What Is Censorship? The Tale of Michael Weller’s “Buyer Beware”

A play about a legendary anti-racist comic becomes a story about a racist play.

Oct. 4, 1961: Lenny Bruce booked by the San Francisco Police after his arrest for obscenity at the Jazz Workshop.

Yesterday morning I read up on Brandeis University’s decision to cancel a production of Michael Weller’s new play, Buyer Beware. Or at least that’s how the Boston Globe framed its reporting, echoed by The New York Times. I discovered later, however, that while the Globe’s headline clearly aimed to do what a good headline does — quicken the pulse — to characterize the matter as “Brandeis cancels play amid protests over racism” feels more a case of spin than spleen. I write this post as we mark one year since the US elected the single greatest purveyor of false narratives since P.T. Barnum started counting suckers. The Brandeis-Weller brouhaha should remind us that narratives, whether false or shaded, don’t just bubble up from the D.C. swamp. They happen in the arts, too.

Let’s start with Brandeis’ written statement, published on Mon., Nov. 6. It’s quite lengthy, and goes to great pains to quash any implication that it actively censored Weller’s play. The playwright, after all, is a distinguished alum (class of 1965) with more than 40 plays under his belt, starting with the much-beloved Moonchildren, produced in the early 1970s; he is also slated to receive Brandeis’ Creative Arts Award next January. In fact, Buyer Beware grew out of the announcement that Weller would be its next recipient, for he was bestowed a campus residency to write a new play. A new play, it was hoped, that would make good use of the university’s 2014 acquisition of the archives of Lenny Bruce, the legendary comic whose caustic, coruscating humor earned him deep admiration and controversy before his death in 1966. The title of Weller’s play comes from “Let the Buyer Beware,” one of Bruce’s most scandalous albums. On it, more than 50 years ago, Bruce’s jaw-dropping comic brand took on the same social cancers that identity politics are taking on now.

Indeed, Buyer Beware also concerns Black Lives Matter. “In what seemed like a coup,” the Globe reported, Weller’s play also examines “student protest culture on college campuses — specifically at Brandeis.”

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The university’s statement lays out the situation like this:

After receiving a draft script of ‘Buyer Beware’ in early July, theater faculty members considered the challenging issues it raised. They felt that more time was needed to produce the play appropriately, and that its performance on campus should go hand-in-hand with robust educational programming. In early September, Mr. Weller and faculty discussed possible dates in February for the production of the play. Mr. Weller was also informed about the creative arts faculty’s decision to design a team-taught course around the play and other provocative works of art in the spring semester, which would accompany the production of the play. However, 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,’ and so Mr. Weller made the decision to produce it elsewhere in a professional venue, rather than at Brandeis.

If Brandeis’ statement is true, then it’s tough the argue that the verb used in the Globe’s headline — “canceled” — signals censorship, since the university’s statement includes a supportive quote by the artist supposedly being censored. Last night, I spoke with Mr. Weller by phone on background. He confirmed that the quote in the statement attributed to him is accurate, and was included with his express approval.

So did Brandeis cancel Buyer Beware or not? My goal here, by the way, is not to batter the Boston Globe. This story has already caught the imagination of the race-baiting Breitbart, which picked up the story on Nov. 1, evidently a slow day in the citadel of media bashing. Breitbart’s approach was to find an undergraduate who not only admitted never reading Weller’s play, but who acknowledged that her sole criteria for deeming the play to be racist was being told that it was racist by other students. (An alternative headline for this story might be: “Brandeis University: Colossus of Critical Thinking?”)

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Still, that headline in the Globe! Can a news organization report in its headline that a major university canceled a play when, in the body copy, it seems that it was postponed? Read:

…half a century after Bruce’s death, the social satirist and free-speech champion is a character in a drama unfolding at Brandeis University, where theater and arts faculty decided to postpone the planned fall staging of a script by a distinguished graduate, playwright Michael Weller, after some students and alumni complained the work vilified its black characters and the Black Lives Matter social movement.

Weller then withdrew the work, entitled ‘Buyer Beware,’ to premiere the play with professional actors ‘elsewhere,’ according to a Brandeis spokesman.

Based on my understanding of English, “cancel” means the play won’t be produced at Brandeis. Done, finis, kaput. “Postponed” means the play won’t be produced right now.

Anyway, three days after the Globe story, Inside Higher Ed picked up the scent, boring in on Brandeis’ need to respond to students’ mounting concerns as to the quality and political correctness of Buyer Beware. “Is Lenny Bruce Too Much for Brandeis to Handle?” was their headline, and it yields to a narrative full of caveat emptor:

…a production of a play based on Bruce’s comedy at Brandeis University has been canceled, after students and alumni rallied in opposition. They complained about what they called the play’s offensive and objectionable content, though this time objections came from the left.

‘Buyer Beware,’ written by Brandeis alumnus Michael Weller, was originally scheduled to be put on by the university’s theater department this month. Following backlash from students and alumni who organized against the play, faculty members postponed the play until the spring semester. Weller has since decided to take the production elsewhere, and as a result, the university has lost the script and the rights to stage the play…

The original postponement would have aligned the play with a semester-long course ‘that would thoroughly and deeply explore within an educational context the many uncomfortable and provocative issues it raises,’ Jackson said. That course is still set to be taught next semester.

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Are you confused? I sure was. Did Brandeis University cancel Buyer Beware or was that a decision made by its theater department? Was there an “original postponement” and then a second postponement? The Globe clearly placed the decision to cancel and/or postpone the production squarely in Brandeis’ lap. Inside Higher Ed, however, clearly placed the decision in the lap of the playwright. Complicating matters, Weller then gave an interview to a radio station, WBUR, claiming that the Brandeis theater department “did not consult him before canceling the production.” Which, with all due respect to Weller, would seem to contradict the university’s narrative that he decided to take the rights to produce his play elsewhere. Which leaves outsiders — such as those trolling gossipy websites like Talkinbroadway.com — free to conjecture what went on. “Yes!” goes the hue and cry from the gossip-mongers: pitchfork censorship must be raging at Brandeis, even if the truth appears likely to reside between reality and Rashomon. And so I wonder to myself: if Weller felt that he was being censored by Brandeis in general, or its theater department in particular, why would he still agree to receive its Creative Arts Award? (Weller confirmed he’ll receive it in January.)

Enter, if you please, The Brandeis Hoot, the university’s delightfully monikered newspaper. Doggedly, these journalists of tomorrow have covered this story since September. (Did the staff of the Globe vacation too long in Nantucket?) The Hoot’s most recent story on Buyer Beware runs to nearly 1,700 words, and is a painstaking anatomy of this whole mess: who said what to whom, who protested when, who didn’t talk to whom and why, and on and on. Give it a thorough read. Decide what you think. I don’t think you’ll come away with a belief that Brandeis has turned into some brimstone fortress of fire-breathing reactionaries. I do think you’ll see that a group of students — who may or may not be familiar with the play, may or may not be completely qualified to conclusively assess its worth, and may or may not be right that the play is racist in spirit, intent and effect — took issue with it, and the theater department never quite knew how to thoughtfully respect their objections.

What disturbs me a lot more is the reporting. To me, it’s clear that it’s not the conservative overlords of Brandeis savagely imposing their will against the well-meaning artist, but the headlines and narratives imply as much. What disturbs me, too, is how we in the arts tend to operate on a hair-trigger now regarding censorship or suspicions thereof. Read each of the sources cited in this story and then re-read each of the headlines. The story is a series of grey areas, which is inconvenient in an era that demands everything be reduced down to black-and-white, good-and-bad binaries. How ironic.