Not the cor­rect use of satire

Univer­sity deems play it funded too of­fen­sive

National Post (National Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - MARNI SOUPCOFF

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.

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