Defending an ‘Indecent’ play: ‘The God of Vengeance’ in the Yale University Library archives

The controversial 1923 production of “The God of Vengeance” is the subject of “Indecent,” a new play with music that premiered last week at the Yale Repertory Theater. “Indecent” draws from materials in the Yale University Library.

On March 6, 1923, the cast and producer of the Broadway debut of Sholem Asch’s “The God of Vengeance” were arrested on obscenity charges.

The producer, Harry Weinberger, and the 12-member cast pleaded not guilty to the crime of “unlawfully advertising, giving, presenting, and participating in an obscene, indecent, immoral, and impure drama or play.”

Weinberger, a civil libertarian and prominent attorney who had defended Emma Goldman and other radical activists, represented himself and the cast in an obscenity trial that resulted in their convictions.

The controversial 1923 production of “The God of Vengeance” is the subject of “Indecent,” a new play with music that premiered last week at the Yale Repertory Theater. It was written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel, the Yale Rep’s playwright in residence, and created with Rebecca Taichman, a 2000 graduate of the Yale School of Drama, who directs. 

“Indecent” draws from materials in the Yale University Library. Harry Weinberger’s papers are housed at Manuscripts and Archives at the Yale Library, and the papers of playwright Sholem Asch are housed at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Taichman explored both archives and a trial transcript she found at Lillian Goldman Law Library while researching her thesis project, “The People vs. ‘The God of Vengeance,’” at the Yale School of Drama.  

“I spent my three years at Yale really digging through those archives and becoming thoroughly obsessed with these people and this moment of time and what it articulated about Jewish culture and America in the 1920s,” Taichman says.

She says the archival records helped inspire “Indecent.”

“I am so grateful to the library for housing those materials and making them available to me. It was an incredible treasure chest for me in making this project a reality,” she says.

A bound handwritten Yiddish manuscript of Sholem Asch’s “The God of Vengeance” is housed at the Beinecke Library.

Indictment and conviction

Written in Yiddish in 1906, “The God of Vengeance” follows Yekel, a Jewish brothel keeper, and his wife as they strive to protect the innocence of their young daughter. Set in a brothel and featuring a lesbian relationship, the play was considered a seminal work of Jewish culture by some, while others derided it as an obscene betrayal of that same culture.

The Beinecke houses a bound handwritten manuscript of the play. Taichman says that the scripts the actors in “Indecent” hold are photocopies of this original manuscript.

The archive also has an annotated typescript of the 1918 English translation by Isaac Goldberg.

The play was staged for years in Yiddish and German throughout Europe and in New York City without arousing suspicion among the authorities. A production in English opened at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village in late 1922. In February 1923, the play moved uptown to the Apollo Theatre where it drew the attention of the vice squad. During a performance on March 6, detectives appeared backstage and told Weinberger that he and the cast had been indicted the previous day.

A jury convicted Weinberger and the cast. The producer was fined $200 as was the play’s director and star, Rudolph Schildkraut. The other cast members received suspended sentences. Weinberger appealed the conviction.

Weinberger was a fierce and experienced advocate who had defended the principle of free speech before the U.S. Supreme Court. His papers document the legal battle, which was waged both in the courts and in the court of public opinion. It includes his correspondence, notes, drafts of legal papers, and trial transcripts.

Rallying support

Following the indictment, Weinberger began marshaling support. He wrote to dozens of prominent academics and clerical figures asking them to write testimonials defending the play’s morality.

Carl Van Doren, a professor at Columbia University who would publish a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Benjamin Franklin, offered Weinberger his full support.

“I can no more imagine any person being allured or corrupted by the play, than I can imagine any person being tempted to drink poison by seeing someone poisoned,” Van Doren writes to Weinberger on April 3, 1923.

Weinberger published this pamphlet of testimonials from prominent rabbis and scholars defending the play against charges of obscenity and immorality.

Weinberger solicited support from journalists and writers, including H.L. Mencken, who advises him to tread lightly when attempting to persuade judges.

“It must be done with some delicacy,” Mencken wrote on July 9, 1924. “My experience is that the learned judiciary rather resents advice.”

Weinberger wrote to prominent legal figures, including Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, future justice Felix Frankfurter, and renowned federal judge Learned Hand, updating them on the status of the case and seeking comments on drafts of his court briefs.

He sparred with editors at various magazines and newspapers concerning their coverage of the play. The New York Times refused to run any more advertisements for the play after the indictment, which prompted a pointed letter from Weinberger

“It seems to me hardly fair or becoming for The New York Times to act as censor and pass judgment on a play before a final decision of a jury has been reached,” Weinberger wrote to the paper’s advertising manager on March 9, 1923.

In a curt reply sent the same day, the advertising manager reminded Weinberger that all advertisements submitted to the newspaper were subjected to censorship.

At Weinberger’s invitation, Adolph Ochs, publisher of The New York Times, attended a performance of the play. Ochs determined that the play was immoral and should be shut down.

In response, Weinberger suggested they assemble a “jury” of 12  “public men of high and recognized standing” to view the play and offer their verdict on its fitness for the public stage. It is unclear from the archives whether they followed through with this idea.

The ACLU declines to help

Weinberger asked American Civil Liberties Union to help finance his appeal.

Roger Baldwin, the ACLU’s founder and executive director, was sympathetic but noncommittal in a June 13, 1924 letter.

“Of course, this is a free-speech fight and we’d be very glad indeed to give it whatever incidental aid we can,” he writes, noting that whether the organization would cover Weinberger’s expenses was “another matter.”

Attorney Harry Weinberger corresponded with writer and social critic H.L. Mencken over the course of legal battle over “The God of Vengeance.”

In an Oct. 1, 1924 letter, Baldwin explains the ACLU’s decision to decline Weinberger’s request for support.

“We do not believe that the right of the public to censor plays on the grounds of morality can be questioned,” Baldwin writes. “It has been accepted for several centuries.”

After winning his appeal in the New York State Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, Weinberger wrote to Baldwin to point out that the case was not a hopeless one — as the ACLU had determined — and invited the organization to cover his legal expenses after the fact.

“The plays now being attacked will be the inheritors of my labor and they will be protected to the extent that I have had the law defined,” he wrote to Baldwin in the March 3, 1925 letter.

A rich archive

Weinberger defended several controversial clients. Aside from his years counseling Emma Goldman, he also handled the case of Grover Cleveland Bergdoll, who fled to Germany after dodging the draft during World War I.  The U.S. Supreme Court considered his case, Abrams v. United States, challenging the Espionage Act of 1917. Though the majority sided against Weinberger’s clients, who had printed leaflets supporting the Russian Revolution, the case prompted a highly influential dissent by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes supporting free speech rights.

Weinberger, an expert in copyright law, also successfully defended Eugene O’Neill in a plagiarism lawsuit. His archives, which cover all of these cases, arrived at Yale following his death in 1944.

Indecent runs through Oct. 24 at the Yale Rep.

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