Kitty Bruce criticizes father's portrayal in 'Buyer Beware'
The comedian's daughter said the play's cancellation was not a matter of censorship, but "protection"
This article has been updated for publication in the Nov. 21 issue of the Justice.
Michael Weller’s ’65 controversial play “Buyer Beware” uses comic Lenny Bruce’s legacy and routines out of context, and the play’s cancellation was not a matter of censorship, but of “protection,” according to Kitty Bruce, the comedian’s daughter.
Three days after co-signing an open letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education that criticized the University for “censoring” the play, Bruce has changed her opinion on the matter, she said in a phone interview with the Justice.
The decision came after Bruce spoke with a student involved in ongoing dialogue about the play. It was in this conversation that she realized the controversy was a matter of students protecting themselves and their peers from potential harm, she explained.
Letters to letters
The Nov. 13 letter, addressed to University President Ron Liebowitz, called upon Brandeis to “reaffirm the principles of freedom of expression, inquiry, and debate upon which any institution of higher education must be based, and to commit itself to engaging with the challenging material in the play by staging it as intended — not censoring it.”
The letter asked the University to either offer a better explanation for the cancellation or to put on the production as scheduled.
In his Nov. 14 response, a copy of which was provided to the Justice, Liebowitz wrote that the play “was not ‘cancelled’ and the material was neither ‘censored’ nor ‘abandoned’ by Brandeis University. This is a misrepresentation of facts.”
Following backlash from students regarding the play’s themes and use of racial slurs, Brandeis faculty postponed the campus production from the fall to the spring and intended to have the production go hand in hand with a semester-long course on controversial works of art. Planning was underway when Weller decided in early October to take his play to a professional venue, according to Liebowitz. “Brandeis has not ‘defaulted,’ and is not avoiding or ducking ‘challenging issues,’” he wrote.
In a Nov. 15 open letter that has been circulating social media, Theater Arts Department Undergraduate Departmental Representative Andrew Child ’19, who led student dialogue on “Buyer Beware,” agreed that the FIRE letter contained “poorly-informed allegations” against the University’s decision.
Specifically, Child took issue with the letter’s claims that the students who called for the play’s cancellation had not read the play, and that Weller had not been made aware of student discomfort with the play’s themes and use of slurs.
Child also asserted that the play was not canceled due to its inclusion of Lenny Bruce’s material, contrary to FIRE’s claim that the play’s cancellation was “in part” due to its connection to Bruce.
Out of context
When the University originally gained the Lenny Bruce archives last year, a representative from Archives and Special Collections forwarded Kitty Bruce the playwright’s request for permission to use materials from the archives.
“I said absolutely, as long as they’re not taking it off campus, because the author of that play does not have my permission to use my father’s work or anything else like that, or his routines without my express permission,” Bruce added.
However, when Kitty Bruce gave permission for her father’s archives to be used in a play, “Buyer Beware” was not necessarily what she had in mind.
“First of all, from what I understand, this man’s play has nothing to do with my father’s routines, or he’ll take a word or a phrase totally out of context,” she said of Weller’s play.
She added that this applies especially to Lenny Bruce routines that deal with ethnicity, which were taken out of context in the play.
Given today’s racial tensions and political climate, the intent behind Lenny Bruce’s routines does not come across when the words are taken out of context, she added.
“There’s a whole generation that doesn’t know about my father. And they need to know about him, but they don’t need to know about it from a playwright who is mixing things up and just spitting it out,” she said.
In his letter, Child wrote that “we can acknowledge that Bruce lived in a very different time than the one we live in now and that perhaps his tactics and his battles would have been different had he been alive in 2017, but we cannot diminish his importance.”
Due to the play’s portrayal of Lenny Bruce and his legacy, Kitty Bruce now says that she no longer wants any connection between her father and “Buyer Beware.”
“I do not condone Mr. Weller’s play. I do not give permission at all for him to put it on anywhere,” she said. “It just doesn’t sit well. It’s not a good representation of Lenny Bruce. And I feel that so strongly in my heart. I’m the gatekeeper. I feel it’s my responsibility to protect my father’s legacy and to stand up and to protect all the things that he had to pay so many dues for.”
Bruce also took issue with Weller’s alleged wishes to produce the play off-campus. “If he goes to use any of my father’s routines, then he’s going to have an issue for copyright infringement, at least. And I’m livid to begin with. But it was only supposed to be for the students to do the production. … I stand firm on that,” she said.
An issue of protection
Though she initially supported claims of censoring, Bruce now says that in light of new information she does not believe that the play and its surrounding controversy is a matter of censorship.
However, she added that the controversy does raise questions about how censorship is determined and who determines what material is deemed harmful. The rules of engagement have changed in light of 2017 and its “horrific acts of violence” on campuses, she said.
“There is no evidence, according to the amount that I have checked into it. I spoke to students and I looked into things, and I do not believe censorship was involved here,” she said.
Bruce said she spoke about the play with Child, and it was in that conversation that she began to think about the canceled production as a matter of students aiming to protect themselves and their peers from potential harm.
“I’m totally behind free speech, I’m totally behind no censorship, but I’m also very aware that free speech — there is a point to where you can’t yell ‘fire’ in a theater. And if they would have put this production on, that would have been fire on Brandeis,” she said. “So with that being said, this does not sound like censorship, period. It sounds like, perhaps, that they were being protective of the staff and the students.”
While she admitted that she can’t say for certain what Weller’s intent was in writing the play, Bruce was adamant that her father’s name not be attached to something that could be a potential harm.
“I don’t want my father’s name attached to such sadness and such mean-spirited things,” she said. “My father wanted a kinder, gentler world, and he had no tolerance for bullshit.”
This article has been updated to include clarifications from Kitty Bruce regarding her stances on censorship and her father’s portrayal in the play. It has also been updated with a clarification regarding how Bruce was approached for permission to use copyrighted material from the archives.