“[It’s an] ugly story, hopelessly foreign to our Anglo-Saxon taste and understanding.”
— Burns Mantle, theatre critic, New York Daily News, Dec. 21, 1922
IN 1922, “one of the most terrible plays ever presented in New York,” as the Evening Telegram (Dec. 20, 1922) called it, shocked Broadway with its portrayal of a family that lives off prostitution, a father’s failed attempts at Jewish respectability and, most importantly, a riveting lesbian love scene. Prostitute plays were hardly new to American audiences; indeed, an entire genre of what was then called “brothel drama” dominated much of early 20th-century stages and was central to the formation of modern American theatre. Although plays about prostitution had been brought up on charges of obscenity before, Sholom Asch’s The God of Vengeance was the first play in thirty years to have its producer and lead actor arrested and found guilty of obscenity on the New York stage (though eventually they would win on appeal).
Asch’s drama, originally titled Gott fun Nekoma in Yiddish, had played throughout Europe after its premiere in 1907 at Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater in Berlin. Gott fun Nekoma had also played successfully in the United States for seventeen years in Yiddish. Even when translated into English by Isaac Goldberg in 1918, the play was still untouched by controversy when it ran at the Provincetown Theatre in the Village. Only when the English version moved to an uptown venue (the Apollo Theatre) did Asch’s creation encounter problems. Why, on the heels of Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning success with his prostitute play, “Anna Christie”, in 1921, did Asch’s drama meet so much controversy? Why did a play that had been produced in Yiddish without major incident since its inception in 1907 stir such controversy when it hit the Great White Way? One hundred years since the play’s creation, it is worth revisiting this threshold-breaking drama to consider its contribution to American theatre, popular culture, and sexual discourse.
While it is quite true that The God of Vengeance’s Yiddish and international origins spawned a xenophobic backlash, its English-speaking debut demonstrates the limits of portraying non-repentant prostitution, unconventional brothel interiors, and non-normative sexual desire, including most notoriously a lesbian love scene. It was this element that mobilized what could be called a sex hysteria and culminated in a high-profile obscenity trial in 1923. An examination of the trial transcript shows that there were repeated efforts by lawyers, policemen, judges, and art critics alike not only to define lesbianism, often without naming it, but also to label sensuality between women as alien and degenerate and thus deserving censorship from the stage.
Ironically, respectability is a key motif in The God of Vengeance, albeit with a twist. A Jewish brothel owner, Yekel, and his former-prostitute wife, Sarah, strive to raise their daughter without her being tarnished by the sex trade going on in the basement. A kind of Jewish Mrs. Warren, Yekel strives to promote his daughter, Rifkele, with the profits from his brothel. In order to facilitate a middle-class marriage (and thus gain respectability) for Rifkele, Yekel buys a Torah scroll for his home. However, her isolation and her father’s strict and abusive hand have produced the very curiosity that will be her eventual undoing. Rifkele befriends Manke, a prostitute living and working in the basement brothel. Manke eventually seduces her and the “fallen” daughter loses her currency on the marriage market.
While other scholars have addressed how The God of Vengeance sparked charges of anti-Semitism from the Jewish community, my interests lie elsewhere.* In addition to the ways in which The God of Vengeance transgresses perceptions of normative Jewish identity, the play’s remarkable controversy can be further explained by looking at three additional points. First, unlike O’Neill’s Anna from “Anna Christie”, who repents and achieves respectability through marriage, the characters here are hopelessly trapped by commercialized vice from which they profit. Second, unlike other censored brothel plays, which almost without exception excised the brothel altogether,The God of Vengeance firmly resituated the brothel back into the heart of the drama—literally into the foundation of home. Third and most importantly, The God of Vengeance features a lesbian romance on stage. Given these mimetic transgressions, it is no wonder that The God of Vengeance was charged with obscenity.
