Indecent Character Breakdowns

Indecent by Pulitzer-winning playwright Paula Vogel tells the story of Sholem Asch’s controversial play, The God of Vengeance, and the passionate artists who risked everything to bring it to the stage. A small theatre company tells the story of the play from its inception in Poland in 1907. The story—about the daughter of a brothel owner who falls in love with one of her father’s prostitutes—was polarizing even at its first readings, with many of Asch’s fellows arising him to burn it. Nevertheless, it achieved great success on the stages of Europe and in the Yiddish theatre scene of downtown New York City. But when an English-translation was attempted on Broadway, the play—featuring the first kiss between women on a Broadway stage—proved too scandalous for the general public, and the entire cast was arrested and charged with obscenity. Vogel’s Indecent resurrects Sholem Asch’s great play, and celebrates the love, magic, and hope of the theatre even in the face of the greatest adversities.

THE STAGE MANAGER, LEMML

Lemml is a tailor and the stage manager of The God of Vengeance. He hails from a small town outside Balut, Poland, and had never been exposed to any theatre before the night his cousin, Nakhman, took him to Mr. Peretz’s salon to hear a reading of Sholem Asch’s new play. That night marked a momentous change in his life, and from that moment on, Lemml became passionately dedicated to The God of Vengeance. He believes wholeheartedly in the play and Sholem Asch’s genius as a playwright. He travels to Berlin for the first production of the play, during which he serves as assistant stage manager — his first job in the theatre. He accompanies the show throughout its successful European tour, and goes to America to stage manage God of Vengeance’s New York City runs as well. He becomes disenchanted with America and Asch after the cast and producer of the Broadway production are put on trial for obscenity and Asch does not come to their aid. He moves back to Poland, refusing any further correspondence with Asch. By 1943, he has been forced into the Łódź Ghetto by the Nazis; in spite of the abuse and atrocities the Jewish people in the ghetto experience daily, Asch rallies the community’s spirits by leading a small company of players who perform songs and occasional excerpts from the Yiddish theatre (including The God of Vengeance) in a small attic room in secret. Eventually, they are discovered by the Nazis and sent away to their death. Still, his ghost lives on with his company, continuing to tell the story of The God of Vengeance, believing in its powerful message even after death.

Lemml is an earnest, strong, and kind man. Whereas others dismiss The God of Vengeance at the salon when Asch first presents his play, Lemml is open-minded, progressive, and able to see the play’s artistic merit and beauty. He wholeheartedly believes in the power of the theatre. He leaves behind his stable job to follow the play all over the world. He has a compassionate nature, often offering comfort to the hurt or frightened in his care. Lemml is passionate about his beliefs with a clear sense of loyalty and morality and a strong, quiet persuasion. Though he is not argumentative nor forceful, he carries the power to affect people with his words, simply and easily stating the truths that others may not want to face. Though he sees the cynicism and evils of the world, he is never consumed by it.

When Lemml speaks in his native Yiddish, he speaks with no accent. When he speaks in a secondary language (English, German), he speaks with a Yiddish accent. This performer is the only member of the cast to play only one role.

THE INGENUE, AVRAM

20s-30s. Avram Zederbaum is the ingenue in Lemml’s acting troupe. He plays all the young male roles; “all the grooms, the writers, the socialists,” Lemml explains, “So ardent in their beliefs, so passionate in their lovemaking.”

Avram plays the following roles in their play:

  • Sholem Asch, the writer of The God of Vengeance. At the play’s start, Asch is 23 years old. He lives with his wife, Madje, in Warsaw, Poland, and attends the salons of Mr. Peretz, where he hopes to begin his career as a playwright. When the salon roundly condemns his play, Asch is undefeated and, believing fully in his work, goes to Berlin to find a producer, eventually impressing the great star Rudolph Schildkraut. The God of Vengeance is a great success, and the show travels throughout Europe and eventually to New York City. Asch settles on Staten Island with his wife, and his literary career continues to grow. He also brings Lemml, his old stage manager from Poland and one of the first believers his work, all the way to America, loyally rewarding his old friend for support. Asch is appointed head of a delegation for the American Jewish Joint committee and travels back to Europe to research the increasing pogroms; the violence and atrocities he witnesses there make an indelible scar on Asch, who is unable to forget them when he returns home. He loses interest in most everything, including his work, in spite of Madje’s constant support. When The God of Vengeance is going to make its’ Broadway debut, he hardly checks the English translation (for he cannot understand it) and never attends a single rehearsal. When the cast and producer are faced with obscenity charges, Asch does not attend the trial to defend his play. When confronted with the evils of the world, Asch is unable to shake their weight off of him, and he gradually loses faith in art to make a difference in the world. To learn more about Sholem Asch, start here.

