Point one: there’s a title that doesn’t fuck about (“The boldness of its setting in a brothel and its introduction of homosexuality has not given the play a wholly untroubled career…” says Joseph C. Landis). Point two: its author, Sholem Asch is considered the best known Yiddish writer – by those who know, if you follow.
Set in a family home above a brothel – both ran by the father, Yankel – the play concerns his determination to keep his daughter uncontaminated from the vice that bankrolls the household. That its title is not ‘God of Typical Bourgeois Hypocrisy’ gives an indication that such a delicate balance may prove problematic, but Rivelke, the daughter, presents a mannered innocence from curtain-up to feed his hope. As the character quite literally known only as Woman Blind In One eye notes: “I tell you, as though she’d been raised in a synagogue, forgive the comparison – neat, pretty, more modest than all the respectable girls.” As for spiritual insurance:
“Don’t be afraid of your father. I love you. I love you very much. I’m ordering a Torah Scroll today. It costs a lot of money. For you, my child, for you.” (Yankel)
The scroll is installed, with no pressure whatsoever from the scribe who copied it for them: “Remember a Torah Scroll is a momentous thing; it supports the entire world…” and Yankel broadcasts his not at all screamingly neurotic dreams for her future, “Leave your father’s house and forget. Forget your father; forget your mother, and have decent children…”
We’re soon introduced to those who live (dig the symbolism) downstairs – a junior pimp and assorted prostitutes. It’s a bruised romantic called Basha who acts a poetic foreshadow, recalling her own father: “He’d kill me on the spot. He’s looking for me with an iron bar… My father is a butcher. Oh, the matches I could have made.” But she rejected her suitor: “He stinks from beef. Brr. They call him Medicine. How could I marry Medicine and every years have another little Medicine. Brr.” Worse, and most hauntingly, is her mother, dead of heartbreak: “I see her at night, in my dreams. She comes in her shroud, covered with thorns and briars because of my sins, and she tears at my hair.”
In what one might see as a suspiciously prurient setpiece, it’s not long before Basha and friends are dancing in the rain – with Rivelke. Manke, who seems to have long been very close, takes her inside and the two girls play out a dream wedding – with Manke as the groom. They elope. “Had she died, I would have known that I buried a chaste child, an honourable child. But now what am I worth in this world? You’re sinful yourself and you leave behind a sinful generation. And so sin goes on from generation to generation” is Yankel’s predictable judgement, and even though his wife, Hindl, returns her to the home, the reunion is shortly thereafter followed by a self-destructive finale so rich in the infuriating, alienating logic of wounded honour I can’t personally stomach repeating it (let’s say “Down to the house!” becomes something of a slogan and stage direction). Typically bourgeois after all…