What is astonishing about The God of Vengeance is its unique portrayal of lesbian love between Manke and Rifkele. Contemporary critics and modern theatre historians alike agree that this scene is remarkable, if not controversial. Indeed, what transpired during the so-called seduction scene became hotly disputed during the trial. In Goldberg’s translation of Asch’s script, Rifkele sneaks downstairs into the brothel one night, and Manke offers to comb Rifkele’s hair “as if she were a bride.” Pursuing the marriage metaphor further, Manke makes a proposal:
Manke: Then we come close to one another, for we are bride and bridegroom, you and I. We embrace. (Places her arm around Rifkele.) Ever so tightly. And kiss, very softly. Like this. (Kisses Rifkele.) And we turn so red—we’re so bashful. It’s nice, Rifkele, isn’t it?
Rifkele: Yes, Manke …Yes.
Manke: (Lowering her voice and whispering into Rifkele’s ear.) And then we go to sleep together. Nobody sees, nobody hears. Only you and I. Like this. (Clasps Rifkele tightly to herself.) Do you want to sleep with me tonight like this? Eh?
Rifkele: (Looking about nervously). I do… I do… [original ellipses]
It is a stunningly sensual scene that’s unprecedented in brothel dramas, as well as most American drama of the day. In stark contrast to other brothel dramas, this well-written dialogue also demonstrates Asch’s naturalistic talents as a writer. Manke and Rifkele’s desire is neither romanticized nor demonized, but it also does not go unchallenged. Yekel confronts Rifkele about her night with Manke, asking, “Are you still as pure as when you left this house? Are you still a virtuous Jewish daughter? ” Rifkele can only reply, “I don’t know.” With this line, Rifkele may be articulating sexual innocence, but it is more likely that she’s questioning whether her lesbian affair is impure. She also attacks Yekel’s hypocrisy in moralizing about sexuality: “It was all right for mamma, wasn’t it? And it was all right for you, wasn’t it? I know all about it!” While Asch is vague about what it is that Rifkele knows, it seems clear that efforts to protect Rifkele from sexual knowledge and desire have backfired. Asch subverts society’s sexual morality, demonstrating that the illicit love between Rifkele and Manke is the one relationship that has integrity.
The site for both respectable and aberrant sex in The God of Vengeance is the basement brothel in Yekel’s home. Asch’s location of the brothel could not be more immediate or threatening to the family. While other brothel plays featured limited excursions to a brothel, usually to far away sites to rescue white slaves, The God of Vengeance integrates the brothel into every scene and places it literally within the home. The brothel is the literal foundation upon which the family is built. Indeed, as Harley Erman has observed (in Theatre Survey, May 1999), “the play uncomfortably foregrounds the extent to which bourgeois respectability is maintained economically by a system of sexual exploitation, as well as the way that middle class propriety is balanced on a shaky foundation of repressed, shadowy desire. ”
It’s no wonder, then, that a critic like Heywood Broun (in World, Dec. 21, 1922) was made “distinctly uncomfortable” and “a little sick” by The God of Vengeance. Many critics couldn’t bring themselves to write explicitly about the lesbian scene or other brothel commerce, using euphemisms such as Broun’s “the perversion of a young girl.” The news media latched on to the theme of the play’s “foreignness.” Both the prostitute and the Jewish immigrant were displaced persons in the American nation, while the play itself, notwithstanding its Yiddish origins, fell outside the parameters of traditional brothel dramaturgy. The
Globe and Commercial Advertiser critic wrote (December 20, 1922), for instance, “this is alien stuff, and because it is alien, thoroughly offensive.”
Performance in the Courtroom
On May 23, 1923, Harry Weinberger, the producer of The God of Vengeance, and the twelve cast members were found guilty of giving immoral performances. The New York Times reported (May 24, 1923) that it was “the first conviction by a jury in a case of this kind and the second conviction in this city under section 1,180 of the penal law, the first being thirty years ago … against the producers of Sam T. Jack’s burlesque show Orange Blossoms.” Weinberger and lead actor Rudolf Schildkraut appealed to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, but lost. Charges were reversed on January 21, 1925, and a new trial ordered, and in April the assistant district attorney dropped all charges.