  • Morris Carnovsky, one of the pimps in The God of Vengeance. Morris is crass and blunt, a true denizen of the degrading underworld.

  • Eugene O’Neill, the famous American playwright who supports The God of Vengeance. He is a hard-drinking, candid, outspoken man. He was struck deeply by the play and tries to offer Lemml advice on how to defend it. To learn more about Eugene O’Neill, start here.

  • John Rosen, a Yale graduate student who wants to produce The God of Vengeance. He goes to the aging Sholem Asch to ask for permission to produce the play; when Asch refuses him, John steadfastly sticks to his request, adamantly insisting that he will spend his life trying to produce the play.

  • An immigrant at Ellis Island.

When Avram’s characters speak in their native languages, he speaks with no accent (Sholem Asch in Yiddish, Eugene O’Neill and John Rosen in English). When the characters speak in a secondary language, he speaks with a Yiddish accent.

THE MIDDLE, HALINA

30s-40s. Halina Cygansky is the leading lady of Lemml’s acting company. In his words, she plays “all of the vamps and all of the vice, the scarred, and the schemers.”

Halina plays the following roles in their play:

  • The prostitute Manke in The God of Vengeance. Manke words in Yekel’s brothel and falls in love with his daughter, Rifkele. Manke is beautiful, sensual, and passionate; in spite of life’s difficulties, she has not been hardened and remains kind and tender, especially with Rifkele. She is strong and smart, and hopes to give her lover a better life where they can be together.

  • Freida Neimann, a German actress who portrays Manke in the Berlin production of The God of Vengeance. Freida is a famous, celebrated performer, with some diva-like pretensions. She is friendly and magnanimous, especially when meeting her costar, Elsa, and is undaunted by performing a potentially provocative love scene with another woman. She reveals herself to have some anti-Semitic prejudice: “But on one thing I am completely lost at sea,” she tells Elsa. “How do I play a Jew?” She is a nationalist, telling Elsa she believes them to be “first and foremost, German,” and laughs at the idea of Polish Yiddish genius (Sholem Asch), even in front of another Polish-Jewish man (Lemml).

  • Dorothee, who plays Manke in the New York City productions of The God of Vengeance. Her real name is Deine, but she changes it Dorothee to appear more “American” before the show makes its Broadway debut in English. She starred opposite the woman she loves, Reina, in the Yiddish production at The Bowery Theatre, and tries to help Reina learn English quickly enough that she can keep her part as well. In spite of their efforts, Reina is let go and replaced by Virginia McFadden, whom Dorothee tries to help, but without betraying Reina in the process. When the love scene between Rifkele and Manke is cut, Dorothee is irate, furious that her character has been reduced from lover to seducer.

  • Dr. Hornig, who tries to treat Sholem Asch for his depression.

  • A Bagelman sister, who sings and entertains with her sister at resorts in the Catskills.

  • An immigrant at Ellis Island.

When Halina’s characters speak in their native languages, she speaks with no accent (Freida in German, Dorothee in Yiddish, Dr. Hornig in English). When the characters speak in secondary language, she speaks with a Yiddish accent.

THE MIDDLE, MENDEL

30s-40s. Mendel Schultz is the leading man of Lemml’s acting company. In his words, Mendel plays “all of the vamps and all of the vice, the scarred, and the schemers.”

Mendel plays the following roles in their play:

  • Nakhmen, an attendee of Mr. Peretz’s literary salon and Lemml’s cousin. When they reach the lesbian love scene in their reading of Sholem Asch’s new play, The God of Vengeance, Nakhmen refuses to read it aloud, calling it “garbage.” He is loud, opinionated, and temperamental.

  • Harry Weinberger, the producer of The God of Vengeance’s Broadway run. Harry is a successful, wealthy lawyer. He believes in the play, but knows that they must make certain script changes for it to be allowed on Broadway. He is a practical, realistic businessman.

  • Officer Benjamin Bailie, a New York City police officer with the Vice Squad. He arrests the Broadway cast and producer of The God of Vengeance for obscenity. He is shocked by the material of the play (“Boy, Mr. Asch, I’d like to spend a night in your mind,” he tells the playwright backstage), but at least lets the play finish before making his arrests.

  • Rabbi Joseph Silverman, a rabbi at the Temple Emanu-el in New York City. Rabbi Silverman is shocked and horrified by The God of Vengeance, as he preaches often in his sermons, and resolutely tries to get it canceled by making regular complaints with the police. He is against the play because he believes it furthers anti-Semitic sentiments, and is angry that such a play would be written by a fellow Jewish man.

