Liberalism, the philosophy that everybody these days seems to love to hate without being able to say what it is, offers a genuinely singular perspective on the world—paradoxically because its guiding proposition is that life is multiple. Since the Enlightenment, liberals have staked their worldview on premise that the human subject is the proper starting point from which to apprehend the world. And because people vary and are impossible to predict, liberals have also accepted that their human-based philosophy should take variety and unpredictability as its fundamental tenets. For liberals, there’s no single “right” category or principle that explains everything; there’s also no overarching narrative, no set, predictable declinist or Utopian end for human beings or history. Life for liberals is existing in the present rather than an imagined future or past; it’s being willing to say, essentially, “we’ll see.” This is liberalism’s promise, and also its challenge.
The promise is obvious: the freedom for people to try to shape, outside of the predeterminations of a single belief system or social structure, who they become, and to be recognized as that unique and incommensurable person by others. But there’s a reason lots of people hate liberalism, even as we live in what’s undeniably a liberal social order. Human lives may vary, but human beings make their lives around particular values and things, and most of the time the liberal world isn’t kind to our particularities because it exists in a constant state of flux. Almost since its formulation, the liberal society and its believers have been under attack from hardy, determined groups of particularists. Revolutionaries, reactionaries, materialists, fundamentalists, technologists: In the face of multiple principles, they press for a single one—equality, hierarchy, biology, God, technology.
No single group is more associated historically and intellectually with the liberal order and liberalism than secular Jews. Intellectually, no group brought to liberalism a longer, deeper, interior experience of the liberal mind, and no group found that habit of mind, the habit of flexibility, and level-headedness in the face of life, more severely tested. The pull of tribe, the pull of the universal; the urge for stability, the urge for freedom; the honoring of past particularity, the anticipation of future solidarity—these conflicts are the fundamentals of group life, and human life, in a complicated world. But the story for the Jews over the last centuries has played out at a higher, harder, more insanely contrasting, more deeply-written pitch.
If liberal believers are still able to speak for liberalism, to stand for the multiple in the face of the singular, the primary testing ground won’t be the market or the voting booth. The testing ground will be the culture: a space beholden to individuality, a space where people can express who they are, what they value, what they love; a space for human freedom, for human understanding, for human reciprocity. In a connected world fractured by differences, culture, high and low, is what we share. Our representations about how human beings do and can live—the humanities—matter, if the liberal order isn’t going to get hollowed out from within; if it isn’t going to become just a series of particular orthodoxies in a constant state of zero-sum war against each other.
This is the large context against which it’s helpful to think about Paula Vogel’s new play, Indecent. It’s a very large context, admittedly, but it’s an appropriate one given the correspondent size of the play’s ambitions. In Indecent, Vogel has made a piece of art that’s about nothing more or less than Art’s survival in a world a lot like our own: a historical test case of the possibility of representing the reality of human multiplicity in a culture filled with competing singularities. What’s more, she’s done this by following the experiences of the group for whom the stakes surrounding that possibility have historically been highest, secular Jews.
Billed as “the true story of a little Jewish play,” Indecent is a work of song, dance and dialogue about the production and reception of Sholem Asch’s genuinely provocative play God of Vengeance. (The play is co-created, and directed, by Rebecca Taichman, who won a Tony for it.) Asch’s play, written in 1907, is about women in love against a backdrop of religious severity, and its history is, imaginably, a history of occasional censorship—it was banned from the Apollo Theater in 1923 for “indecency” until a federal court reversed the ruling. But Vogel isn’t too interested in the play’s actual history: We don’t learn in Indecent about the reversal of the original ban, and some elements of God of Vengeance—in particular, a scene between two women in the rain—receive different emphases in this retelling than Asch gave them. What interests Vogel is melding the work and its history and its particularity, its Jewishness, into a more universal story about liberal art—how it’s made, remade, and received over time.
This melding comes with its own risks because the history Vogel is tracing and reworking is a fraught one: It runs from the late 19th century to the postwar period and the main players are Jewish writers, intellectuals, and artists. Drawing on an experience of this depth, in this context, in full, good faith—employing, not using it—is a tricky business. As Jesse Green wrote in his review of the play for New York magazine:
I have a problem with plays, however well-intentioned, that hitch their wagon of importance to the Holocaust. Presumably Vogel connects the notion of literary indecency to that of totalitarian states, but Indecent kept setting off my “category error” alarms. The Holocaust material feels Holocaust-adjacent, not integral … and [the director] has also upped the cute-Jew ante well past my comfort level. Even the cellphone announcement is spoken in an oy-could-you-just-die Yiddishe Momme accent.
