A neoclassical stage? Or a theater off-kilter?

Will Paula Vogel’s "Indecent" do justice to Sholem Asch’s "God of Vengeance"?

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an artistic failure.

What?

Yeah. This is what T.S. Eliot says in his infamous essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” claiming that Coriolanus is instead Shakespeare’s most artistically solid piece of theater.

This perhaps says more about T.S. Eliot’s neoclassical leanings, his love of Roman “revenge tragedies,” than it does about the actual esthetics of theater.

Hamlet: a too, too solid self-obsession? Edwin Booth in the title role, ca. 1870. Photo: J. Gurney & Son, N.Y. /Wikimedia Commons

But maybe we should give his theory a test-drive first, before dismissing it outright.

Maybe it is actually a mirror we’d prefer to not look too deeply into . . .

Case in point:

Sholem Asch’s 1906 Yiddish stage-play, God of Vengeance. 

Readers Theatre Repertory gave this once-famous play a staged reading in January 2020 at Blackfish Gallery in Portland. In the early 20th century it was translated into at least ten languages and produced all over Europe, first at Max Reinhardt’s theater in Berlin in 1907. That same year, the original Yiddish version was produced in New York City, stirring a big brouhaha in the city’s large Yiddish press. Sixteen years later, the English translation (which Readers Theatre adapted) was produced on Broadway, and was shut down by NYC police as “obscene.”

Poster for Readers Theatre Repertory’s January production of Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance.”

Readers Theatre’s jaunt, of course, anticipates the opening of Paula Vogel’s Indecent on Saturday, Feb. 22 (previews begin Feb. 19) at PSU’s Lincoln Hall, as a coproduction of Artists Repertory and Profile theaters and directed by Profile’s Josh Hecht. You anticipate it too, with interest. And with a major dose of skepticism. Will the production of Indecent do justice, do honest homage, to its nominal subject – Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance? Or will it merely open-pit mine it: exploit the play for its relevance, in the year 2020, regarding issues of race and sexual preference?

Oh . . . And of censorship?

Yekel is a businessman. And his home sits on the second floor above his business.

What is his business?

Yekel owns and runs the town’s house of prostitution. His wife, Sarah, is a former whore. But their teenage daughter Rikele is “pure.” Rikele’s parents keep her from descending the back staircase into the “cellar,” the parents’ euphemism for the business. And Yekel has paid for a Holy Scroll to be produced, to be kept in the one “clean” room in the house, Rekele’s bedchambers. A matchmaker, Mr. Ali, is negotiating Rekele’s marriage to a scholar, a young rabbi who will live with them – and continue his scriptural studies without having to work for a living. It is a way for Yekel and Sarah to mitigate their “sins” and raise their standing in the community.

But all is not right in this Denmark.

Rikele enjoys her hair being combed by Manke, a girl from the cellar.

Innocent enough.

But she enjoys being kissed by this young prostitute, too. Rikele kisses back, and the kiss is passionate.

A subplot has aging sex-worker Hindel wanting handsome Schloyme, Yekel’s procurer, to make an honest woman out of her by marrying her.

When Rikele disappears, Yekel pays slimy Schloyme to find her and bring her home, not knowing that Schloyme and Hindel are complicit in her disappearance. And this all transpires just before the matchmaker arrives, bringing the father of the scholar upstairs to cement the marriage contract.

Sarah is at wits’ end. But Yekel is literally being driven crazy with worry.

Worry over his daughter’s safety? Or over her purity?

Yekel’s psychological and existential world is imploding.

No more home.

No more daughter.

No more wife.

Down into the cellar.

He rails. As if the daughter’s bedroom has been heaven, and the cellar is hell. Then he turns his anger toward God.

Sin from generation to generation.

Sin encircles me like a rope around my neck.

If he is a true God, let him reveal his miracle on this very spot!

When Rikele is returned, she admits to “seeing things,” but her continued “purity” is ambiguous. Yekel puts his hands around her neck.

Better I had twisted your neck at an early age.

He tells her in his rage.

