How Paula Vogel’s ‘Indecent’ remembers a century of dramatic censorship
« From the Ashes They Rise, » opens Paula Vogel’s play « Indecent, » at the CAA Theater on Yonge Street starting this Friday.
This opening moment is a haunting image – a troupe of actors covered in dust, seemingly lost in history before this moment. The story then begins when we meet Lemml, the stage manager, who promises to tell us a story about the play that changed his life. The part in question? Sholem Asch’s « God of Vengeance, » which in 1907 became the subject of Yiddish newspaper headlines in New York because of the play’s startlingly contemporary lesbian plot.
In 1907, « God of Vengeance » was called filthy, immoral and, yes, indecent for its content – and this is where Vogel’s investigation into the history of the play begins.
« I read ‘God of Vengeance’ when I was 22, and it always stuck with me, » Vogel said in an interview. « It was an important piece for me to read. »
« Fast forward 20 or 30 years, and I get a call from Rebecca Taichman, who, for a staging project, had directed a performance of the ‘God of Vengeance’ obscenity trial…and she told me asked if I would like to work with her. She would direct it and I would write it.
« I didn’t just see this as a play about the obscenity trial, » Vogel said. “I tried a version focusing only on the trial, and I thought it was a bit flat and I didn’t really understand why it was shocking. So I just went there from what I saw. And what I saw when she called me was a dusty theater group emerging from some sort of limbo in an attic room. I knew it was the game.
‘Indecent’ had its Broadway premiere in 2017 – nearly 100 years after ‘God of Vengeance’ hit the Great White Way in 1923. Drive. »
Vogel made it clear in our interview that while Taichman is credited as « co-creator » in the play’s print version, Vogel « wrote every word » of the text – including those haunting scenic directions.
« If there’s one word in the script that’s staged, it’s mine, » Vogel said.
« On the other hand, you know, I would hand him a few pages and say something like ‘take a four-scene trip around the world on stage.’ And she was like, ‘how can I do this?’ And I told him I didn’t know – that’s his problem,” Vogel said with a laugh.
« I wrote it, but I feel very collaborative, » she continued. “Even with directors I’ve never met doing my job” (like Joel Greenberg, who is directing the Toronto production).
Part of what makes « Indecent » so special is its music – while it’s not a « musical » per se, it’s certainly a game with music playing a vital role in the storytelling.
“I immediately heard a klezmer band while I was writing it,” Vogel said, “and recorded over 600 klezmer songs to find the songs I wanted. I selected all the music, and I always write in music — music is very important to me… it goes back to this Wagnerian notion of a total theatrical work. A total theatrical work always includes music and dance in some way and movement.
« Indecent, » while blending music and dance, also pays homage to a long legacy of theatrical censorship – from Edward Bond’s « Saved » in 1965 to Sarah Kane’s « Blasted » 30 years later. At the start of the 20th century, « God of Vengeance » was also reviled for its content and themes – and through « Indecent », Vogel honored this story of great works stifled by its context.
« There’s a long history of what I call benign censorship, » Vogel said. “You delete someone by criticism and the market. You can’t say it’s illegal – although before 1968 in England you could say it was illegal – but I think the capitalist markets practice this benign censorship, through criticism, through marketing. There are so many writers who do nothing because what they say is not the status quo.
Vogel has spent the past few years working to ensure writers who reject the status quo can be produced — and paid — for their work, in an initiative called « Bard at the Gate. »
« I’m in my third year of producing digital theater from BIPOC writers in America, who write brilliant plays that aren’t being performed by American theaters, » Vogel said.
“We need to have an ongoing censorship resistance. We don’t think of it as censorship because when we think of censorship, we think of the 1933 book burning. We think of the 1930s in Germany.
“But I think we have to resist that. You have to create desire. I hope 18-year-olds will start watching these plays and think, “This is what theater is supposed to be.
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