At the heart of the obscenity case was the controversial lesbian love scene between Rifkele and Manke. Scholars who have written about the portrayal of lesbianism in The God of Vengeance (including Harley Erdman, John Houchin, Curt Kair, and myself) have drawn our analyses from the printed version of the play, translated into English by Isaac Goldberg in 1918. However, my recent examination of the promptbook from the 1923 production at the Apollo Theatre, which was entered as evidence in the obscenity trial leads me to draw new conclusions about the obscenity debates and particularly about the staging (and expurgation) of lesbian desire, a desire haunted by the specter of its “foreignness” invading midtown Manhattan.
The 1923 script reveals a stunning fact: the lesbian love scene was never performed. Moreover, careful consideration of the court transcripts reveals that the 1923 production, directed by lead actor Rudolf Schildkraut, omitted the supposed incendiary dialogue, as well as other, more overt, references to lesbian lovemaking. During the obscenity trial, Harry Weinberger (the producer of the show and the defense lawyer for all indicted) repeatedly denied that this dialogue took place. For example, in response to the District Attorney’s question, “Didn’t she say, ‘Come with me; we will sleep together every night?’” Weinberger replied, “They never said it at the Provincetown or the Greenwich Theatres or the Apollo, and what is more, you know it very well. ” Was Weinberger telling the truth? Two pieces of evidence—his own testimony and the promptbook itself—suggest that he was. But if he was telling the truth, then why, in spite of the censored scene, did so many people —including the prosecuting attorney—believe that the controversial scene was in the play? And did the D.A. in fact “know very well” that the scene from the original play had been preemptively excised from the performance?
One possibility is that the printed text simply became confused with the 1923 production. What I think happened is that the 1918 Goldberg translation —the play with the lesbian love scene—supplanted the Apollo performance as the “authentic” artifact. Published plays are, after all, readily accessible—in the case at hand, the 1918 version was even sold in the lobby of the Apollo Theatre —whereas performances, ephemeral in nature, resist documentation. What I want to argue is that this version was intentionally used by the D.A. during the trial, even though he knew very well that it was not the version as performed. In doing so, he turned the trial into a kind of tribunal on the morality of lesbianism, which he sought to depict as a perversion.
According to trial transcripts, the District Attorney repeatedly read from the Goldberg translation while questioning witnesses. Weinberger argued that the 1918 play text did not faithfully represent the production and made repeated objections during the trial:
Mr. Weinberger: We did not present the play as it is printed in that book. That book does not properly represent it.
The Court: Are you going to dispute the book?
Mr. Weinberger: It is absolutely not correct.
The Court: In other words you say that the lines contained in that book are not the lines that were uttered and enunciated on the stage?
Mr. Weinberger: That is our contention.
Although Weinberger’s objection was granted at this point in the trial, later on the D.A. returned to the printed play as the definitive record. While questioning the policeman who visited the theater, for instance, District Attorney Wallace kept reading lines from the 1918 script —including the lesbian love scene—and asked if the witness recalled the dialogue (which he often did not). When the witness didn’t recall the dialogue, Wallace read from the Goldberg script. Wallace’s method of “refreshing” the witness’s memory by reading from the Goldberg version was repeatedly objected to by Weinberger, who said: “I say that is leading the witness by describing something that is not correct, and apparently putting into this witness’s mouth certain words.” Weinberger moved to have Manke and Rifkele’s dialogue—words he claimed they never spoke—stricken from the record; yet his objections were overruled. “The real point of my objection at this time,” Weinberger clarified in the trial, “is that I want to protect the record. I object to the book being read as not being the book of our play. ” But Weinberger was repeatedly overruled. The D.A. kept reading from the wrong script, “refreshing” witnesses’ memories. It became the permanent record.
