Criticize the University for canceling ‘Buyer Beware’ production
When Brandeis is in the national news, the University has invariably succumbed to one of two extremes: either great pride, like Professors Michael Rosbash and Jeffrey Hall winning a Nobel Prize, or great shame, like the Ayaan Hirsi Ali fiasco a few years ago.
So when my phone suddenly went berserk with news alerts, I knew I was in for an emotional afternoon.
Censorship is the last remedy of the desperate coward. Nazi Germany burned books, Soviet Russia banned plays and totalitarian North Korea outlawed social media. These regimes had no choice, because they knew they were on the wrong side of liberal thought. Brandeis students are too intelligent and too principled to give way to the censor’s ignorance.
At Brandeis, every generation of students has a part to play in shaping the University’s reputation. We are a young university still finding our way, and every class has a part to play in shaping our reputation. At an older, more established institution, maybe a debate like this is just a drop in the bucket of their legacy — but not here.
Here, every high-profile controversy becomes a piece of our identity. So, we should think long and hard about whether or not we want to be an institution that shouts down opposing viewpoints until they are inaudible or a place that challenges and engages with difficult ideas.
Brandeis was founded with the unique mission of providing students with an elite education and a voice to those who were silenced by the establishment. The University’s history is full of proud social justice initiatives. Time and again, we have proven that activism is in our blood. But how do we ensure we remain true to the legacy of our liberal engagement?
We honor the activists and liberal progressive thinkers who came before us by engaging with works of art that challenge us, not by censoring them and running away. Yes, we protest and we argue our positions with ferocity, but when we move to silence those with whom we disagree, we cross the line and become something we are not.
Like so many who have felt themselves entitled to weigh in on this controversy, I have not read the play. I cannot say whether it is well or poorly written, but that is not the fundamental issue here. To say a play should be canceled, one ought to have read it and deemed it beyond the scope of acceptability for the venue.
To argue that a play should go forward as scheduled, one must only believe in the value of unfettered artistic expression. I say the play should have been mounted, not because it is a good play, but because the ideas should be heard and discussed in a public forum.
So though I haven’t read “Buyer Beware,” I feel comfortable deferring to the expert opinion of the Theater Arts department faculty. Taste is subjective, of course, but our theater professors, including those most directly involved in this controversy — Adrianne Krstansky (THA), Robert Walsh (THA) and Susan Dibble (THA) — have gained the respect of their peers in the profession time and again through decades of work. If they say a play is of sufficient quality to stage at Brandeis — as they did in the first instance — our default should be to trust their judgment.
Voltaire famously — albeit apocryphally — said, “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This is truer in a situation when you do not even know what someone is going to say. It would have been right to allow director Sam Weisman ’73 to mount Weller’s play. We could have learned something from the production and the conversation that ensued.
My detractors will say that the play was protested based on its premise — the actual content of the piece would do nothing to change the conversation. They will say the very idea of a play written in this way on the subject of Black Lives Matter is untenable. This is the fulcrum of the argument with which I take issue.
We cannot dismiss a play that challenges our views purely based on the play’s premise. There are exceptions to this, of course. If Brandeis had invited David Duke, for example, to write a play about Black Lives Matter from his perspective, that would have been a different situation. We don’t need to hear what he has to say — we know it will be perverse.
That is not the case here. A Weller play about Brandeis students engaging with the work of left-wing comedian Lenny Bruce is not racist subject matter, per se. And until we see the play, we cannot pass judgment.
Furthermore, after the decision was made to cancel the production, Brandeis managed to completely bungle their relationship with two distinguished alumni. They did not heal relations with playwright Michael Weller or director Sam Weisman, or even to reach out to them.
Instead, after a complete breakdown in communication, members of the faculty had the chutzpah to reach out to Weller and ask for permission to use the play’s script in a class during the spring semester. He declined, of course, as he had every right to do.
This is no way to treat members of the Brandeis family.
Details about the future of “Buyer Beware” remain murky, but rumors indicate a professional production is in the works elsewhere, . As a community, we owe Weller and Weisman an apology, and we should apologize in the most Brandeisian way we know — by coming together to support their work.
I hope that the Brandeis alumni association will organize a special performance of the play in New York for alumni and current students and that a respectful and spirited talkback will follow.
Editor's note: David Benger '14 is a Brandeis alumnus.