In 1906, the great Yiddish writer Sholem Asch wrote a play called God of Vengeance about the owner of a brothel and his attempt to preserve his family’s respectability despite his profession—an attempt that ultimately fails when his daughter falls in love with one of his employees. When the play was eventually performed in New York in English, it was banned and some of the cast members briefly jailed. The play Indecent, which recently had its Broadway debut, purports to tell the story of this play and the scandal around it. While praising Indecent’s artistic merits, Edward Rothstein finds it ultimately both unconvincing and unfaithful to the dramatic work it sets out to celebrate:
Indecent distorts Asch’s play, presenting it as if it were primarily about tyranny vs. liberation. The tyranny is evident in the father who strikes his daughter and condemns her to join his troupe of trollops; the freedom is evident in the lesbian love scene. But Asch’s play has other concerns. Yekel, [the father], not only runs the brothel but his wife is a former prostitute. They bring up their daughter Rifkele to be untainted by their “sins.” The title God of Vengeance refers to Yekel’s fear that God will take revenge on him by luring Rifkele into his other world. And indeed, as his wife speaks with her, Rifkele, unseen, is being passionately kissed by the prostitute she loves. [And] the prostitute is seducing Rifkele to run away to another whorehouse (“You’ll see how nice everything will be. Young folks will be there aplenty—army officers—and we’ll be together”). This is quite different from the scene of liberation portrayed in Indecent.
Indecent also misses another issue. What bothered [Asch’s mentor, the Yiddish writer I.L.] Peretz [about the play] was not the brothel or lesbian sexuality. He objected to Asch’s distortions of Jewish belief in order to lure a non-Jewish audience, making Yekel melodramatically absurd. Indecent simplifies matters further: it isolates a single fragment of the play that strips Yekel of any humanity: he is simply an Orthodox tyrant—thus creating yet another distortion for yet another audience.
In a note posted outside the theater and supplied to critics, [the playwright] Paula Vogel emphasizes the effect Asch’s treatment of lesbian love had on her and suggests that the relevance of Indecent is particularly evident today given “an upheaval of fear, xenophobia, homophobia, and yes, anti-Semitism.” Unfortunately, such concerns were also grafted onto both story and history displacing Asch’s ambiguous, troubling drama with a contemporary political morality play. This is worth keeping in mind, though Indecent is so suited to contemporary sentiments and so finely executed, its pedagogy will likely go unnoticed.