience, the play also features two women blissfully kissing each other in a rainstorm, fantasizing that this is their wedding night. If a same-sex kiss by Ellen DeGeneres caused a furor on network television in 1997 (which it did), imagine audience reaction seven decades earlier!
The controversy that enveloped God of Vengeance is the basis of Indecent by Paula Vogel, which had a sold-out run at the nonprofit Vineyard Theatre last year and moves to Broadway’s Cort Theatre in April. The New Yiddish Rep (NYR) is currently reviving Asch’s original drama Off-Broadway. The presence of God of Vengeance and Indecent on Manhattan stages in the same season is welcome cultural synchronicity.
The Polish-born Asch (1880–1957) is a major figure of Yiddish literature, and God of Vengeance is his best-known drama. The play’s protagonist, Yekel (Shane Baker), thinks he has sheltered his daughter, Rifkele (Shayna Schmidt), from the bawdyhouse in his basement and the women whom his business exploits. But Rifkele has investigated the lower depths of the family residence and become enamored of Manke (Melissa Weisz), one of her father’s employees.
With Rifkele approaching marriageable age, Yekel and his wife Sarah (Eleanor Reissa) want to arrange a favorable match within the local Jewish community. Gambling that religious philanthropy may overcome the handicap of his professional status, Yekel underwrites the labor-intensive creation of a new Torah scroll. When the scroll is about to be delivered and a matchmaking rabbi (David Mandelbaum) is arriving with a desirable groom (a rabbinical student, no less), Rifkele runs away with Manke and a bawd (Luzer Twersky) who’s starting a whorehouse to compete with Yekel.
God of Vengeance was first produced in Berlin by Max Reinhardt in 1910, with the renowned Rudolph Schildkraut directing and portraying Yekel. Though soon performed around Europe in various languages, Asch’s play didn’t arrive in New York until December 1922, when Schildkraut chose it for his English-language debut. In February 1923, Schildkraut’s production moved from Greenwich Village to Broadway, where its run was cut short by the arrest of the entire cast on obscenity charges. A jury trial and convictions followed, though the sentences of most of the cast members (including Yiddish-stage star Morris Carnovsky and future Hollywood character actor Sam Jaffe) were suspended by judicial fiat. Schildkraut and the commercial producer were each fined $200. Maida Castellun, drama critic of the New York Call, admitted that God of Vengeance was “absorbing,” but she declared it “[u]gly, sordid, and repellent beyond any play that has yet been presented on the contemporary English speaking stage.”
Directed by Reissa, God of Vengeance is indeed “absorbing” (as Castellun reported it to be back in the 1920s). The 11 members of the NYR cast, speaking lickety-split Yiddish, give a straightforward, often heartfelt, reading of a melodramatic text that could easily lend itself to flights of camp. In their capable hands, Asch’s drama proves poignant, though often quaint. Thanks to a succinct translation by Baker that is projected on the back wall of the stage, the dialogue is accessible at all times to audience members who don’t know Yiddish.
Making the most of a frugal Off-Off Broadway budget, designer Vicki Davis (sets and costumes) offers a detailed picture of an Orthodox Jewish household. There are implements of hospitality (drinking and serving vessels, decanters, and bottles), grooming (the matron’s obligatory wig, the maiden’s properly demure attire), and ritual (items for worship and the equipment required to prepare the house for the Sabbath). But Davis’s costumes, some of which are decidedly contemporary, fail to give the production a sense of precise period, despite the fact that Asch’s script seems inextricably linked to Europe in an era before World War II.
Indecent emphasizes the scandal caused by the flirtation of Rifkele and Manke and their on-stage kiss. But God of Vengeance is less concerned with a same-sex affair than with one man’s relationship with the divine. Learning that his beloved child has fallen into the hands of traffickers, Yekel is overwhelmed by the conviction that he’s at the mercy of God’s wrath. But Asch was a citizen of a world re-envisioned by Sigmund Freud and, in the end, God of Vengeance is primarily about guilt, remorse, and a protagonist who is the architect of his own destruction.
Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, performed in Yiddish with English supertitles, plays through Jan. 22 at La Mama (74A East 4th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. There are added performances on Tuesdays, Jan. 10 and 17, at 7 p.m. Tickets may be purchased by calling (800) 838-3006 or visiting www.newyiddishrep.org.