Don’t be afraid.

He then tells her. This gets a nervous laugh from the audience.

With matchmaker and prospective father-in-law present, Yekel raves against his daughter. Against the Torah, the Jewish sacred Law as revealed to Moses. Against God. Throwing the Holy Scroll across the room . . . Lights down.

Cast of 1923 English-language production of “God of Vengeance” at The Apollo in New York. The show was shut down by the courts as obscene. Photo: The Forward

T.S. Eliot’s argument against Hamlet is that the psychological character-motivations do not “make sense,” leaving all the side characters painted as rather flat. That the whole play is about the title character, Hamlet. And that this is what audiences fixate upon. Not about how the play works artistically, but upon Hamlet’s psychological journey toward making a decision and acting decisively. Eliot doesn’t use the word, but he is talking about the play’s failure due to it being a psychodrama.

(But is Hamlet’s behavior merely a confused psychological journey? Or is it an existential one – talking about real-world things?)

Had Eliot ever seen God of Vengeance, he would have uttered his same complaint. The side characters are flat and stereotypical, their psychological motivations predictable and clichéd. Only Yekel goes through a process of deep and serious change. Only he is provided by the author with a (near-tragic) dimension to his character.

(This psychodramatic devolution which Doren Elias, the actor playing Yekel for Readers Repertory, expertly builds? Elias hones this to a fine existential crescendo – by this staged-reading’s utterly startling conclusion. A remarkable performance!)

This is not neat and tidy neoclassical theater. Anything but!

And yet . . .

And yet . . .

Something gets under your skin, some raw emotion. Deep under!

Too often on Portland stages, you see this neoclassical urge to make sure everything psychologically “makes sense.” That all key characters are rounded and their motivations well-defined.

And in the end?

As with Coriolanus, everything feels a little too pat to you. Everything too snugly pasted together. Nothing ever quite out-of-control. Never quite coming unglued.

This makes you wonder about Indecent: Will it be manipulative big-idea emotion? Or something more naked?

(In conjunction with the show: Congregation Beth Israel, the Q Center, and the Jewish Theatre Collaborative will also be doing their own reading of God of Vengeance, with Act One on Feb. 29 at Beth Israel and Act Two on March 1 at the Q Center.)

When is the last time you have seen something on a Portland stage that wings out of control like Hamlet? Becomes unglued like God of Vengeance?

On the mainstages? . . . No. It’s Coriolanus, everywhere you look.

You have felt this crazy edge, instead, at Portland readings of plays by Dan Kitrosser (Svetlana! Svetlana!), Matthew Miller (Martyr), EM Lewis (Dorothy’s Dictionary), and others from the LineStorm Playwrights group. By Paul Smith (Mata Hari) and others from the PDX Playwrights group. Here and there around town. (Some fine examples of this more existentially based theater featured prominently at the just-completed 2020 Fertile Ground festival – an ArtsWatch overview appearing shortly.)

Here, obsessive polish is scrubbed away. Something beautiful and raw instead resonates in its place.

You are not arguing for “bad esthetics” here.

The neoclassical taste – of T.S. Eliot and the Portland mainstages – champions one style of organizing reality. You are attracted to theater (and to all the arts) that conceptualizes space and time in a quite different, less polished way.

Neoclassical, or slightly off-kilter?

The 2018 production of “Indecent” at Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv. Photo: Kfir Bolotin

Indecent premiered in 2016, off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theater, directed by Rebecca Taichman. It was full of the Broadway-bound razzle-dazzle of visual projections and stage-filling song & dance. Plus leaping back and forth, hither and thither in time, as if the arrest of the 1923 New York cast for “obscenity” and Hitler’s Death Camps of the 1940s were part of one and the same historical process.

Uh, no. Censorship is nothing like ethnic cleansing.

