"I couldn't believe that a newlywed man" in his 20s "had written this beautiful love story of two women," says Vogel, who turns 64 next month. "I was thunderstruck. The play has always stayed with me. I was hooked."
Now Vogel — a Pulitzer winner for How I Learned to Drive — has written Indecent, a play with music, about the drama that captivated her. Co-created and directed by Rebecca Taichman (Orlando, The Scene, Menopausal Gentleman) Indecent premieres at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, CT, before moving to California's La Jolla Playhouse in November.
The God of Vengeance, from 1907, is set in a city in Asch's native Poland. It tells of a Jewish brothel owner and his family and features a lesbian relationship between his 17-year-old daughter and a prostitute. It was performed successfully in Europe, then in Yiddish in New York and in English at Greenwich Village's Provincetown Playhouse. But in 1923, after the downtown production moved to Broadway, it was closed and its producer and cast of 12 (including later-to-be-stars Morris Carnovsky and Sam Jaffe) were indicted and convicted of giving an immoral performance. The New York Times noted, "It was the first conviction ever by a jury in a case of this kind."
Its producer and its leading performer, Rudolph Schildkraut, the play's brothel owner, were fined $200 each; other members of the cast received suspended sentences. The convictions were vacated on appeal.
In 2000 Vogel heard that Taichman was staging the trial transcripts with the play's text at Yale Drama School, where Taichman was studying directing. Taichman also arranged a Yale conference about Asch, more widely known for his best-selling 1939 novel based on the life of Jesus Christ, The Nazarene.
"Rebecca's passion for the play in a way inspired my passion to revisit the play," Vogel says. The two have "spent six years of a journey continuing to figure out how to tell the story."
They "originally tried putting the trial in the play, but we fell in love with the theatre troupe and the principal characters in the making of The God of Vengeance," Vogel says. "So we ended up taking the trial out. We wanted to see what the impact was on the artists of going through that trial. It's a journey of the people who made the play, who performed the play, who loved the play, starting in 1905 through 1951. We follow the play through Europe," staging some of its crucial scenes, "we come with the troupe to the Lower East Side" and beyond.
"It's a way of looking at a swath of Jewish history, particularly American Jewish history, through the lens of this one play, The God of Vengeance."
Indecent is based on fact, Vogel says, "but we took a lot of license. We created the character of this lovely stage manager, this young man who walks into a living room and has never heard a play before and becomes fixated with a love for theatre that remains through his life. Which I think is the story for all of us who do theatre. There's a moment when we walk into the room and we never want to leave that room again.
"At the heart of our play is not only the love story that Sholem Asch wrote, but our love story of why we do theatre."