Lenny Bruce, the controversial comic who was hammered and hounded during most of his career by those who think certain words should be kept from our ears and who also enjoy standing guard over our collective morality, has been dead since 1966.
But he now sits firmly at the center of a free-speech controversy that has erupted after Brandeis University in Massachusetts canceled the production of a play based on his work.
“Buyer Beware” is by Michael Weller, a 1965 Brandeis graduate and the writer of such successful plays as “Moonchildren” and the screenplays for such movies as “Hair” and “Ragtime.” He is also a faculty member of the School of Drama at The New School in New York City and is scheduled to receive Brandeis’ Creative Arts Award on Jan. 23.
He was informed of this honor last year. It carries with it the expectation of an educational effort by the recipient and it was suggested by the university’s theater department that Weller might explore freedom of speech issues by doing what he does best, writing a play.
He spent time interviewing dozens of students and teachers and diving deep into the recently acquired Lenny Bruce Collection, housed in Brandeis University’s Special Collections. It is a gathering of personal photographs, papers and recordings that came to the university via Lenny Bruce’s daughter Kitty Bruce, thanks to a financial gift from the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation.
Titling his play after a boxed set of Bruce’s recorded comedy titled “Let the Buyer Beware,” a first draft was ready in June, with plans to mount a production this fall.
Sam Weisman, a respected theater and film director and teacher, and a 1973 Brandeis graduate, began working with Weller. “He stayed at my house when he was here,” says Weisman, who lives near the Brandeis campus; Weller lives in New York City. “He wrote a first draft, made some revisions. Set, costume and lighting designers were hired. A set was designed, a model built. Floor surfaces were chosen, and furniture discussed. Our composer started playing with musical ideas, blending Lenny’s voice with hip-hop beats and hooks. We were excited about casting the show once summer break was over. We were moving ahead with what I considered an important new play.”
“Buyer Beware” is set on the Brandeis campus in the near future and focuses on a white university student character named Ron who, having listened to many of Bruce’s recordings, plans to perform a comedy routine based on that material, most notably one that features the N-word. University officials in the play, worried that this performance coincides with a campus visit by a wealthy alum and donor, attempt to stop the show, even threatening the young man with academic probation. A black student character, overhearing Ron’s recitation of Bruce’s material, gets angry and posts on social media, drawing attention from Black Lives Matter, which calls for a protest. At the climax of the play, Ron performs, students protest and that wealthy donor offers to pay Ron’s tuition.
Things were proceeding nicely until life started to mirror art.
By mid-August, copies of the script had made their way into the hands of some faculty members, administrators and students. Outrage was sparked and protests ensued, in the form of emails to university President Ron Liebowitz, and Facebook posts. Some of the complaints: The play “positions a white man as the brave protagonist and a black man as the over-reacting, violent antagonist”; “It is an overtly racist play and will be harmful to the student population if staged”; and the portrayal of its black characters “is ridiculous and vicious.”
It remains unclear how many calls and emails were part of this campaign or how many people were involved or how many actually read the play. One alumnus named Ayelet Schrek told the university’s student newspaper, The Brandeis Hoot, “I trust the people who told me about (the play). I don’t need to read the actual language to know what it is about. ” Current student and theater major Andrew Child told the Hoot, “The issue we all have with it is that (Weller) is an older, straight gendered, able-bodied and white man. It isn’t his place to be stirring the pot.”
The Hoot has done its best to cover this complicated and often messy story (brandeishoot.com).
On Nov. 6 the university, after what it said were meetings with Weller, issued this statement: “It was the playwright’s sense, in his own words, ‘that rehearsals of the play, and growing sentiment among some students in the theater department, might not be conducive to the creative atmosphere desired for a premiere presentation of a new work.’ ”
To some this appeared to be an attempt by the university to spin things in its favor: It wasn’t our decision to cancel the play. The playwright made us do it.
But Weller has disputed the university’s version of events. Ever reluctant to give interviews before a play of his has gone into production, Weller did talk briefly to the Hoot and also to a local radio station, which quotes him (he was not on air) as having said the university’s handling of the decision not to produce the play is “dangerous and corrosive,” adding that: “Since I delivered the play, I haven’t heard from the theater department. … I wanted to give it to the school. I’m personally heartbroken.”
He was not alone in his disappointment.
On Nov. 8, the Dramatists Guild of America and the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund condemned the university’s decision. Its statement said, in part: “By capitulating, the University has compromised core principles of academic freedom and abdicated its educational responsibility to offer students a wide range of viewpoints regardless of how controversial they may be.” It went on: “To be clear, no school has an obligation to produce a play. But neither does anyone have a constitutional right to go through life unoffended. To the contrary, it is a university’s duty to expose its students to a range of views that challenge and discomfort them.”
Earlier this week, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization focused on “civil liberties in academia in the U.S.,” wrote an open letter to President Liebowitz asking him, among many things, “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?”
On Tuesday, Liebowitz responded to FIRE, defending the school’s position, arguing that the play had been “postponed” until spring and that it was Weller who chose to have it produced elsewhere.
The aforementioned Andrew Child responded to FIRE’s letter on his Facebook page and addressed from his perspective the whole matter, writing: “The first fact which your article ignores is that the piece was neither canceled due to its use of Lenny Bruce’s language nor due to its references to Lenny Bruce at all.”
