The Urgency of Indecent Art: Paula Vogel on Love, Creation and Injustice

Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” is many things: an idiosyncratic mix of music, memory and theater magic; a female take on an infamous male intellectual; a Holocaust parable that manages to surprise; a lesbian love story both lyrical and consumed with lust; a provocative piece of found history that holds up an eerie mirror to our times. The Pulitzer-winning playwright, author of more than a dozen distinctive works, has been talking to countless audiences about her first show to land on Broadway human -- separately discovered the same censored story. Vogel spoke with me a few days before the Tonys, which she planned to attend as a Best Play nominee.

Is it strange to be where you are now? Are you surprised to be on Broadway?

I find it just a continuation of what I’ve been doing. It’s like going from Rhode Island to Texas -- the roads are the same, and the people are lovely, just everything’s a slightly larger scale.

Do audiences react in ways you dont expect? 

I’m really amazed the audience who come to see the show respond in the way I responded when I wrote it, that they laugh and cry and that they want to talk about it. Whenever I can, I stop in front of the theater, and conversations with audiences can go on for an hour to two hours after the show …. I’ve always said that playwrights write the script, and the director and the cast and the designers write the production, but the play is actually written by each audience member. So every night there are 500 different plays. When I come out, people want to tell me the play they saw.

Theater is such a fragile living thing; I marvel at the bravery of everyone involved in it. When you were a little girl, did you think this was what youd grow up to be? 

I grew up below the poverty line in a fairly dysfunctional family, and the thought of going to a restaurant, much less going to a theater, was sort of out of the question. It wasn’t until I was 15 years old in high school and I walked into a drama class -- I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. And the teacher said, “Just sit down. Take a seat and be quiet." I stayed through a rehearsal of “Skin of Our Teeth,” and I went up to him, I said, “I don’t ever want to leave.” And he said, “Okay, you can sign up for the class.” And he put me to work; my first job was stage manager. From that point on -- I think every theater artist tells you the same story -- I was hooked. I’ve never been bored a day in my life since that day.

Of course, each production is at the mercy of the individual dynamics of the people in it—it can be heaven, it can be hell.

But you forget all the hells when you’re in heaven.

Do you remember a moment where you realized you were in fact a playwright?

I put it off for a long, long time, saying that, which I sometimes think is symptomatic of women. I started teaching when I was 23, at Cornell, and my job became all-consuming -- at age 33 at Brown University I designed and ran the playwriting program there, raised money so that it was free for anyone admitted, plus we gave them stipends -- and I was writing plays, but I didn’t really say, “Okay, I'm a playwright,” until I wrote “Baltimore Waltz.” There was something about that experience -- finding that theater could literally not only change my life but change my emotional DNA, in a way I hadn’t realized until I lost my brother to AIDS. I realized that theater can bring back the dead, that theater is always in the present tense, instead of people who are in the past tense. There is that strange alchemy we feel when we enter an empty theater: There's a ghosting that happens, and an energy actors leave behind when they're creating a character who doesn’t exactly exist but [whom] they’re giving their own life force to, and that energy remains behind on the stage. All of us who work in theater feel it.

How did you invent the vocabulary to take something so painful and find comedy?

I think it’s a family voice—the funniest, most alive moments I’ve spent are sitting shiva for my grandfather, or at the funerals—the stories that are told, the laughter. Is it painful? Yes, but “Baltimore Waltz” made me believe in catharsis, and I discovered as I wrote about my brother that I felt joyful. That there was a release, a comedy. I actually now believe that if we don’t laugh, we can’t grieve. That strange exhilaration that I think also exists in [Vogel’s Pulitzer-winning] “How I Learned to Drive,” and certainly exists in Indecent,” is really having a great wake, a great shiva -- just a great party for people we've lost.

Because there's something frozen if we don't allow ourselves to experience the full panoply of human emotions. 

As a culture we are terrified of facing grief and facing death. We change the subject, we don’t delve in deeply enough -- it’s seen as being morbid. I don't think it’s emotionally healthy. Theater is very much a conduit of not being frozen, of facing something collectively so that we can change our emotional DNA. We leave the theater feeling a kind of lightness of being.

“Baltimore Waltz” sprang from your need to address the loss of your brother. Was there a particular kernel that sparked “Indecent”?