  • An immigrant at Ellis Island.

When Mendel’s characters speak in their native languages, he speaks with no accent (Nakhmen in Yiddish, Harry Weinberger, Officer Bailie, and Rabbi Silverman in English). When the characters speak in a secondary language, he speaks with a Yiddish accent.

THE ELDER, VERA

40s-60s. Vera Parnicki is an actress and one of the co-founding member of Lemml’s acting troupe. She plays the mature roles, “all of the mothers, the sagest of our characters, or the ones who remain fools at any age,” Lemml explains.

Vera plays the following roles in their play:

  • Sarah, the wife of Yekel the brothel owner in The God of Vengeance. Sarah was once a prostitute herself, and is a smart and ambitious woman. She is under great pressure from her husband to raise her daughter, Rifkele, to be a pious, proper young woman. When Rifkele falls in love with Manke, a prostitute in Yekel’s employ, Sarah is desperate to end the affair at all costs, lest she or her daughter be subjected to Yekel’s violent wrath.

  • Mrs. Peretz, wife of the writer and salon host I. L. Peretz. She is attentive and caring to her husband, and is annoyed by Sholem Asch and his inflammatory writing, which tend to excite her husband and risk his health.

  • Esther Stockton, an actress who portrays Sarah in the American productions of The God of Vengeance. Esther is a veteran performer of the Yiddish stage, and set to make her Broadway debut with the English translation. Unlike her cast mates, she is unsurprised about the changes in the newly translated script, recognizing that their new Broadway audiences will not be able to handle more than one provocative subject in the play. She is wry, realistic, and straightforward.

  • Madje Asch, the wife of playwright Sholem Asch. She is a patient, kind woman who takes care of her husband. She believes in her husband’s work, even when he does not, and is always a source of encouragement and strength.

  • An immigrant at Ellis Island.

When Vera’s characters speak in Yiddish, their native language, they speak with no accent. When the characters speak in English, she speaks with a Yiddish accent.

THE ELDER, OTTO

40s-60s. Otto Godowsky is an actor and one of the co-founding member of Lemml’s acting troop. He plays the mature roles, “all of the fathers, . . . the sagest of our characters, or the ones who remain fools at any age,” Lemml explains.

Otto plays the following roles in their play:

  • Yekel, the owner of the brothel in The God of Vengeance. He is a harsh, temperamental man. He is determined to become a respectable member of the community by buying a Torah and marrying off his daughter, Rifkele, to a promising young man. When she thwarts his designs by falling in love with one of his prostitutes, Yekel’s rage is uncontrollable. He sentences his wife and daughter to work in the brothel and hurls his Torah across the room.

  • Mr. I. L. Peretz, a successful Yiddish playwright and host of a literary salon in Warsaw, Poland. He is a highly esteemed member of the literary community; the young playwright Sholem Asch feels he has to suck up to Peretz if he wants to find any success at the readings. Peretz believes that more plays should be written in Yiddish, but only ones that portray the Jewish people as “heroic, valiant” — not the prostitutes and pimps of Asch’s play. To learn more about I. L. Peretz, start here.

  • Rudolph Schildkraut, a famous stage actor who produces The God of Vengeance in Berlin and portrays Yekel in Europe and New York. Schildkraut is a popular star; he has a magnetic, powerful stage presence. He is very much the leader of the companies. He is magnanimous, friendly, and, though somewhat pretentious in his speech, respectful and genuine. To learn more about Rudolph Schildkraut, start here.

  • Judge McIntyre, a New York City judge who finds the Broadway cast and producer of The God of Vengeance guilty of obscenity charges.

  • Sholem Asch, a successful writer and the playwright of The God of Vengeance. Though he once believed in the power of the theatre in his younger years, Asch is now a man resigned to the evils of the world. He refuses to allow his plays to be produced. He has been summoned before the House of Un-American Activities Committee for being once briefly affiliated with socialists half a lifetime ago. He has seen too many horrors and no longer cares or believes in the theatre. To learn more about Sholem Asch, start here.

  • A bartender.

  • An immigrant at Ellis Island.

When Otto’s characters speak in their native languages, he speaks with no accent (Mr. Peretz, Rudolph Schildkraut, and Sholem Asch in Yiddish, Judge McIntyre in English). When the characters speak in a secondary language, he speaks with a Yiddish accent.

THE INGENUE, CHANA

20s-30s. Chana Mandelbaum is the ingenue in Lemml’s acting troupe. She plays all the young female roles; everyone who is, as Lemml describes, “so ardent in their beliefs, so passionate in their lovemaking.”

