It is unsurprising, given Indecent’s fundamental conceit of metatextuality, that content, theme and form would be as profoundly interwoven as they are, documenting, re-enacting and, in many respects salvaging the creation of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, its performance and re-writing, and all the social, romantic, juridical and political catalysiations and conflicts surrounding its various productions. 

As with the crucial logics of space in God of Vengeance itself, where questions of identity, responsibility, piety, vulgarity, faith, language and love are vainly delineated by evermore permeable architectural partitions, so too does Indecent reveal borders as containing both within themselves further points of separation, but also many points of access, however illegitimate. Alliances are forged and broken, identities and, indeed actors and roles, exchanged in a way that assuredly parallels Angels in America’s quasi-Hegelianism, but ultimately presents the cultural dialogue between Jewish and Christian, (but also Jewish conservative and Jewish liberal), Europe and the USA (but also Polish and German, Greenwich Village and Broadway) etc as being at least as much a process of recurrence as negation. 

The final lingering scene of queer exhaltation – the embattled “rain scene” – happens, untranslated, in its original Yiddish. Rather than the defiant futurity expressed by – and indeed owed to – of a 1990 man, living with AIDS, announcing the continuation of the Great Work in a post-Soviet world that “only spins forward,” Indecent defiantly looks back to a great work already present in the pre-Soviet world of 1906. Exhausted by all the controversies of translation and its unjust sacrificing in aid of an ultimately fruitless cause, God of Vengeance’s rain scene is celebrated as a moment of culturally specific, undiluted and unapologetically joyful exodus from the concerns of homophobic, antisemitic bias. And yet, it is above all within this moment of wilfully performative solipsism that the holistic phusis of queer love becomes most apparent. 

Indeed, our ever-growing suspicion (however sympathetic) of Asch’s role as author throughout Indecent, from his introductory eyeroll-inducing announcement that he would have no opposition to his wife revealing lesbian tendencies, dependent upon his permission to be an audience to them, to his unwillingness to support his cast as they are indicted for obscenity (crucially, he was not), to his refual to allow further productions of God of Vengeance in light of his pursuit by HUAC, may now indeed contribute to this feeling of liberation. It is by no mistake that the man who has played the various incarnations of Yekel plays the final incarnation of Asch, for Asch is the father of God of Vengeance who likewise similarly spurned his creation. Just as so many queers of so many cultures, colours and creeds have found themselves cast out of their families, Indecent’s presentation of history displays a wholly comprehensive ambivalence towards genealogy. The rain scene’s power at the end is entirely reflective of its parentless status, as indeed it was in God of Vengeance, also. As with the diasporic nature of Jewish and queer identity, to be wholly self-reflexive and wholly universal is by no means a self-defeating contradiction. Infused with the beauty of unrestrained queer love, existing despite a century of controversy, rejection and even genocide, is the declaration אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה. ’Ehyeh ’ăšer ’ehyeh. We remember that “I am what I am” is not only an iconic exclamation of queer self-acceptance, but it is also a name of God. 

Throughout God of Vengeance, there is a recurrent motif of the contractual relationship between a gendered understanding of innocence, and ethno-theocratic cultural identity. Certainly, in the introduction of queerness, in the depicted relationship between Manke and Rifkele – above all regarding its emancipatory logic as discussed between the two characters – one can see fit to apply both Emma Goldman’s and Gayle Rubin’s essays entitled “The Traffic in Women” as a means of understanding first the functional continuum between systems of marriage and the maligned representations of sex work (as with Goldman’s initial essay), as well as nods toward a broader structural understanding of the female subject position as delineated in such an economy of signification. Undoubtedly, the spatial architecture of the play’s proceedings speaks to the ultimately frustrated separation of patriarchal concepts of piety and castigated forms of female labour – easily interpretable as respective parallels to the Superego / Symbolic and Id / Real – consequently making the liberationist “rain scene” the fleetingly triumphant Ego / Imaginary. It is within reason to understand this scene as something of a dialectical synthesis between the innocence demanded by the “upstairs” society, and the unbridled disregard for respectability. Indeed, the sexual Aufheben from patriarchal rule we see in this moment, through queer relationality as praxis, occurs both through sublation and supplementation via Manke’s concurrent – indeed, contingent – adoption both of the roles of mother and of bridegroom. Accordingly, family dynamics – both intergenerational / parental and intragenerational / spousal – are at once disavowed in their prior mode of application, revealed as little more than dispositifs of performative function, and then repurposed as such for a new economy of same-gender affection.

Manke’s address to Rifkele, reliant as it is on aqueous imagery in its romance, feels pointedly reminiscent of the Song of Solomon aka Song of Songs, whose eroticism has throughout history resulted in its performance in taverns and brothels as well as by observant Jews during Pesach. Crucially, then, we can interpret an expressly spiritual dimension to this affair: invoking a “Holy of Holies” that nevertheless transcends borders of respectability and indeed, even in its official religious application, uses the language of desire to indicate an Exodus: first from Egypt, and now from Yekel.

Returning, however, to the question of space: if we hold with the notion of the upstairs apartment, downstairs brothel, and street outside as representing the various components of the Borromean knot, we might well accordingly interpret Rifkele’s exodus from the Symbolic patriarchal order as being also an exodus from language – not least of all the function of language to delineate the moral parameters of her position within the traffic of women, including and especially the piety so hypocritically demanded of her by her parents. Thus, Rifkele’s uncertainty how to respond to Yekel’s interrogation of her virginity is not merely reticence. Rather, the language of patriarchal order bears next to no meaning for queer discourse and, in kind, queer discourse appears untranslatable to the language of patriarchal order.