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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