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Great Events from History: GLBT Events
The God of Vengeance
Opens on Broadway
The God of Vengeance, the controversial English-language version of Sholem Asch's 1907 Yiddish play, was the first drama on Broadway to include a lesbian love scene. The play’s producer and cast, and the theater owner, were arrested and found guilty of obscenity.
Date: February 19, 1923
Locale: New York, New York
Categories: Arts; cultural and intellectual history; crime
Sholem Asch (1880-1957), Yiddish novelist, essayist, short story writer,
Joseph Silverman, rabbi who denounced the play
Harry Weinberger, play's producer on Broadway
Michael Selwyn, owner of the theater where the play was produced
Rudolph Schildkraut, play's director
Summary of Event
Broadway's first lesbian love scene was presented in a play that had already been produced in a dozen languages in at least eight countries. Indeed, Got fun Nekomeh (pr. 1907; The God of Vengeance, 1918) had already been performed off and on for a decade and a half in New York City Yiddish theaters without incident. However, when The God of Vengeance appeared on Broadway in 1923 in an English-language translation, The Daily News fumed that the play presented "an ugly story" that was "hopelessly foreign to our Anglo-Saxon taste and understanding." The cast would be arrested and charged with promoting obscenity days after the play opened.
The basic action of the play consists of the efforts of a Polish brothel owner, Yekel Tchaftchovitch, to protect the innocence of his seventeen-year-old daughter Rivkele and marry her off to a respectable young man. To safeguard his daughter from the sins of her parents (her mother, Sore, is a former prostitute), Yekel makes a generous donation to his local synagogue to obtain a copy of the Torah, which he places in Rivkele’s bedroom. Even though she is forbidden to have contact with the prostitutes who live and work directly beneath her home, she is in fact a lover of one of them, Manke. Meanwhile, another prostitute, Hindel, is anxious to marry a pimp and establish her own brothel. Hindel convinces Manke that the only way that she and Rivkele can be together is for them to leave the Tchaftchovitch house and join her new brothel.
Rivkele accepts Hindel's advice and leaves home. Her flight, however, is discovered; when she is brought back home her father asks if she is "still as pure as when you left this house." She responds that she "doesn't know." When the matchmaker arrives with the prospective groom's father in order to finalize the marriage arrangements, Yekel goes crazy, banishing his daughter and wife to the brothel located below their home and placing the Holy Scroll in the arms of the bewildered matchmaker.
The Broadway production was met with controversy: A group of private citizens, the Society for the Suppression of Vice, attacked the play for being "obscene, indecent, disgusting, and tending to corruption of the morals of youth." Joseph Silverman, rabbi of Temple Emanuel, caught the attention of the district attorney. An outspoken member of the religious community, Silverman was convinced that the play was indecent and blasphemous, and he was especially offended that all the characters in the brothel (prostitutes, lesbian prostitutes, and johns) were Jewish.
Fifteen days after The God of Vengeance opened on Broadway, the cast, producer Harry Weinberger, and theater owner Michael Selwyn were arrested for "presenting an obscene, indecent, immoral and impure theatrical production." The fourteen defendants posted $300 bail and were back at the theater to give a matinee performance. The publicity was great for business; The God of Vengeance ran for 133 performances before it closed.
Written in Yiddish in 1906 and first published in that language in 1907, The God of Vengeance is, according to scholar Alisa Solomon, "one of the toughest and most self-critical plays in the Yiddish canon," tackling domestic violence, rabbinic hypocrisy, and the collision between modern and traditional worlds. While the message in this moral melodrama is very clear—a life of sin leads Yekel to lose what he values most—the play also contains trenchant social commentary, especially in regard to the plight of women whose only option is to be sold as prostitutes or brides.