Being censored is a kind of a badge of honor in the arts. Think of James Joyce or D.H. Lawrence. But really – think of the American jazz clubs that the police periodically shut down for playing wild “ungodly music” (later it would be rock ‘n’ roll); think of the burlesque halls with their “sinful, salacious” dancing; think of pre-code movies and Hollywood’s later self-censoring of such for their all-too-suggestive storylines. Thought police acting in the name of “public decency.” This is how outgroups impact the larger American culture, by pushing the boundaries of what is proper, undercutting good taste – and, yes, running up against “community standards” – all for the sake of an audience out there that is hungry for new and genuine experiences. (Notably, Jewish impresarios have played a prodigious role in the history of the music industry, of burlesque, and of movie production during the 20th century, to America’s great benefit.)

Censorship always seems to go after the rude, the raw, the real. The slightly out-of-control. In God of Vengeance the insights are not globe-trotting big ideas, but quite modest. Yet still significant, for that fact.

The stage set itself is almost thoroughly existential, with a hint of the unworldly. The upstairs and downstairs are conceived as a kind of heaven and hell. (Remember how Ibsen always utilizes physically and psychologically tight drawing rooms as the site of action in his plays. Chekhov, by contrast, always opens the space of dramatic action out into a secondary space, indoors or out, where countering scenarios play out. Stage sets can matter; can carry socio-psychological context.)

The aging prostitute Hindel’s desire to marry the pimp Schloyme serves as a window in time to the hows and whys of former prostitute Sarah’s marriage to the aspiring entrepreneur Yekel, years before. And the seemingly extraneous additional two characters in the brothel, Basha and Reizel, talk obliquely about their past, their home, where they came from, when one tells the other:

It is better here.

More insight into Sarah and Yekel’s formative world – the actual ecology of this world. There appears to be a crazy motivational-rhyming going on, involving most of the characters – which would be even easier to perceive if you yourself knew more than you do about Yiddish culture and theater from a hundred-plus years ago. Sholem Asch was admired for his “lyrical realism” as a novelist and playwright – something that is barely and rarely felt in this early English translation. But the poetry of his language is what certainly wraps the various characters and their behavior into a whole – a whole universe that focuses down upon the ambitious and tormented single figure of Yekel. Asch treats Yekel clearly like a figure from Jewish folk literature, a Job or a Joseph or a Jephthah.

This, then, is actually not a single-person drama, a psychological drama. This is a two-character drama.

Yekel, of course. But the other serious character in the play is “God.” Or the “Absence of God.” Or, more neutrally, the “Silence of God.”

In Hamlet – playing opposite the character Hamlet – this second character is something like “Destiny,” “Inevitability,” “Fate.”

Tragic fate. What makes Hamlet, the play, so appealing to the modern sensibility is not the various other baffled characters tripping around the stage so much as the appeal of this tale’s “existential” journey by its title character. And his questioning of this Fate. Which is the very road that Yekel is treading. Two-person dramas with one of the persons invisible – but profoundly felt as present. Extreme theater. Naked emotion.

And what of Indecent? . . . T.S. Eliot’s and Portland mainstages’ pat and overly comfortable neoclassical pathway? Or this existential two-character road which you believe contemporary theater should, instead, be treading . . .

Will Indecent riff off of Coriolanus, or off of Hamlet?

Neoclassical stage? . . . or a theater off-kilter?

***

  • Jae Carlsson is a novelist, playwright, religious historian, and longtime visual arts, dance, and film critic. He is the author of three Juvenant Creature ebook samplers, two potboiler mystery-thrillers set in Spokane (Shallow Grave in the Dishman Hills and Schemer – the Cedarcrest Double Homicide), and the just-published paperbound and rather dark theater/fiction experiment, Kevie Walbeck.

One Response.

  1. Ms. Carlsson, Thank you for your considered response to Readers Theatre Rep’s God of Vengeance, and your comparison of two divergent approaches to theatre today: off-kilter and neo-classical. RTR is now in its 20th season of fully-staged staged readings — our shows are blocked, with costumes, lights, music and sfx and decidedly absent of “stools, stands and read stage directions” — and we were proud to bring this as the centerpiece to our season.

    I’m deeply pleased that you were interested in and moved by our vision of the play — indeed, GoV is nothing more nor less than man’s grapple with God and godlessness — the restless, relentless question we are born, wrestle, and die with.

