Updating a Yiddish classic
by Seth Rogovoy

(WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., August 2, 2002) – It’s a hundred years old, clunky and melodramatic. With a large cast, it’s difficult to manage and expensive to produce. Its subject matter is dated, and what audiences found shocking about it when it was first produced in the early 20th-century would hardly cause a TV network censor to blink today.

Still, there was something intriguing enough about Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance” to spur the interest of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies, who has adapted the great Yiddish writer’s play, currently running on the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Main Stage through August 11.

“I think the themes of ‘God and Vengeance’ are timeless and universal, which is what attracted me to it,” said Margulies in a recent visit to Williamstown.

“It deals with issues of faith and commerce and hypocrisy and the age-old problem of the sins of the fathers being visited on the children, which to put it in bold terms, are all as pertinent today in this age of terrorism and shattered families and loss of faith, so that it resonates quite exquisitely.”

The Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven -- where the director of the WTF production, Gordon Edelstein, is now artistic director – first approached Margulies to adapt “God of Vengeance.”

Working from a literal translation of Asch’s original Yiddish text by Joachim Neugroschel, Margulies found Asch’s play to be “startingly modern but clunky dramaturgically.”

“The original play is very much a product of its time,” said Margulies, “written in Yiddish in Eastern Europe at the turn of the century by a very talented and very green 26-year-old writer. The play conforms to a kind of clunky structure.”

As originally written, the play traces the attempt of a Polish brothel owner to regain respectability in legitimate society through the purchase of a Torah scroll and the arranged marriage of his daughter to a rabbinical student. The drama unfolds in a starkly literal, upstairs-downstairs scenario: brothel owner, Jack Chapman, lives with his wife, Sara, and daughter, Rivkele, atop the ground-floor whorehouse he manages.

“My first thought was to have actions be concurrent and take place in both places, as a way to make it more exciting and vivid,” said Margulies, who also shifted the play’s setting from late-19th century Poland to 1920s New York.

“The original play was very claustrophobic and hermetic,” said Margulies. “With my decision to move it to the Lower East Side, I wanted to create a broader context for it, more social. I’ve created characters of customers of the brothel who were only referred to in the original.

“I also brought a kind of Freudian sensibility to the character development,” said Margulies, who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Dinner with Friends.”

Margulies’s adaptation premiered two years ago at A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle, also under the helm of Edelstein. For the WTF production, Ron Leibman plays Chapman, the brothel owner, and Diane Venora plays his wife.

“God of Vengeance” holds a special place in the history of both Yiddish and American theater. While the play enjoyed initial acclaim throughout Europe, when it was first produced in Yiddish in New York in 1907, it sparked controversy within the Jewish community. It also instigated a slew of copycat Yiddish plays about prostitutes and fallen women.

But when it was finally given an English-language production in 1923 in New York, the controversy over the play’s rendering of prostitution and lesbianism, as well as its mixing of the holy and immoral, became something of a scandal.

“It did become a cause celebre in the New York arts circles the way the Mapplethorpe/NEA controversy did,” said Margulies.

“It got people talking about free speech. The subtext of the controversy was the movement of the upper middle class German Jews upset by the play’s portrayal of Jews.” It was reportedly Rabbi Joseph Silverman of the Reform Temple Emanu-El, which catered largely to wealthy German-American Jews, who initiated the complaint with the police that resulted in the play’s closure and the arrest of the entire cast and producer on charges of “promulgating obscenity.”

While admitting that the controversy surrounding the play was one of its attractions, Margulies -- whose other plays include “Collected Stories,” “Sight Unseen” and “The Loman Family Picnic” – said he doesn’t want it to be reduced to mere titillation, historical or otherwise.

“It’s just so fascinating that a young man at the turn of the century imagined a love affair with two women, and to do it with no judgment whatever,” he said. “It doesn’t become a play about coming out. It’s about a girl finding love. And I think that’s terribly exciting and timeless. The homosexuality in it is really very matter of fact. I deliberately avoided making a big deal about that. It was about Rivkele finding love and how that shattered her father’s sense of her and control of her and depreciated her value to him.

“My being a Jewish-American writer, I was very attracted to that, to rebel against a kind of Tevya-ization of the Jew, a pixilated, neutered Jew who’s been made safe for the mainstream, Gentile audience,” said Margulies.

Margulies admits to pushing the relationship between Rivkele and her would-be lover, Manke, further than Asch did in the original.

“I’ve taken the sensuality between them further than he did,” said Margulies. “In previous versions, in the love scene between Manke and Rivkele, her mother is in the living room. In our production, this has become a wonderful fugue of these three women’s longings. It’s going to be beautiful with these actresses.” Manke is played by Marin Hinkle and Laura Breckenridge is Rivkele.

For Asch, the scandal surrounding “God of Vengeance” was just the beginning of a career marked by periods of great popularity alternating with intense controversy. After enjoying years of support in the American Yiddish press, the man who became the best-selling modern author writing in Yiddish burned his bridges to the Yiddish-speaking establishment with his mid-century trilogy of novels about early Christianity.

While “The Nazarene,” “The Apostle” and “Mary” may have been intended by Asch as a multi-volume exploration of the common roots of Judaism and Christianity, as has been suggested by some, they were interpreted by others as a rank act of apostasy. After living in the U.S. on and off since 1915, and more steadily since 1938, Asch emigrated to Israel in the mid-‘50s, scorned or forgotten by his one-time friends and sponsors.

From the beginning, however, Asch knew he was courting controversy. In a memoir, Asch recounted how when he finished reading “God of Vengeance” to his mentor, the great Yiddish writer, Y.L. Peretz, the father of Yiddish literature – who had earlier convinced Asch to abandon his efforts in Hebrew literature in favor of writing in Yiddish – responded, “Burn it, Asch, burn it.”

Peretz felt that Asch’s play manipulated Jewish tradition for dramatic reasons – such as the use of the Torah scroll as an amulet – and that the play’s negative portrayal of Jews was an attempt by Asch to ingratiate himself with non-Jewish audiences.

So ended one of the great literary apprenticeships of all time. In a revealing coda to the episode, Asch wrote, “From then on I have had deep in my heart a hatred for rabbinic authority.”

In the end, Margulies says that Asch’s play resonates in a deeply personal and contemporary manner.

“The scenes between Yankl and his daughter, and his longing to provide for her a better life than what he’s had -- that kind of longing is something that every parent feels in any culture,” he said.

“For me it was particularly exciting to write about the people who were my ancestors, who did struggle in that teeming, immigrant culture. It was very exciting for me to go there.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 2, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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