Brandeis University has had to cancel a scheduled production of a play by Michael Weller after the playwright and the Theater Department failed to come to terms as to how the play would be presented.
The decision is not only a lost opportunity to address one of the most burning issues facing college campuses today, it also deepens national concerns that the country’s leading institutions of higher education are failing in their role to uphold academic freedom.
Inspired by the life and work of Lenny Bruce (Brandeis holds Bruce’s archives), Buyer Beware has provoked exactly the kind of controversy that accompanied the career of the emphatically un-self-censored comedian. The play is set at a fictionalized Brandeis and explores the possible campus reception of one of Bruce’s routines in the age of Black Lives Matter and student protest.
Even before the play was produced, its text generated exactly the type of protests it describes. Amid those protests, voiced mainly by theater department students offended by elements of the play, the University considered re-scheduling the production for the following semester and offering accompanying educational programming. Concerned that the production would be compromised, Michael Weller withdrew the work.
While the play will certainly be produced elsewhere and while its future productions may attain even more force as a result of the Brandeis incident, the cancellation has seriously compromised core principles of academic freedom, as well as the University’s educational responsibility to offer students a wide range of viewpoints regardless of how controversial they may be.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has written a letter to Brandeis’s president asking the university to “spare [Lenny] Bruce the injustice of committing or enabling his posthumous censorship.” The letter, co-signed by Bruce scholars, family members and members of the comedy community, can be read here: www.thefire.org/brandeis-cancel-buyer-beware-lenny-bruce/