The first lesbian character seen on the New York stage was introduced by a playwright far removed from the English-speaking world. Sholom Asch — whose novels in translation from the Yiddish eventually won him international popularity among both Jewish and non-Jewish readers — was only 21 when he wrote “Gott fun Nekoma” — “The God of Vengeance” in 1907.
The play was seen for 17 years in productions at New York’s Yiddish theatres and throughout Germany, as well as in Russia, Austria, Poland, Holland, Norway, Sweden, and Italy. It ran into trouble only after it was translated into English and moved from the Provincetown Theater in Greenwich Village to the Apollo Theater on Broadway in 1922.
“The God of Vengeance” is set in a Jewish house of prostitution in a provincial town in Poland. The proprietor naively believes he can raise a teenage daughter untouched by the sensuality of the brothel he operates in the cellar of his home, only one floor below the family’s living quarters.
To insure that his closely protected daughter marries a respectable, middle- class scholar (instead of following in the footsteps of her mother, an ex-prostitute), the father buys a Torah scroll for his home. He expects the Pentateuch to protect the girl and placate the vengeful God of the Old Testament.
Once the problem has been presented early in the first act, the outcome is predictable. The surprise comes in the person of a young prostitute who sneaks upstairs to visit the daughter. Instead of being lured below by a male patron or male procurer, the young girl becomes involved in her own home with the prostitute — a possibility that never occurred to her overprotective father. As the curtain descends on Act One, the two young women, locked in an embrace, passionately kiss.
In Act Two, Rivkele, the daughter, sneaks out of her bedroom while her parents sleep to join Manke, the prostitute, for a frolic outside in the warm May rain. Barefoot and dripping wet, Rivkele and Manke come into the basement bagnio, wrapped together in a wet shawl.
Manke proceeds to seduce the young girl in a frank and sensual scene of lesbian lovemaking, the like of which has never been repeated in a Broadway play. As they snuggle closely on the sofa, Manke fondles Rivkele’s breast and washes her face in the girl’s loose hair.
The proprietor’s daughter runs off with Manke to spend the night with her in the house another prostitute shares with a procurer. As Act Two comes to a close, the enraged father discovers too late that his daughter has escaped from the bedroom in which he had locked her.
In the final act, the procurer returns Rivkele to her home after her mother has paid him handsomely. “Are you still a chaste Jewish girl?” the distraught father shouts repeatedly at his frightened daughter. After a night of lesbian lovemaking, Rivkele is unsure of the answer: “I don’t know!” she replies.
Enraged at her evasiveness, the proprietor brutally drags his daughter by the hair to place Rivkele among his prostitutes in the brothel below. As he does so, the embittered father instructs an astonished, matchmaking rabbi who has witnessed the climactic scene to take away the Torah scroll that has failed to protect his daughter from the vengeful God of Israel.
Although Asch had been venturous enough to introduce the subject of lesbian love in 1907, it was not until 1922 that an American woman, play broker Alice Kauser, dared to produce “The God of Vengeance” for English-speaking audiences, in a translation by Dr. Isaac Goldberg, at the Provincetown Theater, a small theater off Washington Square.
Asch’s drama appealed to a wider audience than that within walking distance of the drafty avant-garde playhouse. In fact, the demand for seats during its run at the Provincetown was such that Attorney Harry Weinberger, who took over production from Alice Kauser, first moved it to the larger Greenwich Village Theater and then, to attract bigger audiences, to Broadway. It opened at the Apollo Theater on Forty-Second Street on February 19, 1923, and the Times reported, “It packed them in.” After its English-language premiere, the playwright wrote:
“I was not concerned whether I wrote a moral or immoral play. What I wanted to write was an artistic play and a true one . . . . As to the scenes between Manke and Rivkele, on every European stage, especially in Russia, they were the most poetic of all, and the critics in those countries appreciated this poetic view.
“This love between the two girls is not only an erotic one. It is the unconscious mother love of which they are deprived. The action portrays the love of the woman-mother, who is Manke, for the woman-child, who is Rivkele, rather than the sensuous, inverted love of one woman for another.”
Meanwhile, the Society for Suppression of Vice lodged a complaint against “The God of Vengeance” which denounced the drama as “obscene, indecent, disgusting, and tending to corruption of the morals of youth.” In the 1920s these private citizens, with private funding, monitored the New York stage as if they were government censors.
On March 6, 1923, during an evening performance, detectives appeared backstage to inform theatre-owner Michael Selwyn, producer Weinberger, and 12 actors in the cast that they had been indicted by a Grand Jury. The 14 were charged with violation of the Penal Code which “defines the crime of presenting an obscene, indecent, immoral and impure theatrical production.”
No summonses were issued and no formal arrests made. The 14 simply agreed to appear voluntarily the next morning before the judge presiding in General Sessions. When they did, they were officially arrested. All pleaded not guilty to the charge, paid $300 bail, and were back at the theatre in time to give a matinee performance.
“The God of Vengeance” was no longer being performed when the case finally went to a jury — more than two months later at the trial, no other aspect of Asch’s play was as damaging to the producer and his cast as the charge of presenting lesbian characters on stage.
Weinberger and Rudolph Schildkraut, who played the father, were fined $200 and the other cast members given suspended sentences. The conviction of those involved in the production of “The God of Vengeance” marked the first time that an American jury had found performers guilty of presenting “immoral” public entertainment.
The guilty conviction was eventually overturned by the Court of Appeals, which held that in such a trial for breaking the Penal Code “the manuscript of a play must be allowed in evidence and anyone who has seen it [the show] at any time must be permitted to testify.” This opinion has stood as a protection to all plays since 1923.
At the time of the trial, the Jewish Daily Record wrote:
“The entire pogrom on Sholom Asch’s “The God of Vengeance” comes from … American Jews, who are up to date with their suits and dresses, but not with their understanding. They belong to the generation which believes that the highest duty of literature is to hide the truth.”
Kaier Curtin, 1987. Excerpted with permission from We Can Always Call Them Bulgarians: The Emergence of Lesbians and Gay Men on the American Stage (Alyson Publications, Inc., 40 Plympton St., Boston, MA 02118, $18.95)