Actually, I think in a way I continue to write in a conversation with my brother. All of us who have lost somebody too young know this experience. I'm 30 years older than my [late] older brother, but I'm still having the conversations in my head. He actually said something about that when he was dying, that finally I would get the last word.

Do you? Or does he answer?

[Laughs] As long as he could read—he lost his sight as one of the last senses that he was losing from HIV—he delved into Holocaust literature. When I asked him why, he said, “Do you realize that half of our family has always been killing off the other half?” And I thought about it: Russian Jew, German Jew, German Catholic, German Protestant. Spanish and French. And that’s what was happening in his body, half of his body was killing off the other half. That ancestry of violence had actually worked down to the cellular level.

That's not at all profound!

[Laughs] Even if I am not a survivor, still in all, the Holocaust, for those of us of certain generations, lives in our body. So many younger people I’ve taught don’t feel it in their body; they think of it as a historical fact. I guess I was thinking of my brother: How can I write something that when younger people see it, the notion of Shoah lives in their bones? And not in a traumatizing way.

My friend whom I brought to the theater said, “Is this going to be a Jewish play or a gay play?”

You tell me. [Laughs] I would hope the specific of the story makes us think of the universality of immigrants, and America as an immigrant nation, and at what price and at what times and danger do we erect borders and walls. The truth of the matter is what we’re asking everyone is to do is what Sholem Asch did in 1906 -- we're asking everyone to say, “Yes, I'm a lesbian.” When we think that he said that to a Yiddish theater audience, and Yiddish culture, in 1906, that's profound.

It frustrates me what stories are not considered mainstream, not validated as being worthy of Broadway.

What I am hoping is that I live long enough to see “How I Learned to Drive” and “Baltimore Waltz” on Broadway. For a long time it’s been said to me, “Oh, you’ve written a woman’s play, it’s not universal -- and it’s so astonishing that we are making decisions on healthcare for women with an all-male panel in Washington, D.C.--

And the notion that anything to do with childbirth is a chick thing, as if human beings would exist without it.

There are plenty of days where I cry in my tea, but then there are other days -- and one of the days was when we moved the show to Broadway. People say to me, “How do you feel?” It’s kind of funny and makes me laugh: If you just stand outside the club long enough, one day they’ll forget and keep the door open and you can just sneak in.

The Mary Louise Parker/David Morse Vineyard production of “How I Learned to Drive” was one of the most perfect things I’ve ever seen. It stays with me still.

That was a heaven. Everybody thought that it was on Broadway, in retrospect, isn't that interesting? So then it was interesting to be told that it’s not a universal story, it’s not Broadway material... There's a play I have to read, I understand it's wonderful, a two-person play [with subject matter similar to “HILTD”] written by a British writer: “Blackbird.” Not only has it been on Broadway but the revival now has been on Broadway. I hope that in the next 10 years my plays will be seen as universal as his are seen. I think we find excuses to exclude women while ignoring the practice of what's [accepted when the authors are male. “Indecent”] is an homage to a male writer who's very beloved and is in the canon, [which I did] purposefully to try to break through.

You've been a mentor to many people. Is that how art is allowed to happen? Is that the only way that it does?

I had mentors in teaching; I didn’t have mentors in theater. Mentoring for me was a selfish thing: That was how I tried to stop being bitter and write the next play, by believing in our art and craft. What better way than to surround yourself with really remarkable voices? And it stopped me from feeling self-pity, it stopped me from going, “Oh yeah, he got on Broadway and I didn’t.” I’m going to continue writing because it’s the only way I can feel and think about the world. You just believe in the importance of doing this for a lifetime. I always said I wanted people to enter [the classroom] as my students and leave as my peers and colleagues, and that I wanted them to make it in the field before I did. And I have seen several of my students on Broadway, so this isn’t my first time. As a mentor and a godparent and a fan and a believer I’ve been [on Broadway] for Nilo Cruz, for Quiara Hudes, for Sarah Ruhl, and they’ve all honored me by sitting next to me to watch their play. It’s not about getting through the door alone; it’s about forming circles. Circles rise faster than individuals can. 

So much of the resonance of Indecent, its timeliness about the foreclosing of the humanity of whole groups of people, and the hatred and the fear we live with today—one can say, “Everything is so urgent; how can I waste my time making art?” But it seems even more urgent now than ever that we speak to our creative spirit in light of the daily horrors in our current situation. I was particularly struck in Indecent by Aschs inability to defend his production when it was attacked. In a conventional drama he would leap to champion his own work.