Chana plays the following roles in their play:

  • Rifkele in The God of Vengeance. Rifkele is the daughter of Yekel, the brothel owner, and his wife Sarah. “She’s seventeen. She’s pure. And very virginal,” in the words of Sholem Asch, the playwright. Yekel intends for her to marry a respectable young man in the community, but she falls in love with Manke, one of the prostitutes in her father’s employ, instead. Though it estranges her from her family and puts her, her lover, and her mother in danger of her father’s violent rage, Rifkele gives her heart unrestrainedly to Manke and risks everything for the woman she loves.

  • Madje Asch, wife of playwright Sholem Asch. Madje is intelligent, ardent, and loving. She has an open mind and passion for literature; she recognizes the genius in her husband and encourages him to pursue his art. She is always supportive, even through her husband’s toughest times. When he returns from his trip researching pogroms in Europe, he is a different man, broken and unreachable; nevertheless, Madje is tireless in her efforts to bring her husband back to his normal self.

  • Elsa Heimes, who portrays Rifkele in the Berlin production of The God of Vengeance. Elsa is earnest, young, and naïve—she has difficulty even saying the word “lesbian” initially. She is in awe of her co-star, Freida, a well-known actress, and eager to impress her. When Freida expresses her amusement at playing a Jewish woman, Elsa—who is Jewish—is caught in an uncomfortable place, needing to tell Freida that she herself is Jewish without incurring any of Freida’s prejudice

  • Reina, who portrays Rifkele in the initial Yiddish New York City production of The God of Vengeance. Reina is in love with her costar, Dorothee, who plays Manke. When the show makes its transition to Broadway with a new English translation, Reina struggles to learn English in time. She changes her name to Ruth, to sound more “American,” and practices with Dorothee, but is unable to become the All-American girl the producers are seeking and is let go. Though Lemml assures her that she’ll have success still on the Yiddish stage, Reina is heartbroken by her dismissal, as she knows that playing Rifkele is the only chance she’ll ever get to play a love scene opposite someone she truly loves.

  • Virginia McFadden, a young American woman who is hired for the Broadway production of The God of Vengeance. Virginia is from a conservative, WASP-y family and attended Smith College. This is her first role in the theatre, and she is excited to rebel and shock her parents. She doesn’t speak Yiddish and struggles to understand other members of the cast at times, but she throws herself wholeheartedly into her role. She may be attracted to her costar, Dorothee, and finds herself utterly swept up in her role.

  • An immigrant at Ellis Island.

  • A Bagelman sister, who sings and entertains with her sister at resorts in the Catskills.

When Chana’s characters speak in their native languages, she speaks with no accent (Madje and Reina in Yiddish, Elsa in German, Virginia in English). When the characters speak in secondary language, she speaks with a Yiddish accent.

THE CLARINETIST, MAYER

Mayer Balsam is the clarinetist in Lemml’s acting company. He is a resident of the Łódź Ghetto in Poland, as the Nazis have taken power. He performs with the company every day in a small, cramped attic space, playing music for singing and dancing six nights a week and providing accompaniment for excerpts from The God of Vengeance on the seventh night.

Mayer plays Isaac in the troupe’s play, an attendee of Mr. Peretz’s salon. Isaac is assigned to read Sarah in Sholem Asch’s new play, The God of Vengeance. He is shocked by the radical subjects of the play—prostitution, lesbianism—and condemns the piece as anti-Semitic for portraying Jewish people in an unfavorable light.

This performer must be able to play the clarinet.

THE VIOLINIST, NELLY

Nelly Friedman is the violinist in Lemml’s acting company. She is a resident of the Łódź Ghetto in Poland, as the Nazis have taken power. She performs with the company every day in a small, cramped attic space, playing music for singing and dancing six nights a week and providing accompaniment for excerpts from The God of Vengeance on the seventh night.

This performer must be able to play the violin.

THE ACCORDIONIST, MORIZ

Moriz Godowsky is the accordionist in Lemml’s acting company. He is a resident of the Łódź Ghetto in Poland, as the Nazis have taken power. He performs with the company every day in a small, cramped attic space, playing music for singing and dancing six nights a week and providing accompaniment for excerpts from The God of Vengeance on the seventh night.

Moriz plays Lazar in the troupe’s play, an attendee of Mr. Peretz’s salon. He is assigned to read Rifkele in Sholom Asch’s new play, The God of Vengeance. When they reach the lesbian love scene, Lazar refuses to read such scandalous material out loud. He is shocked by the radical subjects of the play—prostitution, lesbianism—and condemns the piece as anti-Semitic for portraying Jewish people in an unfavorable light.

This performer must be able to play the accordion.