- Mel Gordon1947–2018
What I know about research I learned from my friend, Mel Gordon, who died on 22 March 2018. Mel, who was TDR Associate Editor from 1975 to 1985, was the most passionate and diverse performance historian I have come across, a popular lecturer, and a gifted storyteller. An iconoclast, his mistrust of secondary sources led him to invest endless resources in obtaining original documentary materials that filled his small New York apartment and later, every room in his California home. From that private archive and from conversations with theatre practitioners around the globe, he drew the ideas for his original publications. His books on theatre were meant to be useful to practitioners, and some were conceived as handbooks. Such were Lazzi: The Comic Routines of the Commedia dell'Arte (PAJ Publications, 1983); Expressionist Texts, which he edited (PAJ Publications, 1986); Dada Performance (PAJ Publications, 1987); The Grand Guignol: Theatre of Fear and Terror (Amok Press, 1988; revised edition by Feral House, 2011); The Stanislavsky Technique: Russia (Applause, 1987); and Stanislavsky in America: An Actor's Workbook (Routledge, 2010). While teaching at NYU's Department of Drama, he also taught at the Michael Chekhov Studio and the Lee Strasberg Institute, and for a time was close to Strasberg and managed his archive. Among the Russian directors, his idol was Meyerhold. With Alma Law, he coauthored Meyerhold, Eisenstein and Biomechanics: Actor Training in Revolutionary Russia (McFarland, 1996) and produced in 1981 a Guggenheim Museum reconstruction of scenes from Meyerhold's constructivist staging of Fernand Crommelynck's The Magnanimous Cuckold. Two years later, at the Kitchen, Mel and Law collaborated again, leading 14 actors in a reconstruction of three "machine dances" and a cabaret review by the Russian constructivist Nikolai Foregger. Recreating innovative and provocative historic performances was a special pleasure for Mel and, in a way, an extension of his teaching. Such were his New York (1988) and San Francisco (1993) productions of the French
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[End Page 10] Grand Guignol theatre of horror and the Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld Sex Museum—an ambitious tribute to the Berlin museum of the Jewish sexologist, which Mel produced in San Francisco in 1997 with displays of vintage sex toys, erotic posters, a bar that served special aphrodisiacs, and sex workers cruising the performance space. Although that endeavor was sponsored by the Goethe-Institut and was continuously sold out, it was a financial disaster for Mel from which he only slowly recovered.
Investigation of performance history fed Mel's creative work as well as his academic writing. His research on the history of the Moscow State Jewish Theatre (GOSET) yielded a libretto for a moving opera about the great Yiddish actor, Solomon Mikhoels, who rose to prominence during WWII and was murdered by Stalin in 1948. With a score by Bruce Adolphe, Mikhoels the Wise was staged by Mel at the 92nd St. Y in 1982 and its success led to another opera the two created together in 1983, Shabtai Zvi: The False Messiah.
Like his teacher, Michael Kirby, Mel focused on meticulously documenting the theatre of the past in order to provide contemporary readers with a detailed picture of what actually took place in the performances. His idiosyncratic methods, resembling detective work more than traditional academic research, led him to unusual discoveries, which he enthusiastically shared with friends, students, and the public in lectures, articles, and beautifully illustrated books. In Eric Jan Hanussen: Hitler's Jewish Clairvoyant (Feral House, 2001), he documented the bizarre link between the Jewish hypnotist and mind reader, Hanussen, and the leadership of Germany's Nazi Party during the Weimar period. That period fascinated Mel because of its provocative creativity and artistic freedom. Another heroine of those times was the notorious cabaret nude dancer Anita Berber who inspired Mel's 1994 San Francisco recreation of Weimar Berlin's nightclub scene, starring actor-singer Nina Hagen. The research for the performance led to the publication of two books: The Seven Addictions and Five Professions of Anita Berber (Feral House, 2006), and Mel...