“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.

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

  1. Fantastic! What an interesting post.

  2. I am forwarding this to all of my friends in the Yiddish Theater.
    They will be very impressed.
    Dom DiFabio

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