In Memoriam: Mae Smethurst

(Submitted by Mark Possanza)

Mae Elizabeth Johnson Smethurst was born 28 May 1935 in Hancock, Michigan and spent her early childhood in nearby Houghton, on the wolf's tongue of Lake Superior. The granddaughter of Finnish immigrants, she spoke Finnish before English. At age seven, Mae’s father took a job in the defense industry and her family moved to Philadelphia, where she grew up playing the violin in the Lower Merion High School orchestra and excelling academically. Her scholarly achievements continued at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, where she majored in Classics and French. While a freshman at Dickinson, she met Richard Smethurst in the library, when she was writing a paper about Julius Caesar and he about Roman baths. Dick would become her husband, intellectual partner, and best friend. They married in 1956, between semesters of Mae’s senior year, and after honeymooning in Bermuda, Dick went to Japan to serve in the US Army. Mae joined him after her graduation in 1957, traveling to Japan by troop ship with other Army officer family members. During this first stay in Japan, she taught Classics at the American School, and, with Dick, developed a connection to Japan that would last for her entire life and bring her many friends, collaborators, and avenues for intellectual exploration. Peter Grilli, a student she taught at the American School, took Mae and Dick to see Benkei’s famous roppō on the hanamichi in Kanjinchō at the old Kabukiza; this was their introduction to Japanese theater. They first saw noh at a “Noh for Foreigners” production of Dōjōji at the old Kanze honbu in Omagari, Tokyo.

Mae and Dick returned to Japan in 1961-2, and Dick studied Japanese at a language school while they lived with the Yasuba family, where Mae learned to speak colloquial Japanese with the family’s daughters. Mae and Dick’s relationship with the Yasubas, who considered them family, continued throughout Mae’s life. During that year, Mae took part in the Komaba meetings of the Greek tragedy seminar known as “Giriken,” or Girishia Higeki Kenkyūkai, collaborating on the translation of Philoctetes and other works from Greek into English and then into Japanese and supporting an outdoor performance at Hibiya Park. In the immediate aftermath of demonstrations against the Mutual Security Treaty (Ampo Jōyaku), the seminar was politically charged. Giriken members became lifelong friends of Mae and Dick, including faculty advisor Kubo Masaaki and later Dean of the School of Letters at Tokyo University.

Mae took her PhD in Classics at the University of Michigan in 1968, a year after she began working in the Classics department at the University of Pittsburgh. She was appointed Assistant Professor at Pitt in 1968, and spent her entire career in Pitt’s Classics Department, which she also chaired from 1988-94, eventually retiring in 2013. She also held a courtesy appointment in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures from 1989 until her retirement. Mae’s prolific body of work in Classics was recognized by a number of awards. She was named Junior Fellow of the Harvard University Center for Hellenic Studies in Dumbarton Oaks 1979-80, which at the time was run by one of her mentors, the eminent classicist Bernard Knox. She received the Distinguished Classicist Award by the Classical Association of the Atlantic States in 1993, and was University of Pennsylvania FEW Lecturer/Scholar of Asia and the Classics in 2004-5. 

From early on, however, Mae was interested in comparative work and actively engaged with scholars of Japanese literature and theatre. In a series of conferences at Yale beginning in 1976 examining “Time and Space in Japanese Culture,” she was brought in to offer an “outsider,” comparative view. By the final conference, she was challenging the field to think comparatively through her presentation “Temporal and Spatial Immediacy and Remoteness in Greek Tragedy as an Analogue to Noh.”

Her comparative engagement with noh and Greek tragedy was the focus of numerous articles and books. The Artistry of Aeschylus and Zeami: A Comparative Study of Greek Tragedy and Noh, published by Princeton University Press in 1989, received the Hiromi Arisawa Memorial Award from the Association of American University Presses and was hailed as one of the first monographs to offer a cross-cultural examination of a Japanese literary genre. As Royall Tyler noted in his review, Mae was the first to offer a bridge, and one that would bear weight, between these genres.[1]

