Gorelik, Mordecai (1899-1990) | Southern Illinois University Special Collections Research Center
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 1920's and 1930's --Robert Edmond Jones, Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan, Arthur Miller, Norman Bel Geddes, Cleon Throckmorton, Lee Simonson, Joseph "Jo" Mielziner, Oliver Messel, Aleksandr Golovin, Henri Matisse, Andre Derain-- and designing for the most prestigious companies --the Provincetown Players, the Theatre Guild on Broadway, the Group Theatre in New York City, 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, the Theatre Collective, the Theatre of Action, 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 traveled 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 Encyclopedia 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, 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 Gorelik designed forty sets. His career began with John Howard Lawson's vaudevillian critique of Americana, Processional, and ended in 1960 with A Distant Bell. His more notable scene designs include such plays as King Hunger, Processional, Mother, Golden Boy, Tortilla Flat, Volpone, Desire Under The Elms, and The Plough and the Stars. 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.
He received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Southern Illinois University (1972). Some of the awards he won include Theta Alpha Phi Medallion on Honor (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).
He died of cancer on March 7, 1990, in Sarasota, Florida. 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."
Biography and Chronology files, Mordecai Gorelik Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Fletcher, Anne. Rediscovering Mordecai Gorelik: Scene Design and the American Theatre. Southern Illinois University Press Carbondale, 2009.
Rigdon, Walter., eds. “Notable Names In The American Theatre”. Clifton, N.J. : J.T. White, 1976.