Q&A with Paula Vogel, Writer of Indecent

Jonathan Zeller

New Broadway drama Indecent tells the true story of a much earlier Broadway drama, God of Vengeance. Originally written in Yiddish by Sholem Asch, Vengeance had its brief 1920s Broadway run cut short when its portrayal of a lesbian relationship spurred an obscenity trial.

Written by Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel and directed by Rebecca Taichman, Indecent uses Vengeance to explore such issues as immigration, religious sensitivities and anti-Semitism. The story spans decades—Vengeance’s early European productions, its move to the United States and eventual performance in Poland’s Lodz Ghetto—employing an onstage klezmer band, ash pouring from actors’ costumes and rain falling onto the stage to convey key moments.

Vogel took time out to discuss the show—which has been met with critical acclaim and recently received a Tony nomination for best play—and New York City with us.

Indecent is now playing at the Cort Theatre.

You started working on Indecent around 2010. What had you thinking about the subject matter?
Paula Vogel:
I’ve known about God of Vengeance since I was 22, and I knew about the obscenity trial. The director knew about the play 20 years after that, when she was in her 20s. The reason to start working on it was that we were experiencing a sharp division in our country, and there was a lot of hate speech starting to develop about immigrants.

If you stop and think, if you love history the way I do, there have been two times in our country’s recent history in which free speech and freedom have been suppressed, and there have been attacks on outsiders—in the 1950s, during the Joe McCarthy era, and in the 1920s and ’30s against immigration when the KKK was on the rise, and it was “America First.”

So why not write a play that begins in a time when there are pogroms and people trying to flee, a show that is censored and closed down in the 1920s, and end in the play in the 1950s—and it’s all true? Because it actually is about right now.

How did you research the 1923 production and the events surrounding it?
I did 40 drafts of this play. I did four or five really bad drafts where I tried to put the obscenity trial on stage. Finally, about a year or two in, Rebecca had given me the trial transcripts and the diaries and the letters from [God of Vengeance’s producer] Harry Weinberger and the vice cop [who arrested Weinberger and the actors]. It was great reading—but I turned to her and I said, “I think the obscenity trial is not the play. I think it’s offstage.”

So I did a lot more research about the actors of the ’20s and the ’30s. I did research about immigration in New York, what New York was like then. I did a lot of research about Polish theater in the ghettos and in camps. I read a lot about Yiddish and changes in Yiddish language. I don’t speak Yiddish, but there’s still a lot to read about it.

When I started, I said to Rebecca, “I think we’ve got a klezmer band, and I think it’s an accordion, a violin and a clarinet.” I always write to music; musical theater has been my first love. So I listened to about 600 songs. I found about 10 or 12 songs that I really loved, and I wrote the play around those songs the way you’d write a book [to a musical].

Is there anything you’d recommend audience members see to get a deeper understanding of immigration or the history of New York City’s Jewish community?
One of the great things about rehearsing in New York is we could take field trips as a company. So the entire company went to Ellis Island. We all went to the Tenement Museum. There are tours of the Lower East Side. There’s the Jewish Museum. And there are incredible synagogues downtown. You can walk through the Lower East Side where all these Yiddish theaters were, and you can still feel it. There’s still a lot to see in New York, and I hope people do.

Was there anything you saw on those trips that influenced how the play turned out?
Definitely Ellis Island. I went to Ellis Island before I wrote the Ellis Island scene [in the play], before the company went.

[After the show] younger people say, “I’m going home. I’m calling my grandmother. I’m calling my grandfather. I’m going to ask questions about our family.” Older people come out and tell me stories about their great grandmothers and their grandmothers. Everyone who lives in this country, I feel, should go to Ellis Island, look at those photographs, go through the Great Hall and understand how our ancestors got here. And if everybody went to Ellis Island who believes we should have no immigration, who believes we should throw illegal immigrants out—I’d like to pay for the ferry trip to go to Ellis Island, because it’s inspiring.