Monthly Archives: June 2012

“The God of Vengeance”: Is the Play Immoral?

A father lives with his wife and teenage daughter above the brothel that he owns.  It’s a simple story. A young girl is drawn to a world forbidden her. A father is determined to keep his daughter innocent and pure.  Of course, by the end of the play the young girl is not only the newest member of the oldest profession but in love with a fellow prostitute to boot.

White Studio (New York, N.Y.). [David Kessler in "Got fun nekome"]. ca. 1912. Collection on Yiddish Theater, Museum of the City of New York. 66.22.16

The play is Sholom Asch’s Got fun nekome or, in English, God of Vengeance. Written in Yiddish in 1906, a New York production premiered the following year starring David Kessler as the father, Yankl Tshaptshovitsh. From the beginning there was  controversy.  The play’s depiction of the lesbian relationship between Yankl’s daughter and one of the prostitutes in his brothel caused a flurry of activity in the Yiddish press. There was concern that the play’s content would trigger anti-Semitic backlash if it became known to the wider English-speaking world. When the play finally did make its  Broadway debut at the Apollo Theatre  in 1923, it was precisely the content that led to the trial of the show’s 12 actors and producer.

Maurice Goldberg. [Rudolph Schildkraut in "God of Vengeance"]. 1923. Collection on Yiddish Theater, Museum of the City of New York. 30.170.4B

On March 6, 1923, just after the actors finished performing the second act (in which Yankl’s daughter runs away with one of the prostitutes), a detective appeared backstage at the Apollo Theatre to inform the theatre’s manager and producer that they and the entire cast had been indicted before a Grand Jury earlier in the day. The English-language version of Asch’s play had premiered just a few months earlier in late 1922 at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York’s Greenwich Village and was directed by and starred Rudolph Schildkraut, who had also performed in Max Reinhardt’s German production. The transfer uptown occurred in February. The play was open on Broadway for a just under a month when the indictment came down.

The show’s producer, Harry Weinberger, served as the defense lawyer for himself and the actors.  When the verdict of guilty came down on May 23, 1923, he rallied the theatrical community against the obscenity charges, producing the pamphlet pictured below.

“‘The God of Vengeance’ Is the play immoral? Is it great drama?”. 1923. Collection on Yiddish Theater, Museum of the City of New York. 30.170.12

Sholom Asch defended his work for the first time in an open letter printed in the pamphlet. He criticized American audiences for not being “either sufficiently interested or adequately instructed to accept The God of Vengeance.”  He goes on to defend himself against the Jewish community’s earlier fears about the play: “Jews do not need to clear themselves before anyone. They are as good and as bad as any race. I see no need why a Jewish writer should not bring out the bad or good traits.”

Interestingly, the New York Times article reporting the verdict does not mention the lesbian relationship as the source of the obscenity. Rather, the judge is said to have resented what he perceived as the “desecration of the sacred scrolls of the Torah.”

Though the play’s actors and producer had been found guilty of giving an immoral performance, the sentences were very light. Only Weinberger and        Schildkraut were fined, $200 each.  The rest were released on suspended sentence. Weinberger donated materials related to the play and trial to the Museum, including two appellants’ briefs. They are being processed as part of the Collection on Yiddish Theatre thanks to the generous funding and support of the David Berg Foundation and the Lemberg Foundation.

Though the indictment put an end to the Broadway run of “God of Vengeance,” the production was able to find other venues. Before the verdict was even decided, the show had moved to the Prospect Theatre in the Bronx.  It seems that despite potential imprisonment, the show must go on.

Construction of the 74th Street Power Station

For the past two weeks I’ve had the pleasure of digitizing our photographs of the construction of the 74th Street Power Station located on the East River between 74th and 75th Streets. Most power plants in New York City at the turn of the 20th century were located on either the Hudson or the East River because they used the river water as a coolant.

Photographer unknown. 74th St. Power Station Looking North. June 17, 1902. Museum of the City of New York Photography Collection. F2012.53.308A

This power station, designed by George H. Pegram, is still in use today and I was blown away by its beauty.  The Manhattan Elevated Railway Company broke ground in 1899 on the 200 x 500 foot power house and it was fully operational by 1902. It began its life as a coal-powered plant designed to supply electricity to the elevated trains of New York City, which were in the process of being converted from coal to electricity. The city at the time was badly in need of relief from the soot and pollution from the coal-powered steam engines. By 1904 “the power for the operation of all trains on the Manhattan Railway Division [was] generated at one power station located near the centre of the system on the East River, between 74th and 75th Streets.”  The New York Electrical Handbook, by the American Institute of Electrical Engineers

Photographer unknown. Trench Looking East. May 31st 1900. Museum of the City of New York Photography Collection. F2012.53.170E

Photographer Unknown. 74th St. Power Station Looking East. October 11th 1900. Museum of the City of New York Photography Collection. F2012.53.211A

The main towers were the first part of the building to be completed, in October, 1900.