I was somewhat mad at him that he didn’t defend the play. I did 40 drafts of “Indecent,” maybe 20 by the time we got to New Haven and the other half late at night while we were in previews, and as we were going from New Haven to La Jolla, so it took me a while to understand for myself: Our heroes are wounded. How do you write a wounded hero? How do you forgive a wounded hero? I started reading about the pogroms, trying to walk in his shoes, and then listening to how he spoke at 1950 and realizing how he must’ve sounded in 1923. He was painfully aware that he couldn’t speak English—and he was this brilliant, international, celebrated writer. What is that like, when people only hear the immigrant and not the writer? And we now look at the world with a different understanding of PTSD, which he must have felt, documenting the bodies on the street. 

What actually helped me was that terrifying image, I think it was an AP picture, when an aid worker picked up the body of a little 3-year-old who had washed up on shore, who would have been fleeing the massacres in Syria, this little boy had lost one of his shoes, and the limp little body -- it so destroyed me that I thought, “Of course, this is what he was seeing on a daily basis.”

You said you sprang from a dysfunctional family. Were they able to be proud of your achievements?

My father left home when I was 10. Both parents were dysfunctional -- very funny and very brilliant and very dysfunctional. My mother did live long enough to see “How I Learned to Drive,” it was the first play of mine she’d seen. She was thrilled; she stayed up all night with me as the reviews were coming in and read every one. I had dedicated the play to her, but she died before the publication came out. My dad kind of floated in and out of my life, mostly out, and would disappear, but one night I came home and turned on my voicemail and it was my dad saying, “Honey, I just saw ‘How I Learned to Drive,’” and he started to cry. When I heard his voice I turned to my partner and said, “I think my dad is dying.” And he was dead in six months. At least it was wonderful to have that opportunity to hear them be proud before they died.

Is your partner an artist as well?

No. We’ve been together 28 years and married since -- when did it become legal -- 2004. She is a biologist -- and a biologist of gender study. She’s pretty brilliant. She’s kind of a pioneer, she’s written books. I’m used to carrying the luggage for her when she goes on these international speaking engagements. I really love it when theater artists within different schools say, "Anne Fausto-Sterling is your wife?!" She’s really groundbreaking. It’s wonderful to have two writers in the same house writing from very different perspectives. We read each other’s work. Her world is remarkable to me.

How did you meet?

We met at Brown University -- she was the big woman on campus. We actually met first and I instantly fell in love, but we were both involved with other people, and I went, Oh, that's why God created cold showers. And then four years later, what do you do when you're breaking up: You go to the gym! I met Professor Sterling at the gym. It’s been an extraordinary gift to see the world through her work. It’s an interesting juggling act, because she is so engaged in her research and I’m teaching, that we kind of negotiate when we come to each other’s events and block off time. But I’m about to go to Spain to hear her new lectures in Madrid and Barcelona, and I can’t wait.

Have you seen a marked change in the response to your work since the ’90s with Hot and Throbbing and Baltimore Waltz? Weve lunged ahead in awareness and -- I don't want to say acceptance -- maybe communion on the subject of sexuality generally. You were writing these things at a time when it was much more difficult to be gay.

I’ve felt progress, but I must also say that I’m very worried that we’re facing an extreme counterrevolution. What people haven’t remarked upon -- ”Hot and Throbbing” is only done at 90-seat theaters. One of the prime concerns of my life, having witnessed it, is violence against women—and that we call it domestic violence instead of really properly criminalizing it -- and it hasn’t changed. Violence against women and children has not changed, it’s not been eradicated, and the other thing that hasn’t been eradicated is the sexual trade in women and girls.

One of the things that’s interesting about “Indecent” is this was going on in 1906. Women are still being sold and enslaved -- there is a worldwide trade and it is not looked at. So in terms of progress, gay progress and lesbian progress -- I always find everything intertwined -- we are not looking at racial and sexual justice and racial and sexual injustice. Any progress we make, to me, is fleeting because underneath it there’s the smoldering coal about to break out in conflagration of a hatred and a subjugation of women -- and we’re not paying attention to that, and it’s smoldering away. I keep saying to younger women, “I’m from a generation that remembers when women died in the back streets from abortion.” That’s sort of my response to it: Yes, there’s progress, but the basic difficulty has not been examined, and we’re hiding it.

