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Mordecai Gorelik

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Mordecai Gorelik

Mordecai (Max) Gorelik (1899 - 1990) was an American theatrical designer, producer and director.

Life and work

Born August 25, 1899, in Shchedrin near Minsk, Russia, Mordecai (Max) Gorelik immigrated with his family to the United States in 1905 to escape the pogroms that killed most of his family. After graduating from the Pratt Institute of Fine Arts in Brooklyn in 1920, he worked for a time with Robert Edmond Jones, the pioneer American set designer who became his mentor.

Gorelik rendered in a wide variety of media and styles working with the most famous designers of the 1920s and 1930s – Robert Edmond Jones, Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan, Arthur Miller, Norman Bel Geddes, Lee Simonson, Jo Mielziner, Oliver Messel, Aleksandr Golovin, Henri Matisse, Andre Derain, and Cleon Throckmorton. He worked for the most prestigious companies --the Provincetown Players, the Theatre Guild on Broadway, the Group Theatre New York, and the Actors Laboratory Theater in Hollywood. In keeping with his love of experimental theatre, he was involved with the most avant-garde companies of the day --the New Playwrights Theatre, the Theatre Collective, the Theatre of Action, and the Theatre Union.

His first encounter with Bertolt Brecht in 1935 deeply influenced both his theories and designs. He became an advocate for the Epic Theater style developed by Brecht and director Erwin Piscator, and he pioneered the deliberate employment of metaphor in design. A decade later, he served as a designer and director for the Biarritz American University in France where he began teaching a seminar known as "The Scenic Imagination." It won national recognition as an original, inspiring, and incisive approach to the purely creative side of stage production in script, direction, acting, and design. This study was in unique contrast to the vocational method known as stagecraft, taught everywhere else. Four years later he also acted as an Expert Consultant in Theater for the American Military Government in Germany. His command of French and German languages enabled him to network with amateur and professional theatres around the globe.

Gorelik's career spanned three quarters of the twentieth century. As a leading American expert on the modern stage form, his reputation was based in part on his record as a stage and film designer and in part on the years of research he carried out, abroad, under the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (1936-37) and a Rockefeller Foundation Grant (1949-51). These awards allowed him to study the health of the theatre throughout nine Western European countries. A Fulbright Grant (1967) he received enabled him to do the same for Australian theatre. He travelled to Japan, India, and Israel as well. Across cultures, Gorelik found the theatre was not merely an institution for self-expression; it was a tool for shaping history, especially where there was upheaval. Through the Arts, audiences were allowed to explore issues, become more liberal, and make social and political changes. That's why he often said in his articles and lectures that the future of theatre in America lay in its universities --where the central concern of this remarkable form of communication was its responsibility to its audience.

Gorelik's first book, New Theatres for Old (1940), became a classic textbook used in scores of American universities. His articles were published by numerous sources including Encyclopædia Britannica, Collier's Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Americana, Drama Survey, and Theatre Arts Magazine. As a noted critic and scholar, his essays appeared in The New York Times, The New York Herald Tribune, The Arts, Educational Theatre Journal, Speech Association Quarterly, Tulane Drama Review, Contact Magazine, Davidlo (Prague), Tester-forbundets Medlemsblad (Stockholm), Teatr Y Dramaturgia (Moscow), Buhnentechenische Rundschau (Berlin), Theatre Newsletter (London), and Hollywood Quarterly.

On Broadway Max designed forty sets. His career began with John Howard Lawson's vaudevillian critique of Americana, Processional, and ended in 1960 with A Distant Bell. He was also the translator and adapter of The Firebugs (1963), by Swiss playwright Max Frisch. His more notable scene designs include such plays as Men in White, Golden Boy, Casey Jones, All My Sons, Desire Under the Elms, The Flowering Peach, A Hatful of Rain, The Plough and the Stars, Volpone, Tortilla Flat , King Hunger, Processional, and Mother. His film designs include L'Ennemi Publique No.1 and None But the Lonely Heart.

Gorelik was previously an instructor-designer for the School of Theatre, New York City (1921-22), and was on the faculty of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (1926-32), the Drama Workshop of the New School for Social Research (1940-41), Biarritz (Fr.) American University (1943-46), University of Toledo (1956), University of Miami (1956), New York University (1956), Bard College (1959), and Brigham Young University (1961), San Jose State College (1965), California State University (Los Angeles 1964, 1966), University of Massachusetts (Boston), Pratt Institute, Long Island University (Brooklyn), and University of Hawaii. From 1960 to 1972 he taught classes and staged plays at Southern Illinois University (Carbondale) as a Research Professor in Theater. As an Emeritus Professor on theater research, his work was anthologized in Best Short Plays of the World Theater' (1976). Upon his retirement he continued to teach, design, direct, and focused primarily on his playwriting. [1]

He received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Southern Illinois University (1972). Other awards include the Theta Alpha Phi Award (1971); Adjudicator, American College Theatre Festival, Region VIII (1980); U.S. Institute for Theatre Technology Award (1981), Fellowship, Award, American Theatre Association (1982). He sponsored the ACTF Mordecai Gorelik Award in Scenic Design (1981) and the Southern Illinois University Mordecai Gorelik Scholarship in Scenic Design (1983).[2]

According to Anne Fletcher in Rediscovering Mordecai Gorelik: Scene Design and the American Theatre, “When the field was in its infancy, he influenced stage design, helped define the designer's role in the production process, and challenged the American stage in theory and practice.” [3]

Gorelik married Frances Strauss in 1936. They had two children: a son Eugene Gorelik and a daughter Linda Gorelik. Frances Gorelik died on June 5, 1966. Loraine Kabler became his second wife in 1972. He died of cancer on March 7, 1990, in Sarasota, Florida. [4]


  1. ^ Biography and Chronology files, Mordecai Gorelik Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
  2. ^ Rigdon, Walter., eds. “Notable Names In The American Theatre”. Clifton, N.J. : J.T. White, 1976. Print.
  3. ^ Fletcher, Anne. Rediscovering Mordecai Gorelik: Scene Design and the American Theatre. Southern Illinois University Press Carbondale, 2009.
  4. ^ "Mordecai Gorelic, Theatrical Designer and Playwright, 90", New York Times obituary, March 10, 1990

External links

  • Guide to the Mordecai Gorelik Play Scripts. Special Collections and Archives, The UC Irvine Libraries, Irvine, California.
  • Mordecai Gorelik Papers, 1900-1975 at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Special Collections Research Center.
  • "Mordecai Gorelic, Theatrical Designer and Playwright, 90", New York Times obituary, March 10, 1990
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