Photographer unknown. 74 St. Power Station from East River. Museum of the City of New York Photography Collection. F2012.53.228A

You can see here that from February to June 1901 the engine room was almost fully completed.

Photographer unknown. 74th St Power Station Looking East. February 21, 1901. Museum of the City of New York Photography Collection. F2012.53.243A

Photographer unknown. 74th St Power Station Looking East. June 20, 1901. Museum of the City of New York Photography Collection. F2012.53.267B

According to the IEEE Global History website regarding the history of railway power stations of New York City: “Originally, the power house was equipped with eight huge Allis-Corliss reciprocating steam engines, each rated at 10,000 horsepower maximum. Each engine drove directly a Westinghouse three-phase, 11,000 volt, 25-cycle alternator rated for 7500 kilowatts.” At the time these eight Westinghouse alternators were the largest ever built!

Photographer unknown. 74th St Power Station Looking West. February 20.1902. Museum of the City of New York Photography Collection. F2012.53.315B

Here is the completed engine room with those impressive steam engines cranking away.

Photographer unknown. 74th St Power Station Engine Room at Night. Museum of the City of New York Photography Collection. F2012.53.321C

I especially loved the photographs of the men who built this amazing example of engineering and construction.

Photographer unknown. 74th St Power Station Looking West. August 1, 1901. Museum of the City of New York Photography Collection. F2012.53.275D

Photographer unknown. 74th St Power Station Looking West. March 20, 1902. Museum of the City of New York Photography Collection. F2012.53.297A

Photographer unknown. 74th St Power Station Looking North. February 6, 1902. Museum of the City of New York Photography Collection. F2012.53.286C

Photographer unknown. 74th St Power Station Looking West. August 22, 1901. Museum of the City of New York Photography Collection. F2012.53.279B

Though the 74th Street Power Station is still in use today, it is no longer coal powered. In 1959 the plant was taken over by the Consolidated Edison Company and it continued to supply coal power to substations in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. In 1999 new boilers and gas turbine generators replaced steam ones and the station continues to contribute to the city’s electric power grid.  For more information about this and all power stations in New York, you can read the IEEE Global History Network’s page on the Railway Power Stations of New York City.

The Prospect Park Concert Grove

As mentioned in May 22nd’s post,  Saving the Interior of the Plaza Hotel, New York City isn’t known just for its landmarked buildings, but also its scenic historical sites, as well.  Brooklyn’s 585-acre Prospect Park is a hybrid of built structures, planned  landscapes, and natural areas left relatively unchanged.  The Park features wooded and paved trails, open lawns, a lake and streams, Brooklyn’s only forest, rolling hills, and ball fields, among other recreational and educational facilities.

Green-Wood Cemetery Visitor’s Pass, 1850, in the Ephemera Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 50.41.149

Prior to establishing Prospect Park, Brooklynites visited Green-Wood Cemetery to find a little outdoor recreational space. The inappropriateness of using a cemetery for leisure activities soon became apparent, as evidenced by the rules listed on this pass for visiting Green-Wood, to the right.

James Stranahan, a business and civic leader, was an early advocate of establishing a park in Brooklyn.  With significant real estate interests in Brooklyn, he hoped a park would help lure residents to the city and turn Brooklyn into the next great metropolis. He was a driving force behind the new park, serving as its first President of the Prospect Park Commission and selecting the design by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the landscape architects responsible for Manhattan’s Central Park, as well as many other parks throughout the city and country.

Design for Prospect Park in the City of Brooklyn, 1869, in the Map Collection. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.5.165.

Construction began on the park in 1866.

Photographer unknown. Original site of lake bed in Prospect Park, ca 1866. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.14264.

Brooklyn, Shelter House, Prospect Park, ca. 1908, in the Postcard Collection. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.1838.

Olmsted felt a park should provide a rural respite from the demands of city life. Among the many sites designed  for the park was the Concert Grove House and Pavilion (sometimes referred to as the Oriental Pavilion, and in this postcard to the left, as the Shelter House), built adjacent to the Lake so Park visitors could enjoy music in a pastoral setting.  One of the original features of the Concert Grove was Music Island, where live performances were held as visitors sat in an open air pavilion along the side of the lake.  In 1949, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses demolished the Concert Grove House, converted the Concert Pavilion to a snack bar, and constructed a skating ring in the area in between the lake and the Concert Grove.  Following a fire in 1979 which nearly destroyed the Concert Pavilion, it sat dormant until 1987, when it was restored to its original design.

Today, more work to restore this section of the Park to its original design is underway. Those of you who frequent Prospect Park may have noticed the construction going on along the southeastern side of the park.  The construction fencing around the site announces, “Lakeside is coming!”  The Lakeside project will restore the view of Music Island and recreate the promenade along the Lake, restoring the original view conceived by Olmsted and Vaux pictured below.

Brooklyn, N. Y., Lake in Prospect Park, ca. 1910, in the Postcard Collection. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.1972.