Prior to the election I lived in constant dread because theres such hatred of women, among women as well -- the women who are so socialized, so brainwashed that they turn their self-loathing outward and hate other women. Its terrifying. Were watching the counter-revolution and it seems inconceivable, but its happening.

What has successfully been broken is the notion of coalition that I feel we’ve had at really important periods. The notion that -- how can we celebrate progress when a man is choked to death by police because he’s selling cigarettes on the street? Why is that hidden? It’s in plain view. How are we celebrating gay liberation when there is a policing of the body that is ending up in countless deaths, and they’re not prosecuted? How free is our freedom? Only a few people have realized that in “Indecent” the way the women express desire is by saying, “I can’t breathe.” Whatever our liberation is, and whenever we do get to express ourselves, there’s a constant awareness that our bodies may be policed as a result of that expression.

They do not belong to us.

That’s right. And I don’t mean this to be glum. One of the hopes I have is that a younger generation will think of how to forge a coalition. There have been, briefly, coalitions between gay men and lesbians that keep getting severed. To me, to be a gay man -- and this is based on the model of my brother -- is to be a feminist, so I’m constantly in shock when I meet gay men who are not, or who call women that awful word, breeders. It’s extraordinary -- I have not had children, I wanted to have children, but I always think when anyone has a child, they’re having in some sense someone who is in my family. Whoever gets born, that’s in my family, my community has increased. What the Republican right has done, very successfully, is broken up a coalition to where we’re now thinking of ourselves as nuclear families and nuclear communities instead of the larger community. How do we get back community values and eradicate the limits of family values -- or enlarge the limits of family values where we’re talking about a larger family?

The human family.

Can you tell I’m a child of the ’60s?

Trump is masterful at sowing chaos, but the searing editorials in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the L.A. Times, don’t do anything to puncture that chaos, because it’s so emotionally successful, so blunt and simple. I read a writer who pointed out that Republicans are skilled at framing something in the most direct emotional terms and the Democrats have not learned how to do that. I’ve been trying to figure out how to frame the truth -- we have truth on our side, so why can’t we express it in simple terms that cut through the chaos? It’s hiding in plain sight, as you said, but we’re not giving it weight -- because it’s not “chic,” somehow. We have to find language that gets through to everybody.

I may not have the same trust in words, and the power of words, because what’s been under assault -- there’s been an emptying of content of each word. Words mean polar opposites according to what party you belong to. Plus the entire sentence itself is suspect depending on what media outlet it comes from. We have actually trained a population to not believe not only in facts but in the words that bear them. Now this is where I feel some hope: I think that the reason Trump has so succeeded, like Hitler and Mussolini before him, is that they emotionalized words, they made words empty of their content and they emotionalized certain expressions and words. So what we’re responding to is emotional language and not cognitive language. The good news is that that is exactly what theater and film and music and songs do.

When we talk about who can run as a Democrat: Who can emotionalize words? Bernie Sanders emotionalizes words, to some extent. Elizabeth Warren can to some extent emotionalize words. Who else is out there?

To me -- and it leads right back to “Indecent” -- it’s not arbitrary that one of the first things that Hitler did was divide art into degenerate art and nationalist art. So all of the art that was emotionalizing the truth, giving us an emotional language, was suppressed and burnt until only national art remained. I think of the extraordinary artists in the ghettos who hid their photographs or hid their drawings so that people could see what the truth was afterwards. It’s not coincidental that the attack on the NEA started in 1980 by Jesse Helms. And the Republicans have long been trying to suppress the emotional language that arts gives us.

This is where I think Sholem Asch was wrong: I think it’s precisely at the time of crisis that we need to create novels and theater and movies and television, because that’s the only thing that gives us a resilience -- to show us that emotional truth. We do have to not just rely on individual artwork but create community work, go back to what we did in the ’30s with the WPA and the Federalist projects that were out there, make it accessible for everybody.

Maybe we can create a framework for that to happen.

I would love that.

- Helen Eisenbach

Photograph courtesy of Playbill.

Ms. Eisenbach is a journalist, screenwriter, and author of the novel Loonglow  and the satirical how-to/cry for help Lesbianism Made Easy.

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