Equally fascinating in the trial is the judge’s perception that his court was being called upon, not only to determine whether the play breeched the obscenity code, but also to sort out the distinctions between normative and aberrant sexuality. In response to Weinberger’s repeated objections, the Court offered this explanation for using the Goldberg play text over the Apollo promptbook: “This might tend to show there was conduct between these two women and that this conduct indicated a desire on the part of one towards the other to do an act of moral perversion. If that is the purpose of the District Attorney, I am going to allow it. ” The task at hand, the judge admonished Weinberger, was to establish what had occurred between these two women —“if it occurred between two men, it would be called homo sexualis and the same might be said of two women—that one is desirous of knowing the other immorally, unnaturally.” Thus the Court was struggling to identify and name same-sex desire between women, a practice for which it even lacked a name. The newspapers merely hinted at what transpired on stage —“the terrible details need not be recorded here,” explained the Evening Telegram—leaving the production of sexual morality to the domain of jurisprudence, as Foucault has famously observed in The History of Sexuality.
If there’s a silver lining in this otherwise bleak episode, it lies in Weinberger’s steadfast refusal to be drawn into the D.A.’s rhetorical maneuvers, which were designed to trap him into agreeing that lesbianism is “wrong” or a “perversion” or “degeneracy.” This can seen in further questioning during the trial between the D.A. and Weinberger:
District Attorney Wallace: Don’t you know that the scene between the two girls and the prostitute in the second act was wrong, it presents the show to the audience as a scene of degeneracy?
Weinberger: It certainly was not; that is in your own mind. …
Wallace: Don’t you know that the kisses and caresses by the prostitute towards this young female were such as to give that impression to any person of the wrong mind in the audience?
Weinberger: Not of the normal mind; the normal mind would see an older girl caressing the younger girl.
Even as Wallace seeks to pathologize lesbian desire—with language clearly borrowed from pseudo-sciences like sexology—Weinberger resists such a characterization. Clearly, such moves to paint lesbianism as degenerate or “wrong minded” were tied, as Alisa Solomon has noted in Re-Dressing the Canon: Essays on Theatre and Gender, to the play’s Jewishness. And while never explicity articulated, such anti-Seminitism ran like an undercurrent below the trial’s homophobic deliberations. The fact that Weinberger refused to accept the terms of Wallace’s questions—and his ultimate victory in court on appeal—suggests that the entire performative frame of The God of Vengeance offered more transgressive possibilities than we may have previous believed.
An editorial in The New York American (March 26, 1923) lambasted the “senseless censors” as well as the despotic methods employed by the “misguided minorities” in charge of censorship. In a pamphlet called “The God of Vengeance: Is the Play Immoral? Is it a Great Drama?” several prominent New York authors and critics, such as Frank Crane of Current Opinion and Philip Moeler of the Theatre Guild, came out in support of the play. Charles Fleischer from The New York American wrote, for instance: “One would rather not look too far into the hearts of the censorious, for fear of finding rampant there the viciousness they condemn. ” Publisher B. W. Huebsch of the Freeman added, “Public opinion is the only effective censorship. Through any other agency, censorship, in the long run, proves a boomerang. ” Supporting quotes from notable playwrights Elmer Rice and Eugene O’Neill were also included in the program. And although this pamphlet was of course advancing its own kind of propaganda, it demonstrates that this play generated vital and necessary sex debates, as well as debates about what constituted obscenity.
A kind of performance itself, the obscenity trial for The God of Vengeance showcased how various discourses sought to regulate sexuality, but it also revealed ruptures in the regulatory ideal of sex. Although initially censored, the play with America’s first lesbian love scene won its day in Appellate Court, prevailing over the regulatory powers that sought to pathologize or eradicate its most notorious scene. The play’s staying power is evident in the fact that Donald Margulies came out with a new translation of the play in 2004 and the fact that, on the centennial of its first opening in 1907, The God of Vengeance is still great theatre.
* As John Houchin has noted, the initial obscenity charges were not initiated by
the Society for the Prevention of Vice but rather by Rabbi Joseph Silverman, who charged that the play was anti-Semitic. See Houchin, Censorship in the American Theatre in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge University Press, pp. 82–87.
Katie N. Johnson, Ph.D., who teaches women’s studies and film studies at Miami University, Ohio, is the author of Sisters in Sin: Brothel Drama in America (Cambridge University Press, 2006).