Author Mel Gordon had a knack for finding esoteric subjects to write about. One of them I had the pleasure of reading some years ago was about the infamous Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol of Paris. The name meant "The Theatre of the Great Puppet" which ran from 1897 until the final curtain dropped in 1962. The contes cruels that showed there were were known for their excessive perversity, bloodshed and gore. Audiences loved them.
Mr. Gordon passed away on Thursday, March 22. Following is his obituary from the NY TIMES.
Mel Gordon, an unorthodox and widely published drama scholar who taught a course in the history of bad acting and wrote books about the ghastly Grand Guignol theater of Paris and the deviant sexual world of Weimar Berlin, died on March 22 in Richmond, Calif. He was 71.
Sheila Gordon, his former wife, said the cause was complications of renal failure. His only immediate survivor was his brother Norman.
Professor Gordon, who taught at New York University and then the University of California, Berkeley, indulged a medley of singular enthusiasms.
He wrote a two-volume history of the Stanislavsky method of acting — and the libretto to a Yiddish opera. He collaborated on a study of Funnyman, a Jewish shtick-wielding comic book superhero who was conjured up in 1948 by the creators of Superman — and wrote a biography of Hitler’s so-called Jewish clairvoyant. He wrote about commedia dell’arte — and about Madonna’s interest in kabbalah, the mystical Jewish tradition of interpreting the Bible.
At his death Professor Gordon was finishing books about American fascist love cults and women from the 1920s known as flappers.
“He was on fire all the time with an insatiable curiosity,” Ms. Gordon, also a former student of his, said in a telephone interview.
The Grand Guignol — whose dark and lurid stage shows (with fake blood spurting) were designed to frighten its audiences — neatly matched Professor Gordon’s interests in theatrical history and grotesque cultural phenomena. Recalling his decision to write “Theatre of Fear and Horror: The Grisly Spectacle of the Grand Guignol of Paris, 1897-1962” (1988), Professor Gordon said his goal was to restore to public consciousness a much-ignored sensation.
“It’s about purgation of fear and pity, and it’s this pure theater because it’s about violence and sex,” he told Heathen Harvest, an underground music website, in 2016. “It doesn’t really bother much with character and plot so much as with moods and emotions.”
The book includes a catalog of 100 Grand Guignol plots divided by themes like infanticide, helplessness, surgery, suicide and sex farce.
In his review of the book in The New York Times, John Gross said that although people had a rough idea of what Grand Guignol was — from “bloodcurdling shrieks” to “mayhem and mutilation,” he wrote — Professor Gordon’s “pioneering survey” had largely filled the gap in the historical record.
Professor Gordon wrote as an eager scholarly guide to carnal, unorthodox cultures that he was too young to have indulged in.
Following his study of the Grand Guignol, he explored the sexualized worlds of two European cities in the copiously illustrated “Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin” (2000) and “Horizontal Collaboration: The Erotic World of Paris, 1920-1946).
“For centuries,” he wrote in “Horizontal Collaboration,” “the French capital has been the erotic lodestone for lust-smitten ramblers. No regime changes, riots, violent revolutions, wars or foreign invasions have sullied its exalted urban status. Jaded and love-wary nomads from every nation have sought out Paris’s tawdry offerings and singular institutions of pleasure.”
Feral House, which specializes in odd subjects, published many of Professor Gordon’s books, including “Erik Jan Hanussen: Hitler’s Jewish Clairvoyant” (2001), about a psychic who had a brief alliance with Hitler.
“Mel would turn up rare and difficult-to-find stuff on Hanussen,” Adam Parfrey, the publisher of Feral House, said in a telephone interview. “He didn’t like using secondary materials.”
Melvin Irwin Gordon was born on Feb. 18, 1947, in Detroit. He said that his left-wing parents — his father, Joseph, was a salesman; his mother, the former Rose Alpert, was an interviewer for a market research firm — inspired his free thinking. After graduating from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree, he earned a master’s at N.Y.U. and a Ph.D. there in performance studies.
Professor Gordon taught at N.Y.U. from 1975 to 1989. He also taught acting at the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute and the Michael Chekhov Acting Studio in Manhattan. He was hired by Berkeley in 1990 as a professor in what is now the department of theater, dance and performance studies. His class on bad acting, Ms. Gordon said, was one of his most popular.
Mark Griffith, a professor of classics who also teaches in that department, described him in a telephone interview as a provocative, risqué storyteller who clashed with colleagues about how to teach acting. But he was “a wonderful, maverick researcher and a source of admiration and amazement by people who consulted him,” Professor Griffith said.
In addition to teaching, Professor Gordon created and directed shows in San Francisco, including “The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber” (1994), about a scandalous dancer, actress and writer during the Weimar Republic years, between the world wars.
Professor Gordon told Heathen Harvest that one of the three women who portrayed Ms. Berber was recruited from among the lap dancers at a strip club.
“I go up to her and ask her, ‘What are you thinking about when you’re stripping?’ ” he said. “And she says, ‘How much I hate my father.’ I said, ‘You’re hired!’ ”
The San Francisco Chronicle called “The Seven Addictions” a “messy, lewd, extravagant evening but one with a whiff of magic about it.”
Professor Gordon subsequently wrote a book about Ms. Berber, published in 2006. He followed the same course with Hanussen, Hitler’s clairvoyant, staging a show about him then writing his biography.
Publishers Weekly called the Hanussen book a “fascinating account.”
His forthcoming study of fascist love cults from 1922 to 1942 is typical of his work, Mr. Parfrey said.
“You hear about various aspects of fascism in the United States, but the cults he’s writing about — some of them in the Bay Area — are fascinating because their belief systems are so bizarre and extraordinary,” he said. “It wasn’t hard for Mel to engage me with something that unusual.”
|Derek Dundas and Eva Berkson were owners of the theatre in 1947.|
|The Theatre was a former church.|
|Scenes from the plays.|