Whether you agree with this argument hinges to a small degree on whether you see the Yiddishness as a cute crowd-pleaser or as a kind of gentle, fleeting invitation to solidarity, a judgment that, in turn, depends on the audience: When I was in the theater, surrounded by a number of people who were themselves speaking Yiddish, there was a ripple of happy laughter even in response to the cellphone announcement … they were, in a very, very little way, home. It hinges to a much greater degree on whether you see the Holocaust as adjacent to—a category error—rather than integral to—a necessary feature of—Vogel’s project. Here the presumption is that it’s integral, that Vogel’s taking the risk of asking her play about humanism to bear a very great weight and hoping it will stand up to the strain.
In this take on the play, the stakes are made plain early on, as we’re introduced to the Yiddish theater troupe who will tell the story, each playing multiple parts: the “elders” will play the parts of the older men and women; the “young lovers,” the men and women in love; the stage manager, the narrator; and so on. This isn’t a riff on the concept of multiple identities; it’s a self-conscious commentary that what’s being created is art: Human beings are bringing their essences to communicate varieties of human experience. God of Vengeance, in Vogel’s telling, is a play built precisely as a paean to this idea: In the next scene, a young Asch rhapsodizes nervously about his work to his wife, explaining that Freudian theories of sexuality have opened up the hierarchies and shibboleths of Old World Europe, revealing the complexities of human life in a way he means to render into words.
Vogel has created a picture that should be familiar to us: a changing world in perilous flux. This world is Central and Eastern Europe, fin de siècle, where the market transforms the old way of life, creating cities filled with labor and culture and capital, and where politics respond, moving to the hard left and the hard right, the laborers becoming socialists, the peasants becoming nationalists, the old feudal order becoming ever more indiscriminately reactionary. Meanwhile, art navigates social shifts as it always does, by becoming more alive, by trying to grasp—more surely, more intensely—human variousness, human depth. Vogel doesn’t mention the names—Klimt, Kokoschka, Schiele, Marc, Schoenberg, Hofmannsthal, Stravinsky, Diaghilev—but she captures with her dialogue the weird, wired febrility of the time. The cultural sphere is more inventive than ever, yet simultaneously more hemmed-in. In this wild environment, Asch is going to throw in his lot with the culture and press for expressionism, even as the risks mount.
His subject and his path run through Yiddish culture, then in the middle of its own growth and its own dilemmas. Along with the Poles and the Slavs and the Croatians, but under more complex circumstances, Eastern European Jewry has woken up to itself: The greats, Mendele Mocher Sforim, I.L Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, have written it into being in the cities, and all three are still alive, working to expand and preserve what they’ve helped create. Asch goes to Peretz, a legend of his time, and holds a reading of God of Vengeance at one of Peretz’s famous salons, with Peretz and his audience playing the parts of the characters. Unintended, predictable hilarity ensues, because six intellectuals cresting well past middle age are now playing women in love: re-enacting a scene between the daughter of a religious brothel owner and one of the brothel women, who are making love in the rain; vocalizing the brothel owner’s devastated reaction, as he casts his daughter into the brothel, breaks the Torah and announces that his new devotion is not to God but to Mammon. The reaction from the readers is also, well, predictable: We can’t have Jews portrayed as money grubbers and whores, says a horrified Peretz. Burn the pages!
Vogel has a deft feel for certain social groups and their dynamics: Here, with light sketches, she shows worldly, established intellectuals beset by the wild, if educated, realness of a writer from the provinces. It’s a funny disjuncture and, in its small, familiar way, a tragic one. Reading Peretz has helped open Asch’s eyes, it’s spurred his work and his thought, yet when he meets the man he finds a more real, and inevitably a more particular, person: in the thick of activity, fixed on certain battles, operating in a field of action he’s labored for a long time to create, one that at least ostensibly seems to Asch to exclude his vision.
It’s worth noting here that, in real life, the dichotomy wasn’t quite so simple as Vogel makes out. Peretz was no slouch when it came to his dedication to universal humanness and the free mixing of particulars. His life’s work, in poetry, in prose, at his salon, was carving out a space for it; he identified the liberal order as the best hope of its fulfilment; and by the end of his life, with the diaspora scattered across the East and rising ethnic solidarity on all sides, he was painfully aware of its limits. In real life, Asch was strategic, too: after a career as a wildly lauded Yiddish playwright and novelist, he courted fierce Yiddish backlash in the late1930s for The Nazarene, a novel that portrayed Jesus as an observant Jew. Asch’s hope was to draw Christian readers into the reality of Jewish life by Judaizing Jesus; he ended up alienating his core readership, but his attempt says a lot about the hopes he pinned on culture as a meliorating agent between hostile groups.