 The Artistry of Aeschylus and Zeami was translated into Japanese in 1994 by Professor Kiso Akiko, carving a place for English-language based scholars working on premodern Japanese literature and culture. Mae’s publications on noh continued in 2000, with Dramatic Representations of Filial Piety: Five Noh in Translation with the East Asia Series at Cornell University, which was awarded a Japan-United States Friendship Commission Prize by the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture at Columbia University. In 2003, she co-edited, with Christina Laffin, The Noh Ominameshi: A Flower Viewed From Many Directions (also with the Cornell East Asia Series), a unique, bilingual volume that brought together scholars of disparate fields and research styles to produce a synergistic work that has served as inspiration and model for later generations of scholars. In 2013, she used Aristotle’s Poetics to approach realistic noh (genzai nō) in Dramatic Action in Greek Tragedy and Noh: Reading with and beyond Aristotle (Lexington Books), which was then translated into Japanese by Professor Kiso and published by the Nogami Memorial Noh Theatre Research Institute at Hosei University. Building on decades of comparative research, the volume offered “an important frame of reference to support world theatre studies.”[2]

Mae’s career brought her into contact with prominent artists as well as scholars. She and Dick regularly hosted noh and kyōgen troupes for performances and workshops at the University of Pittsburgh, including Uzawa Hisa, Uzawa Hikaru, and Nomura Mansai. In conjunction with these events, she and Dick created outreach opportunities in the Pittsburgh community and forged a strong link with Pittsburgh’s Creative and Performing Arts High School, which helped co-host events. Her deep engagement with both Greek tragedy and the noh placed her in a unique position to engage intellectually with modern Japanese productions of Greek tragedies, including Miyagi Satoshi’s Medea, which she and Dick brought to Pittsburgh in 2011. Mae’s final publication, “Greek Tragedy Produced in Japan,” was included in the program for the recent production of Miyagi’s Antigone at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. Along with Dick and colleagues at Pitt, she helped create an exhibit and digital database of the noh prints of Tsukioka Kōgyo (https://digital.library.pitt.edu/collection/k%C5%8Dgyo-tsukioka-art-noh). Throughout her life, she continued to find ways to make the arts she loved accessible to colleagues, students, and the community.

Mae was of the exceptional generation of scholars who came of age in an academic climate that only begrudgingly was beginning to allow women into its ranks, but through their work and devotion helped re-envision the academy as a place where anyone with intellectual passion and persistence could find a place to grow and be taken seriously. She was a beloved teacher and mentor for students of both Classics and Japanese theatre. Benjamin Haller, Associate Professor of Classics at Virginia Wesleyan University, remembers her as an amazing teacher and equally amazing human being. Sachiko Takabatake Howard and Yuko Eguchi Wright, who participated in a seminar in noh Mae co-taught with Dick, recall her passion for noh and for teaching, as well as her respect for her students, a trait both of them try to emulate in their own teaching careers. Mae embraced us all with enthusiasm, helping us tap into our own intellectual passions and turn them into classes, events, and publications that enriched not only us but the broader intellectual and artistic communities around us. 

Mae devoted her life to deepening our abilities to see across genres, times, cultures, and languages, to find ways to speak across disciplines with both profound grounding and lively curiosity. She was an incredibly gifted linguist, a tireless researcher, and endlessly enthusiastic promoter of the arts, a profoundly influential mentor, a lively mind, and a good friend. She passed away December 15, 2019 at home, just one week before December 22, when she and Dick would have celebrated their 63rd anniversary. She will be missed by all, but most deeply by her beloved husband and partner Dick, her first and most constant collaborator.



[1] Review by Royall Tyler in Journal of Japanese Studies 17:1 (Winter 1991).

[2] Review by Judith Halebsky in Asian Theatre Journal 31:2 (Fall 2014).

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In light of the present administration’s brazen disregard for facts and the public good, you’ve got to admire past leaders’ nonpartisan concern to preserve knowledge for the future. 

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 07/10/2020 - 9:04am by Nandini Pandey.

The SCS Board has joined many other scholarly societies in endorsing this letter imploring the federal government to "reinstate the temporary visa exemptions for international students and faculty members while we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, including at least the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters."

You can read more at the link above.

If you want to take action, please consult the National Humanities Alliance's action alert on the issue here.

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Thu, 07/09/2020 - 6:46am by Erik Shell.

Call for Papers

February 27th, 2021

University of Florida (Gainesville, FL)

Fourth University of Florida Classics Graduate Student Symposium

The mythology of different cultures has left a lasting impression on societies across the globe, from the Ancient Greek tragic tradition to 21st-century American superhero movies and brand names. Permeating the world of economics, politics, literature, and entertainment, the enduring quality of mythology hearkens back to the human desire to justify the esoteric and to explain the unknown. In our world of scientific and technological advancements, what place does mythology still hold? We seek to answer that question by gaining insight into the significance of myth in multiple cultures and communities around the world.

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Tue, 07/07/2020 - 10:33am by Erik Shell.

