I go to the theater a lot for work — usually twice a week — and nothing has moved me more this year than Paula Vogel's play Indecent. Indecent is inspired by Sholem Asch's God of Vengeance, a drama written at the turn of the 20th century that deals with forbidden love, rebellion, and religion. It had its first run on Broadway in 1923 but only lasted six weeks before it was shut down and the cast and creative team were convicted of charges of obscenity. (Was it the lesbian scene, the Jewish prostitutes, or the Torah being thrown across the stage that was the final blow?)
Indecent is a play about immigrants, homophobia, censorship, the capacity of art, and the power of love. When the two female heroines kissed in the rain, I held my breath. When they ran through the aisles — an escape from a concentration camp — I gripped my seat. And when they lined up at Ellis Island — foreigners in a new land, terrified and exhausted — tears streamed down my face. I cried for the thousands of refugees who are stranded today, and I cried for the long line of immigrants in my own family. Indecent is a play about the past, but in many ways, it's a play about today. When the show ended, I could barely move.
Paula is prolific in the theater world. Her acclaimed feminist drama How I Learned to Drive earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 1998, and she is a renowned teacher and mentor, having led the playwriting program at Brown University and then at the Yale School of Drama. Some of today's best playwrights have come under her tutelage, including four Pulitzer Prize winners. Indecent might be her first play on Broadway, but her influence has long been felt in the industry.
I was a little nervous to interview her, but she couldn't have been more welcoming. As we sat down in the lobby of a theater on 42nd Street, I noticed that her white, safari-style shirt had tiny colorful parrots on it, which made me want to hug her immediately. I didn't. But I leaned in closer as the conversation progressed beyond my original questions — and expectations — to talk of prodigal daughters and the myth of angry feminism. Our discussion was candid, eye-opening, and it reaffirmed my belief in living one's life passionately.
Olivia Clement : Tell me about discovering God of Vengeance and why it changed your life.
Paula Vogel : I was 22 years old. It was my first year at Cornell University, and I'd just come out. My professor, who became an incredible mentor to me, looked at me and said: "There's a play I need you to read: God of Vengeance." I'd never heard of it, but I ran to the library and found a copy. I started reading and I forgot to sit down. When I realized that I was going to see this love scene between these two women — I don't remember breathing while it happened. I felt like I had stopped breathing. I still remember that physical sensation, and I'm 65 now.
OC : How important do you think it is that young people encounter positive or at least familiar representations of themselves — especially when they feel like outsiders?
PV : Extremely important. The truth is, everybody is an outsider. Everybody. So, we mustn't fear presenting that in a work of art so that people have different ways of seeing their outsiderness reflected. This is what I say to young people: "It is not a waste of your life to be a writer, or to work in the arts." I think the more we see ourselves represented, the more that opens up possibilities for younger people.