In Indecent, Vogel doesn’t touch too much on the complexities of each man; her characters are like characters in a Yiddish folk play—archetypes—and their encounter is a dramatic set-up: What the old intellectual in Indecent knows that the young writer doesn’t, and what the young writer will find out, is the sheer difficulty of the liberal, humanist proposition, the ingrained human and social resistance it encounters even in the best of times. For now, though, in act one, Asch walks out, rejecting Peretz’s advice: His bet is that the more real a representation of Jewish life is, the more it will draw people in. He takes with him the one acolyte he’s managed to make, another provincial, even more wet behind the ears, who caught in the play what the others missed: that the scene of the women in the rain ought to be judged not as a category (women in love=indecent) but as to the quality of the love being shown. He’s captured by the immediacy, the possibility, the complexity; he’s willing, he says, to devote himself full-time to the play. They go together to Germany, where the role of the father appeals to the famed Rudolf Schildkraut, who steers his company to produce it.
Here again, Vogel is an acute observer of a particular sector of society. Her actors are people of all types, impelled to act for all different reasons—some are searching for realness; others are in it to shine; someone’s escaping her parents; someone else wants to make it on the American stage; another is having a doomed love affair; a few just like to hear themselves be “dra-ma-tic”! Some are irresponsible, others are incurious, one is casually receptive to received social wisdom of the Wagnerian anti-Semitic variety, some are vaguely generous, and some are committed professionals. What matters is that night after night, they come together—in Belarus, Constantinople, Berlin, Paris—to make the story new.
Vogel has fun showing us the “money shot” in each of the different venues—the father smashing the Torah as his wife and daughter cower in horror—and we get some yuks watching Schildkraut descending further into melodrama as he plays the scene each year. But the scene’s power, what elicits the gasps of horror from each audience, derives from an earlier scene: act two, scene one, the girls in the rain. Without it, God of Vengeance is a morality play, in which the prostitute seduces the daughter of the house off a better path. With it, with the electricity of their connection, it’s a tragedy of human misunderstanding—the father smashing the Torah and yielding to Mammon and casting off his daughter isn’t just overreacting, he’s getting it wildly wrong, letting the fixedness of his own preoccupations, of his veneration of categories over qualities, blind him to the value of the connection his child has found. We gasp when we see it not because of the rage or the hideousness of the daughter’s fate, but because of what’s happening underneath: Something alive, something real, something free is being smashed by the orthodoxies of God and Mammon.
Where the power of the scene falters with the crowd is where it was supposed to have its crowning moment: America. Not America of the Lower East side, in the early ’20s an enclave of Yiddishness, in many ways mirroring the small, fractured communities of bohemian Europe whose relative marginality allowed performers the freedom to be daring—but the America of West 42nd Street, America where every actor wants to make it big, America of splurging capital and consumer exuberance and the bottom line. The play will be put up at the Apollo, but management wants scene cuts—specifically, act two, scene one—that they worry might turn off the audience. Most of the cast, many of whom have been with the play for over a decade, revolts.
In this moment, on an issue—the primacy of culture versus the primacy of economics—on which a lot of fixed moralisms can be summoned, Vogel stays level-headed. She knows, if she knows anything, how hard the market can push back on the arts, even as it can also save them. She sets the case for compromising with management in a funny, but acute, soliloquy from one of the cast members, imagining Mother and Father on their way home to Connecticut or the Upper West Side, laboring to explain to Junior why the ladies are kissing. The point is understated but clear: People go to the theater ready to experience something new, but if the experience gets boiled down to shock, won’t they miss the point of the play?
The answer to this question, the only answer, gets supplied by the stage manager, Asch’s first acolyte. Without the scene, the prostitute looks like the villain, and the play becomes about morality, not freedom. In this case, it’s really an either/or choice: art or commerce, with no possibility of compromise.
Asch, now a renowned playwright living in America, might be expected to lend his weight to the actors’ side, or try for a more perceptive rewrite, but he’s succumbed to the realities he’s seen on a series of trips to Poland, where the full weight of the Leninist and then Stalinist pogroms have shattered his perceptions. He tries to write, and can’t: Doing anything but contemplating the weight of the horror seems somehow irresponsible, a dereliction, to its magnitude. But the immediate result of this singularity of focus is a betrayal of his cast: Asch’s turned over control to management without really looking at the changes they’re making, and so they splice the scene without thinking twice. The play eventually gets shut down, anyway, for its depictions of the brothel, and, for the cast, a few of whom have labored painfully to learn English for the new audience, the degradation is complete. They break with Asch, recommit themselves to their Yiddishness, return to Europe to play in smaller venues that seem to welcome the point they’re making. Asch stays in America, increasingly not just despairing about Europe but alienated from the bigness, the homogeneity, the relentless forward movement, of this new society.
