Michael Weller ’65 channels Lenny Bruce at dinner for Creative Arts Award – Brandeis University

In his speech, Weller recounted an imaginary conversation between himself and the legendary comic

Michael Weller with Ron LiebowitzPhoto/Mike Lovett

Michael Weller holds his Creative Arts Award after receiving it from Brandeis President Ron Liebowitz.

Jan. 24, 2018

Playwright Michael Weller ’65 accepted the Brandeis Creative Arts Award on the evening of Jan. 23 during an evening where speakers celebrated his award-winning career, acknowledged the contentious recent chapter in his relationship with his alma mater, and where Weller channeled the spirit of Lenny Bruce in his remarks.

Weller joins luminaries such as playwright Tennessee Williams, artist Georgia O’Keefe, author Isaac Bashevitz Singer, poet William Carlos Williams and many others who won the Creative Arts Award in its early years, when Brandeis was one of the first American universities to present such an award. After a hiatus, the award was revived as a biennial prize and was awarded to soprano Tony Arnold in 2015.

Almost 100 faculty members, students, alumni, trustees and friends of the playwright and his wife Kathy attended a dinner at the Faculty Club on the Brandeis campus in Weller’s honor, hosted by President Ron Liebowitz and Jessica Liebowitz. The evening opened with a tribute film highlighting Weller’s career produced by Gannit Ankori, Head of the Division of Creative Arts and filmmaker Daniel Mooney, lecturer in film, television, and interactive media. It closed with a performance by the Lydian String Quartet.

The tribute film began with a scene from “Ragtime,” the screenplay of which earned Weller an Oscar nomination, included footage of interviews with him and highlights from the arts and politics of his time at Brandeis, including a visit from Rev. Martin Luther King and Bob Dylan’s famous concert on campus. It recalled how, during his time as a student, Weller studied playwriting with John F. Matthews, the first chair of Brandeis’ theater arts department.

Before presenting Weller the award, President Liebowitz said that “the road leading to this celebratory climax has been a bumpy one. It unfolded like a Michael Weller drama – riddled with miscommunication and pain; but also a desire to heal breached and tumultuous relationships.”

Weller began writing a play, “Buyer Beware” – the title a reference to a Lenny Bruce act  – during a residency on campus in the fall of 2016, just as Brandeis was opening access to the recently-acquired archives of late comedian Lenny Bruce. In Weller’s initial script, a fictional, current-day Brandeis student’s attempt to perform a Lenny Bruce routine on campus draws the ire of students who find Bruce’s humor offensive. Initially, it was to have been premiered at Brandeis. 

In real life, some students raised concerns about the play’s content and its treatment of some characters. Production was postponed while faculty designed a course around the play; ultimately Weller decided the play should be premiered elsewhere. The course, “Provocative Art: Outside the Comfort Zone,” is examining difficult and contentious works of art and also providing students with tools to discuss such material in a civil and productive manner. The class filled to capacity with 35 enrolled students and more on a waiting list.

“There is no ‘silver lining’ when people get hurt and misunderstandings abound. However, many members of our community realized that this truly difficult predicament must be seized and transformed into a significant educational opportunity,” Liebowitz said at the ceremony in reference to the course.

The course is being led by Mark Brimhall-Vargas, Chief Diversity Officer and Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and Ankori. Other Brandeis faculty and staff will participate in discussing visual art, film, theater, poetry and popular culture. During the course students will consider works by Lenny Bruce, discuss race and gender relations with visiting artist James Montford, participate in a spoken-word workshop with Dean of Students Jamele Adams, and visit the ICA with artist Wangechi Mutu – among other components.

In his remarks, Weller said “if you’re even a little bit familiar with the events around this award, you’ll understand that this was a tricky moment for me,” and earlier that day as he searched for a way to express his feelings that would be both “honorable and appreciative,” he said he found himself drawn to the Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections where he found himself in an imaginary dialogue with the muse for “Buyer Beware,” Lenny Bruce.

Weller retold a fictitious conversation, in which Bruce’s ghost expressed frustration with the lack of a good audience in the archives, and Weller tells him that people “took issue” with some of Bruce’s material when he included it into the play.

In response, Bruce “told” Weller “I don’t want people taking issue – I want people going crazy! I wanna shake them up – I wanna offend them and challenge them – that’s my whole schtick!” Weller imagined himself responding, “Well, you succeeded Lenny, no question.”

 “The point is I wrote a play to celebrate you, to showcase my alma mater, to put issues on stage with a scalpel and a laugh. Truth even unto its innermost parts and all that. And also I happen to love how dangerous and liberating your humor is,” Weller said in his imaginary dialogue with Bruce. “The school couldn’t handle what I meant as a gift. And now they’re giving a gift to me – an award for a lifetime of doing what I love to do. A career I’d have maybe never discovered somewhere else. It’s just really complicated.”

Eventually, the dialogue returned to Weller’s immediate problem – what to say at the ceremony. “I’m being honored in a few hours. I have to come up with remarks that fit the occasion – and don’t make my nose grow longer.”

Weller then imagined Bruce’s spirit guiding him in writing his speech to accept the award. Weller said Bruce took his hand and wrote it for him, and warned him not to peek at the speech until it was time to give it.

 “Now, I’ve been wanting to read it of course…but I made a deal with Lenny,” he told the audience, opening a paper… 

“It says ‘I’m honored. Thank you.'”

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