Rather, he says, those who protested objected more to how “Buyer Beware” portrayed the white and black student characters.
Still, this all strikes some as a pre-emptive strike, ignoring how drastically a play can change from the page to the stage. And since “Buyer Beware” had not been cast and there had been no rehearsals, there was no opportunity for Weller to hear any suggestions or make alterations or revisions.
This is a lot of fuss over a guy who’s been dead for half a century.
Indeed, to many people Lenny Bruce is now more myth than man. But it is hard to argue that he has influenced generations of comics and Chicago was and important part of his career.
This is where in 1958 he made his first national impact, playing a place called Cloister Inn. Then came big-time club engagements; a few comedy albums and movie roles; drug busts; a series of arrests (including one when he was dragged from the stage at the Gate of Horn nightclub in the basement of the former Rice Hotel on Dearborn) and a trial on obscenity charges (he was convicted); a virtual blacklist that kept him off U.S. stages; increasing drug use; and unstable behavior. And then he was dead.
Chicago movie and theatrical producer Jason Brett has known and worked with Weller for decades. He and business partner Stuart Oken mounted “Moonchildren” for a successful run in Chicago in the late 1970s; their first production, it paved the way for them to open the Apollo Theater. He has closely watched the playwright’s career and this recent contretemps and says, “Michael’s body of work is rarefied among contemporary playwrights. It radiates social consciousness and cultural sensitivity. It is complex, layered, insightful and nuanced.
“What offends me is the hypocrisy of all this. This is a university founded in the name of a champion of free speech (Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis) and the purpose of any university is to teach cultural literacy, turn young learners into critical thinkers. Now a small group of student dramaturges are so offended by the words of Lenny Bruce that they succeeded in killing him for a second time. It is shameful.”
But all is not lost. Lenny Bruce is “alive and well” in Los Angeles.
He has been on stage since June at Theatre 68 (theatre68.com) in the world premiere of a one-man show written by and starring Ronnie Marmo and directed by Chicago’s Joe Mantegna.
“I Am Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce” has been a hit, both critically and at the box office, recently being extended through the end of this year.
Philip Brandes writing in the Los Angeles Times (a Tribune sibling) wrote that it cuts “through historical haze to invoke Bruce’s troubled, anarchic spirit and make a compelling case for his enduring relevance.” He concludes the rave review with this: “Not just a comedian, Lenny Bruce was too much the pioneering outcast to get the recognition he deserved in his lifetime. Nevertheless, his unique brand of introspective commentary broke through the limitations of punchline-driven stand-up and paved the way for his successors. … This engaging and illuminating portrait allows subsequent generations to understand who Lenny Bruce was, and, more important, why he mattered.”
Marmo is originally from Brooklyn and some years ago starred as Bruce in the play “Lenny Bruce is Back (And Boy is He Pissed),” written by Sam Bobrick and Julie Stein.
“That was a good show,” Marmo says. “But I wanted to take it further, explore Lenny on a deeper level.”
Before Mantegna became a star in movies and TV (he’s been on CBS’ “Criminal Minds” since 2007) he was a fixture on the local theater scene as part of the Organic Theater Company, where he appeared in many shows and got the idea for and helped write “Bleacher Bums.” He is a friend and one of the leading interpreters of playwright David Mamet, winning a Tony Award in 1984 for his role in Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.”
He has known Marmo for many years, known about Lenny Bruce even longer, saying of him, “Lenny Bruce is one of the rare performers who pushed the envelope for not just show business, but for society. We should never hesitate to continue to push that envelope.”
Neither he nor Marmo have seen or read “Buyer Beware,” but they know of the storm.
“I have to defend what Lenny stood for,” says Marmo. “He believed in freedom of speech, he believed in taking the power out of words, specifically the N-word. It makes me angry that his name is now being associated with negativity because of this controversy.”
In his show, Marmo performs the N-word routine. “It’s actually the first bit that I share with the audience,” he says. “Every night I get anxious. That word may be even more controversial today than ever.”
After every performance, Marmo goes to the theater lobby and talks to the audience. “I ask them their thoughts, specifically people of color, and their opinions on that bit. And every night, without fail, I get the same message: ‘If you are offended by the use of the word in his bit then you weren’t paying attention.’
“I think that people, especially young kids at a collegiate level, need to be exposed to things that they don’t agree with or know about. That’s how they learn. Lenny stood up for people, all people. We need his voice now more than ever.”
So, here we are.
The university has announced plans to teach a course “devoted to the challenging issues Michael’s work evokes” though unclear is whether the course will have anything to do with Weller’s play.
Weller is expected to accept his award from the university in January but seems determined to stage “Buyer Beware” somewhere other than Brandeis.
Marmo and Mantegna are talking to producers in Chicago about bringing their show here.
The Lenny Bruce Archives are open to anyone who cares to visit.
Those archives formally debuted in October 2016, as part of a two-day symposium titled “Comedy and the Constitution: The Legacy of Lenny Bruce” that consisted of a variety of academic panels dedicated to Bruce’s work and influence. The keynote speech for this was given by Chicago’s Christie Hefner, Hugh Hefner’s daughter and a Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude graduate of Brandeis in 1974.
This is some of what she said then: “Lenny Bruce was very much an artist of his times. … But I believe that his relevance and resonance today couldn’t be greater.”