Playwright Paula Vogel Talks About Otherness, Anti-Semitism and Indecency

August 9, 2017
Playwright Paula Vogel Photo courtesy of Paula Vogel

NAME: Paula Vogel
AGE: 65
BEST KNOWN FOR: She received the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for drama for her play “How I Learned to Drive.”
LITTLE-KNOWN FACT: Throughout the now nearly four-month run of “Indecent,” not one cast or crew member has left the production.

In the current social landscape that, thanks to the internet, allows everyone the sense of being heard, we seem to have forgotten basic listening skills and too often fail to validate each other’s perspectives. How can we engage in meaningful conversations if we don’t choose to hear one another? How can we work together if we don’t know who we are in relation to one another?

In her Tony Award-winning play, “Indecent,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Paula Vogel tackles this challenge through the lens of the experiences of playwright Sholem Asch — my great-great-great-uncle — and his daring drama of the human condition, “God of Vengeance.”

“Indecent” captures the events surrounding Asch’s play, its people and the environment in which it was produced. Written in Yiddish in 1906 and performed throughout Europe, a 1923 English translation of “God of Vengeance” became known for its staging of the first lesbian kiss on Broadway, which caused such a stir in Jewish and theatrical communities that its entire cast was prosecuted for obscenity.

Vogel, a gay Jewish woman, makes sense of the cross-sections recognized in Asch’s original story, and now asks her audiences if, “almost a century later, is it now time to address our own obscenities?”

Jewish Journal: What made you want to tackle “God of Vengeance” in a contemporary play?

Paula Vogel: For a lot of us, this show is a signature play. It’s so unique for its time. I was 22 years old when I first read the play. I was floored that a young man wrote it. It has such an understanding and empathy for women.

And the love scene between his two women floored me. I literally stood while I read it. I couldn’t sit. I felt like I stopped breathing. It’s sort of a meta-expression of the desires that are growing in Americans today. “I can’t breathe” captures both the desire and the sense of a body being policed.

JJ: How did a college student in the 1970s connect so deeply with a play from 1906? 

PV: There was nothing old about it for me, except that the pages were yellow and it had been out of print. I was reading Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg and George Bernard Shaw, so I didn’t feel any obstruction or resistance to Sholem Asch. There is a strange sense of time for anyone who practices theater. Nothing is an old play. We’re always rewriting what’s already been told.

JJ: “Indecent” is only partially a story of Asch. It’s a story about two women, born out of Asch’s mind, with the main character being Asch’s play itself. What choices did you make to tell this unique story?

PV: I wanted “Indecent” to be about the journey of the play, and about the dead troupe that comes back to life with every performance to tell the story that was so deeply entrenched in their hearts and minds. It was a desire and challenge to emphasize the women of the play, because there was no historical context for them. But by creating the actresses who in my mind would dare to perform Rifkele and Manka in that period of time, I could bring them to life.

JJ: The play explores Jewish taboo. What else is still taboo in the Jewish community? And what does that reflect about society as a whole?

PV: Anti-Semitism is a worldwide toxic air that we breathe. Anti-Semites are alive and well, and some are in the White House. This play documents a point in time in America when we turned our immigration laws against Jews and Italians. Today, it’s Muslims, but it’s the same toxin in our country.

What is taboo about Jewish families within that, is that we no longer question whether Jews are Americans. It’s this notion of outsiderness. We are still outsiders, but I feel that there has been an assimilation in Jewish communities. Yet, I don’t know if outsiderness ever goes away.

JJ: What are the risks with such inherently Jewish-specific material as Asch’s, especially in light of the recent rise in anti-Semitism across our country?

PV: I think it’s always tricky when you represent the Holocaust. One of the great concerns for me is that there are generations of people for whom the Holocaust is a historical footnote. Today, it’s not resonating in their bodies as it did for me. I was born in 1951, and all the adults who reared me bear witness to it. How do you present the ultimate obscenity and indecency in a way that respects those who have lived through it and survived it, and those who didn’t survive it? How do you then implant a knowledge of what this obscenity really is into the bodies of young people?

JJ: Does “Indecent” speak differently to Jewish audiences?

 PV: I have watched audiences [respond to] four different productions. The core is definitely Jewish audiences and older audiences. When people in the audience know Yiddish, they’re laughing at the inside jokes, and I can feel that rapport. We project the stage directions on the troupe’s bodies as they turn into dust, and audiences feel that.

But I don’t ever want to write a play with one story and one viewpoint. There’s also a resonance expressed to me by people of color, by immigrants. People responded from the Latino communities and Asian communities in La Jolla, telling me, “This is the story of my family.” I get to talk to gay couples who feel that the show is about their journeys and their adversities.

JJ: Your play is quite powerful, and so many people are affected by it. Did working on “Indecent” change you in any way? 

PV: It’s led to a rich journey that continues for me wherever the play goes. I’m going into adult education. I’m trying to find time to learn Yiddish. I’ve rediscovered the power of music. I’m trying to learn about my Russian family and the family that emigrated in 1905. It’s been an exploration of legacy and how it works. It’s been the challenge of starting and continuing conversations.

JJ: In this age of alternative facts and divided worlds, do you feel that the conversation you’ve created in “Indecent” is a part of your legacy?

PV: It’s a starting point. It’s what your uncle’s novels did in his time. Sholem was talking about the multiple realities in “Uptown,” but he was able to present those multiple realities for the world to accept.

I think that the dissonance that I’m feeling in America as a gay woman is because there’s been no forum for a rational discourse. So, I formed my identity as a playwright with that tension in my mind and that forum in sight. “Indecent” fulfills that desire: Rifkele and Manka and Sholem talk to you and, for two hours, there is a beautiful acceptance of the human experience. Maybe I’m forming a new sort of rational discourse.

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