In an open letter to Brandeis University President Ronald Leibowitz, free speech advocates are calling on the university to answer more questions about how the staging of a play about Lenny Bruce and his comedy, originally scheduled to debut at the university, was tabled.
Michael Weller, a Brandeis alum, wrote the play, Buyer Beware, during a residency at Brandeis, and drew on the university’s collection of Bruce’s archives. Bruce made a career of transgressing traditional social mores with his stand-up routines, culminating in his conviction for obscenity in 1964. A campaign to cancel the play was launched by alumni and students who deemed it too offensive to be staged. Faculty members expressed concerns in July after seeing a draft of the play and wanted to postpone its debut for a semester, so the production could align with a course to be taught exploring difficult topics addressed in the play, but Weller has since taken the play elsewhere. The university and Weller have offered differing accounts of their communication during that time.
The letter was penned by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free speech advocacy group that focuses on speech issues on college campuses, and signed by Bruce’s daughter and other free speech advocates. It advocated for dealing with the play’s reported issues surrounding race and offensive material in an open manner:
We write to ask for more details about Brandeis’s decision to cancel this month’s production of “Buyer Beware.” What material, exactly, did the university consider too “challenging” for its students and faculty? And why, when an agreement could not be reached with Weller to find a more “appropriate” setting for the play, did the university decide not to stage the production as intended, and instead defaulted to functionally censoring the “challenging” material instead of openly engaging with it?
The letter also asked whether the Bruce archives ended up “in the ‘appropriate’ place.”
The university still intends to honor Weller with its Creative Arts Award, and reiterated in a statement earlier this month that the administration did not cancel the play.
“Decisions on how to offer curricular material are made by faculty at universities every day. The administration does not and should not interfere in these pedagogical matters, and the decision to build a course around the issues the play raises was appropriately made by faculty. Likewise, as an artist, Mr. Weller has the right to determine how and where he would like his work presented,” the university said in a statement.