    The eternal themes of a faith-filled vs faith-less universe, and of love without definition interested me much more than the ephemeral, political trends so fashionable today. GoV didn’t need to be made “modern” in the least interesting sense: it is not about gender, identity, politics or any specific religion.

    This immense story, played out in a small parlor and cellar in a shtetl in Russia, is Greek, mythic, Shakespearean. It is too large for puny contemporary considerations. Give me perennial over annual flora any day. The evergreen may not be as showy nor attract as much flattery from the courtiers; but the everlasting is what connects mankind to the earth.

    I thought you might find my director’s notes illuminating of our vision for GoV, and in a larger sense, of my passion as artist.

    SHOLEM ASCH: PLAYWRIGHT OF BIG IDEAS.

    As the director of GOD OF VENGEANCE, with a cast, consultant, design and run team from all walks of faith and philosophy (including atheists and at least one Unitarian — me) and of many walks of lifestyle, I am pleased to bring this story of all humanity to the stage.

    The canvas playwright Sholem Asch paints on is Jewish. In an open letter defending the morality of GOD OF VENGEANCE, Asch explains that “my types are Jewish, for of all peoples they are the ones I know best.” Then he immediately continues to his point: “Call [the play’s pimp] ‘Yekel’ John, and instead of the Holy Scroll place in his hand the crucifix, and the play will be then as much Christian, as it is now Jewish … it is not local in character, but universal.”

    Sholem Asch’s story and setting are not a milieu meant to force the play in a singular direction, for a singular culture. Indeed, Sholem tells us in the same letter, “The God of Vengeance is not a milieu play – it is a play with an idea.”

    The idea, I believe, is God and Man at the topmost, and flowing from that, man’s hunger and thirst to believe in, or deny, or rely on, or reject, or hate, or please, or to seduce or fool or adore…
    …and most of all, to 𝘂𝗻𝗱𝗲𝗿𝘀𝘁𝗮𝗻𝗱 God.

    But unless you are God, we are told, there is no 𝙪𝙣𝙙𝙚𝙧𝙨𝙩𝙖𝙣𝙙𝙞𝙣𝙜 God. Therein lies our loss, our loneliness, our anger, our bewilderment. (The Tao that can be told of is not the eternal Tao; The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth; The Named is the mother of all things. — Lao Tzu)

    We can argue, and should, that atheists and agnostics, and often Unitarians, develop non-faith philosophies that resolve this. We know that others find, or create, a spirituality that provides comfort and direction, and that is experienced as complete. And there are folks who describe themselves as religious who feel they have glimpses of the understanding of God, from the ecstatic experience of Pentecostal snake handlers to achieving Visuddhimagga as a Buddhist to the Ashwagandha practitioners in Peru and right here in Portland. Cloistered nuns spend their entire lives in adoration, and in, I imagine, the hope of small moments of the intimate embrace of true connection.

    But we are nevertheless marooned on high seas in these very, very fragile vessels; we are hairless, slow of foot and can freeze, drown, burn, starve or perish in any one of a number of ways at every moment of every day. We are horrified of the dark, of strangers, of the beast within. We are offered the notion of a force outside ourselves, and whether this notion is inborn or outwardly thrust upon us (a topic always worthy of a bar-side debate), a survey of humankind shows us looking upward, hoping desperately that there is someone, something out there to rescue us from the terror that is being alive.

    Big idea: God and Man. As simple, and as complex, as that.

    As Professor Ruth Wisse explains, in her discussion of Asch’s Christological works, “Sholem Asch thought big from the start.”

    There is no “thinking small” when it comes to this playwright and his universal work. To narrow this play and this playwright to the banal singularity of the play’s setting rends our commonality asunder, and denies the artists and audiences connection with the difficult idea he tells us this story is about. Like Walt Whitman, Sholem Asch is large, he contains multitudes.

    God of Vengeance contains multitudes. It contains you, and me, and everyone in the seats around you tonight.

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