Capitalism has disappointed the humanists—an old story. And yet, Europe, with its familiarities and cultural daring, squeezed by politics’ grip on the left and the right, quickly becomes much worse, an older, more frightening story. Asch starts to get letters, of increasing urgency, asking for help with visas. One particularly poignant one comes from an intellectual who’d rejected his play at Peretz’s initial reading; for all their fights, they’d both been trying to do the same thing, and now that thing is in the process of being eradicated. Night comes quickly to the East, as the contradictions inherent during fin de siècle resolve themselves finally into the unthinkable: The troupe is finally performing Asch’s play, 35 years later, in single acts each night, by candlelight, in a hidden room, to the few people who’ve escaped the Nazis, at least for now. But they keep playing until the light is extinguished: act two, scene one, the girls in the rain, the “indecent” scene.
It’s to Vogel’s credit as a writer and an observer that she doesn’t try for false equivalence between the horror of European political totalities on one hand and the indiscriminately absorptive capacity of American capitalism on the other. Vogel’s story and its ending don’t seek to falsely provoke—they provoke only to the extent that they show the inhospitality of any fixed system, even the better ones, to a vision of multiplicity. The joke of the title, more or less, is this: If the varieties of quality in human life can transcend categories—if value can exist in the brothel and in the bourgeoises and among lovers of any sex—than the decent thing, the human thing, the humane thing, is to recognize that multiplicity, and the ultimate indecency is to shut it down. But systems, the play shows, have their orthodoxies, and they’ll always be guilty of their own “decent” indecency. Systems can’t save us; we can only save ourselves.
And we often do save ourselves, at least Vogel’s little Yiddish troupe does, for awhile—the play keeps going, the troupe always finds crowds to perform for, and in America young, well-educated Jews revive it for performances (not coincidentally, this is the same thing that Rebecca Taichman, the director of Indecent who became fascinated with God of Vengeance at Yale and eventually brought it to Vogel’s attention, did). In Vogel’s read, human beings are fallible; what they create, their culture, their art, is less so, because real liberal art is always responding to human reality, and people are drawn to the realness of their own lives. Indecent doesn’t end with optimism or pessimism, it just suggests that humanism—that quality, that decency—is always there, if we can find it, if we exercise our collective wills and minds to continue to make it live. “There is always a crisis!” Asch’s wife tells him, urging him to leave his despair and write.
So where does Vogel’s play about a play, her test case about art’s survival in a hostile world, leave liberals and humanists? The coldness of the world human beings make, the disjuncture of the singularity of our principles and our institutions and our psychologies with the multiplicity of our society and our lives and our hopes, is a fact. So is our ability to push against the disjuncture, to meliorate it, in the market, in the polis, now especially in the culture. The question of a play like this is whether we will.
Sometimes, we do. The New York Times reported in late June that, in a “rare, almost-unheard-of move,” Indecent’s Broadway producer changed her mind about closing the play early, despite low ticket sales, “based on an outpouring of support for the show in the week since she posted the closing notice.” According to the producer, “ticket sales have gone ‘way up’ to the point where some nights have standing-room crowds.” Vogel’s fight is the same one as Asch’s, and sometimes you win. The Jewish community is at the center of any number of questions and crises, and yet, people, and not just Jews, turn out spontaneously to see this very Yiddish play. The left is correct: Solidarity does exist, but solidarity doesn’t exist cheaply; it exists step by step, through the reality of particular human experience, through recognizing and articulating that reality in a way that reminds us how to live.
That doesn’t make liberalism or humanism easy. The change is as rapid today as it was a hundred years ago—our fin de siècle and early next century are following a pattern the last one set (and come to think of it the one before that). The coarsening, repetitive, exciting, leveling powers of capital haven’t changed, and neither has the intensity of the political response.
In the middle of all this, how do we keep our heads? We remember what we’re fighting for. What we’re fighting for are Vogel’s girls in the rain, and they’re both further away and nearer to us than we might think—far because human beings are particular and certain; near because we are, always, capable of recognizing that while we value our particularities and certainties, we always want more. That urge can be called sociability or it can be called something else, but whatever it is, it’s what impels the lovers toward each other in the rain, and it’s what impels people to work to improve, to make more serious, to make sharper, a piece of their community, of their culture. Liberalism, humanism, presentism, realness—the triumph of these is also the triumph of love.
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Matthew Wolfson is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The San Francisco Chronicle, The New Republic and elsewhere.