The love between Manke and Rivkele is not presented as shocking or perverse; in fact, they are the only couple in the play whose relationship is not marred by violence and emotional brutality. There is no analysis or even discussion of same-gender desire by any of the characters. What is explicit is that the two women have an emotional and physical relationship. At the end of act 1, they kiss on stage; in act 2, after frolicking in a warm spring rain, Manke delights in Rivkele's body.
I uncovered your breasts and washed them with the rain water that ran into my hands. So white and firm, your breasts, and the blood in them cools under the hand like white snow. And their fragrance is like the smell of grass in the meadows.
The playwright wrote in the play's Broadway program that the love between the two characters "is not only an erotic one. It is unconscious mother love of which they are deprived . . . rather than the sensuous, inverted love of one woman for another." While some audience members might have come away from the play with Asch's interpretation, others could just as easily applaud the love these two women obviously have for one another.
Most of the New York critics made no mention of the lesbian plot in their reviews. Some were obtuse, The Evening Telegram allowing "The terrible details need not be recorded here, they are almost too terrible to look upon in the theatre." Producer Alice Kauser trimmed the lesbian love scenes for the English-language presentation when it opened on December 20, 1922, in the Off-Broadway Provincetown Playhouse, and most historians assume that more cuts were made to the play before it moved from Greenwich Village to Broadway, where it opened at the Apollo Theatre on 42nd Street on February 19, 1923. None of the critics who covered the play in its December or February opening explained to their readers that The God of Vengeance was the first play to introduce lesbian characters to English-language audiences.
After the play closed, the obscenity case against the play’s cast, producers, and the theater owner went to trial. Despite the testimony of numerous rabbis in support of the play, the judge ruled against it, fining actor-director Rudolph Schildkraut and producer Weinberger $200 each; the rest of the cast were given suspended sentences. Suspended or not, these sentences marked the first time in American theater that a jury found performers guilty of presenting obscene material. The New York State Court of Appeals reversed the convictions in January, 1925, on the grounds that the manuscript of the play had not been allowed in evidence at the trial.
Even as some critics held that The God of Vengeance is the greatest drama of the Yiddish theater, its English-language productions continued to cause controversy. In 1946, the British play reader assigned to the English-language play suggested that London's chief rabbi be asked to assess the play before it was granted a license to be performed. Rabbi Harris M. Lazarus was firm when he wrote,
[T]he theme is offensive and not fit for the public stage. . . . This play could not have been intended for the stage either in Russia or in any other Jewish centre. It is a sordid theme, repulsive in personnel and diction, and offensive to any feeling of decency in the use of the Scroll for such purpose.
Rabbi Lazarus did not know that the Yiddish play had already been performed in London, that its first production in St. Petersburg in 1908 (in Russian) was a rousing success, and that by the 1930's it had been performed by virtually every Yiddish theater company in the world.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies crafted his own adaptation of Asch’s play in 2000. Streamlining the play by reducing it from three to two acts, he accomplished what Alisa Solomon described as a "crossover success, making The God of Vengeance a profoundly compelling American play."
Bud ColemanFurther Reading
Asch, Sholem. The God of Vengeance. Translated by Isaac Goldberg, preface by Abraham Cahan. Boston: Stratford, 1918.
Berkowitz, Joel, ed. Yiddish Theatre: New Approaches. Portland, Ore.: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2003.
Bordman, Gerald. American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1914-1930. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Curtin, Kaier. "We Can Always Call Them Bulgarians": The Emergence of Lesbians and Gay Men on the American Stage. Boston: Alyson, 1987.
Margulies, Donald. God of Vengeance. Adapted from the play by Sholem Asch. Translated by Joachim Neugroschel, introduced by Alisa Solomon. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2004.
Siegel, Ben. The Controversial Sholem Asch: An Introduction to His Fiction. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1976.
1929: Pandora's Box Opens; 1930's-1960's: Hollywood Bans "Sexual Perversion" in Films; December 3, 1998-February 25, 1999: Fire’s Screening in India Ignites Violent Protests.
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