Not the correct use of satire
University deems play it funded too offensive
Last week, Brandeis University cancelled a play about Lenny Bruce — a play that mocks political correctness — on the grounds that the material is too offensive.
Just let that sink in for a moment.
I mean, yes. We all know that freedom of speech on campus is not thriving. That’s no revelation. And Brandeis is the school that not so long ago decided to give Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the feminist critic of Islam, an honorary degree … then nixed the plan when students and faculty protested and accused Ali of Islamophobia.
So, it’s far from surprising that Brandeis would shut down the Lenny Bruce play. But the particulars of the incident (Who censors a satire about censorship?!) underline just how humourless and short-sighted both students and administrators have become.
The play in question, “Buyer Beware,” was written by Michael Weller, a Brandeis alum and celebrated playwright. The piece was born when the university awarded Weller a Creative Arts Award, granting him a one-year residency to work on the project, which everyone expected to be staged at the school.
In other words, Brandeis itself recognized Weller as a respectable artist with a gift for stirring up thought and debate; he was not some right-wing hack parachuting in to stir up trouble.
In fact, Weller did exactly what Brandeis announced he would do when it bestowed the award on him last year: write a play “about the student protest culture on college campuses — and specifically Brandeis.”
To do this, Weller made good use of his time in residence, delving into the school’s Lenny Bruce archives and talking to Brandeis students to get a feel for their habits and mores.
The only problem is that Weller took Brandeis’s measure a little too well.
A draft of the script, according to campus newspaper The Brandeis Hoot, has the main character, Ron, trying to perform an obscene Bruce-like comedy act, complete with racial slurs repeated in an effort to render them meaningless. This doesn’t go well for Ron, who is met with protests by students associated with the Black Lives Matter movement and administrative threats of academic probation.
The character wonders, “If Lenny Bruce came to life right now, for one day, and he was booked for a gig on campus, how would the administration react?”
We certainly have our answer now, if there was ever any doubt.
One of the details of the real-life protest is so absurd that Weller would have been accused of exaggeration if he’d included it in the play. An outraged Brandeis grad took to Facebook to declare “Buyer Beware” “an overtly racist play will be harmful to the student population if staged.” The alum wrote this post without having read a word of the script, and was seemingly not embarrassed by her actions. (“I don’t need to read the actual language to know what it’s about,” she told the Hoot.)
At least Andrew Child, the Brandeis student who led the charge against “Buyer Beware,” had the decency to read the work before agitating to shut down its staging.
For him, the problem was that he thought the play wasn’t very good and the black characters were ridiculous. That’s what he told the Boston Globe. What he told the Hoot was a little different. “The issue we have with it is that is an older straight gendered, able-bodied and white man,” Child said in a phone interview with the student paper. “It isn’t his place to be stirring the pot.”
Funnily enough, being a woman of colour didn’t seem to do much for Ayaan Hirsi Ali with the Brandeis censors. But still. We get it: only artists with a particular set of characteristics beyond their control are allowed to broach controversial ideas. It’s not about what you have to contribute as an individual. It’s about what groups you were born into and where that places you according to an ever-changing moral calculus.
Lenny Bruce said that satire is tragedy plus time. “You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers, will allow you to satirize it.”
You’d hope that by this point, enough time would have passed that we’d freely allow the mocking of the student protest movement to expose the movement’s excesses and stupidity.
Apparently, it hasn’t, which suggests that we’re still in for many more years of dour judgments about who may say what in the name of comedy.
If Lenny Bruce came to life right now, he’d be amazed at the scant progress we’ve made in allowing people to speak freely.
Comedian Lenny Bruce said that satire is tragedy plus time, Marni Soupcoff writes.