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The Obscenity Trial:

A Dig Deeper Article by the Production Dramaturgy team for Indecent

New York Times, “‘God of Vengeance’ Players Convicted,” May 24, 1923.

In 1923, the English-language production faced a groundbreaking obscenity trial in New York, resulting in the arrest and charging of thirteen individuals, including the renowned actor Rudolph Schildkraut and producer Harry Weinberger. The charges were related to their involvement in the play and encompassed "unlawfully advertising, giving, presenting, and participating in an obscene, indecent, immoral, and impure drama or play."

Throughout the trial, the defense passionately argued for the play's artistic merit, enlisting figures like Abe Cahan and Oswald Villard to testify. They emphasized that scenes from the play were no more explicit than those found in the Bible, Shakespeare's works, or other literary classics. Despite their efforts, the jury delivered a guilty verdict, marking a significant legal precedent. This case was the first of its kind in New York State and only the second under an obscenity law statute.

The potential penalties, including three years in prison and a $500 fine (equivalent to roughly $10,000 today), were severe. However, the judge assured a lenient sentence. The trial stirred intense debate, with supporters advocating for artistic freedom and critics condemning the play's portrayal of Jewish life. The convictions were not overturned on appeal, and fines were imposed on the producer, director, and star, Rudolph Schildkraut. The cast received suspended sentences.

Post-indictment, Weinberger mobilized support, reaching out to prominent academics and clerics for testimonials defending the play's morality. On April 3, 1923, Columbia University professor Carl Van Doren, a future Pulitzer Prize winner, firmly expressed his support, stating, "I can no more imagine any person being allured or corrupted by the play than I can imagine any person being tempted to drink poison by seeing someone poisoned."

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