Knox College Cancels Brecht Play

Theater department cancels play by writer who fled Nazi Germany

Actors at a dress rehearsal / Getty Images

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Knox College in Illinois is standing behind its decision to cancel the production of a Bertolt Brecht play in response to student outrage over the drama's representation of women and Asian culture.

Peter Bailley, a spokesperson for private liberal arts college, told the Washington Free Beacon the university stood behind the theater department's cancellation of The Good Person of Szechwan due to student complaints it includes "troublesome portrayals of women and individuals of Asian origin."

"We're proud of the open dialog between our students and faculty, which addressed important issues and concerns that frame our faculty's teaching," said Bailley.

"Given the level of emotion at the moment, we felt that the teaching moment was lost, and that we'd move toward creating a teaching envelope around these kinds of issues," theater department chair Elizabeth Carlin-Metz told Inside Higher Education.

In Szechwan, Brecht explores greed and morality through a character named Shen Te, a prostitute who invents a male alter ego as a protector, in a clearly unrealistic version of a Chinese village.

Brecht, who fled Nazi Germany, is considered a major and influential playwright and poet of the 20th century. His works are standard parts of university curricula.

The Knox staging, scheduled for February 2018, was to be relocated to Europe, in order to make casting easier and less racially charged, according to the Knox Student newspaper.

The paper's editorial board stood with the protesters, writing on Nov. 1, "The theatre department is a very white department—like many departments at Knox—and it needs to acknowledge that they are coming from a place of privilege and prejudice. They need to listen to their students when they voice their concerns about not only the plays the department produces, but interactions with insensitive faculty and problematic syllabi."

The Diversity Committee of Student Senate has defended the student protesters, writing that they read the play and "took action from a deliberate and informed perspective."

Emily Anderson, an associate professor of English, expressed her dismay and disappointment with the university's decision.

"There is plenty to criticize in Brecht's plays, but we can’t criticize them if we haven't seen them," she wrote in a Knox Student op-ed. "We can and should fight racial injustice, teach realist plays about other cultures and ensure that students have a voice. At the same time, surely we are brave enough and curious enough to make ourselves uncomfortable."

Anderson declined to comment further on the topic.

Massachusetts's Brandeis University also cancelled a play recently, this one about comedian and free speech advocate Lenny Bruce.

The university nixed the premiere of alumnus Michael Weller's Buyer Beware, which reportedly has a character quote Bruce lines that include racial epithets and comments on the Black Lives Matter movement.

Brandeis said in a statement that it pulled the play due to the "challenging issues" it raised.

Alumna Ayelet Schrek, one of the early voices to come out against the production, admitted to student newspaper the Brandeis Hoot that she protested the "overtly racist play" without ever having read the script.

"The issue we all have with it is that [Weller] is an older, straight gendered, able-bodied and white man. It isn't his place to be stirring the pot," student Andrew Childs told the Hoot.

Though it has been weeks since the final announcement was made, the university continues to struggle with the decision. The theater department has now said it will develop a course on "controversial art," including Bruce; Weller reportedly said he denied the department the right to use his play for that class.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education publicly called Monday for Brandeis, home to the Lenny Bruce archives, to better explain its decision and to make an anti-censorship commitment.

Rachel Frommer

Rachel Frommer   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Rachel Frommer is a staff writer with the Washington Free Beacon reporting on campus issues, including anti-free speech and anti-Israel activity. Prior to the Free Beacon, she was the senior campus correspondent at The Algemeiner. Her work has been picked up by Fox News, Newsweek, and the New York Post. She graduated from Touro College in 2016 with a BA in English literature. Her Twitter handle is @Rachel_Frommer, and her email address is frommer@freebeacon.com.

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