Call for Papers

The Fourteenth Conference on Orality and Literacy in the Ancient World will take place in Jerusalem (Israel) from Sunday 20 June 2021 to Wednesday 23 June 2021. Classicists, historians, students of comparative religion, the Hebrew Bible, early Christian and Rabbinic traditions, as well as scholars in other fields with an interest in oral cultures are cordially invited.

The conference will follow the same format as the previous conferences, held in Hobart (1994), Durban (1996), Wellington (1998), Columbia, Missouri (2000), Melbourne (2002), Winnipeg (2004), Auckland (2006), Nijmegen (2008), Canberra (2010), Ann Arbor (2012), Atlanta (2014), Lausanne (2016), and Austin TX (2019). It is planned that the refereed proceedings once again be published by E.J. Brill in the “Orality and Literacy in the Ancient World” series.

View full article. | Posted in Calls for Papers on Tue, 07/07/2020 - 7:28am by Erik Shell.

Body and Medicine in Latin Poetry’, which will take place online on the 17th and 18th September 2020. 

The ongoing epidemic crisis brought forth by the spread of Covid-19 compels us to rethink the concepts of body and disease in light of  their effect on human nature, as well as seek new methods to cope with the sense of anxiety and vulnerability generated by such pandemic diseases. 

This conference will navigate the relationship between Medical Science and Humanities in Antiquity, with papers exploring how medicine can be integrated into poetry and how poetry, in turn, can propagate medical knowledge across various social classes and cultural contexts. Further to that, the conference will explore the extent to which such a relationship reflects our individual concerns about the validity and consistence of medicine as a science of the Human.

View full article. | Posted in Conferences, Lectures, and Meetings on Mon, 07/06/2020 - 5:57am by Erik Shell.

Finishing my third trimester in the midst of a pandemic was not what I had planned for the last months of pregnancy. Since the Ides of March, we have sequestered ourselves in our house in Iowa City and cancelled any and all social gatherings––including the planned baby shower––as has almost everyone else across the globe. Although I lamented not being able to celebrate with family and friends in person, every day it seemed, small book-shaped cardboard boxes began to populate the front stoop. Their opening revealed that our academic friends had sent us their favorite books in hopes that reading to our little one might bring comfort, amusement, and maybe a little sleep into our lives. As her library began to grow with the reading selections of our fellow classicists, archaeologists, and university librarians, the broad selection of children’s books focused on the ancient Mediterranean became apparent.

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 07/03/2020 - 9:28am by Sarah E. Bond.

The new Classics Everywhere initiative, launched by the SCS in 2019, supports projects that seek to engage communities worldwide with the study of Greek and Roman antiquity in new and meaningful ways. As part of this initiative the SCS has been funding a variety of projects ranging from reading groups comparing ancient to modern leadership practices to collaborations with artists in theater, music, and dance. This post centers on projects that promote emotional well-being and use Greek texts to facilitate conversations on current social justice issues, from New York to Chicago and San Francisco.

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 06/26/2020 - 7:31am by .

Dear members (and past Annual Meeting participants),

After extensive research and discussion, AIA and SCS staff and officers have decided that the January 2021 Joint Annual Meeting scheduled to take place from January 7-10 in Chicago will now be a virtual event. We know that many of you were looking forward to attending paper sessions and other events, to seeing old friends and colleagues, and to making new connections and we recognize that a virtual event cannot substitute in many ways for a face-to-face experience. However, after full consideration of the public health risks and significant impact of COVID-19 on the ability of most of you to travel to and participate in a large conference in the upcoming months, AIA and SCS have decided that a virtual event is the most prudent course.

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Thu, 06/25/2020 - 7:13am by Helen Cullyer.

In 2018, a group of scholars founded Mountaintop Coalition, an SCS-affiliated group with a shared interest in advancing the professional goals of Classicists who identify as members of ethnic groups traditionally underrepresented in the field. Mountaintop’s activities focus on practical issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access in professional settings.

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 06/19/2020 - 8:30am by Samuel Ortencio Flores.

Froma I. Zeitlin retired from Princeton University in 2010, where she was the Charles Ewing Professor of Greek Language and Literature in the Department of Classics and Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature. Dr. Zeitlin received her B.A. from Radcliffe-Harvard in 1954 and her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1970. She is a specialist in Greek literature from Homer to late antiquity, with particular interests in epic, drama and prose fiction. Her publications include Under the Sign of the Shield: Semiotics and Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes (1982; 2d ed.

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 06/12/2020 - 8:50am by Claire Catenaccio.

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