Mel Gordon, drama scholar of the fringe; at 71

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 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.

Dr. 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 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 Dr. 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,” Sheila 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 Dr. 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), Dr. 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 — Dr. Gordon’s “pioneering survey” had largely filled the gap in the historical record.

Dr. 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” (2105).

“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 Dr. 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.”