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).

Categories

Follow SCS News for information about the SCS and all things classical.

Use this field to search SCS News
Select a category from this list to limit the content on this page.

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.

Alexander G. McKay Prize competition for the best new book in Vergilian studies is now open

The Vergilian Society is pleased to announce the opening of the next competition for the Alexander G. McKay Prize for the best book in Vergilian studies. The prize, which is accompanied by a cash award of $500 or a life membership in the Vergilian Society (valued at $800), is awarded every other year to the book that, in the opinion of the prize evaluation committee, makes the greatest contribution toward our understanding and appreciation of Vergil or topics related to Vergil. Works of literary criticism, biography, bibliography, textual criticism, reference, history, archaeology, and the classical tradition are all eligible, provided that Vergilian studies represent a significant portion of the discussion. The current competition will cover books published during the years 2018 and 2019. The winner will be announced at the Vergilian Society session at the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies in Chicago in January 2021. The authors of books being considered for the McKay Prize must be members of the Vergilian Society at the time their books are submitted; for new members or to renew memberships see https://www.vergiliansociety.org/memberships-and-donations.

View full article. | Posted in Awards and Fellowships on Tue, 06/09/2020 - 6:54am by Erik Shell.

A longstanding tendency to ethnocentrism and Hellenophilia implicit in the narrative of the rebirth of Greek science in the Renaissance has shaped the historiography of science and early modern historiography more generally. However, a digital project called Ptolemaeus Arabus et Latinus (PAL) presents an interdisciplinary, broadly conceived, and ongoing (2013–2038) challenge to this , which lies at the crossroads of Classics, Arabic Studies, History of Science and Digital Humanities. It presents a wide range of primary sources as well as translations and critical editions. Given these unusual features some words of introduction are needed to better understand the relevance of this project for the humanities at large. 

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 06/05/2020 - 12:21pm by .

From the SCS Board of Directors, approved 6/3/20

The Society for Classical Studies condemns the relentless horror of police brutality and murder of black men, women, and children, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Rodney King, to name just a few of the victims. Brutality perpetrated by the police and others stands with mass incarceration and unequal access to healthcare, education, and housing as symptoms of longstanding systemic, structural, and institutional racism in American and European cultures. These are deep problems in society that will not be fixed without radical policy changes at every level of government and across all institutions.   

View full article. | Posted in Public Statements on Wed, 06/03/2020 - 6:20am by Helen Cullyer.

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. In this post we focus on digital projects that engage with ancient texts and discuss the study of Classics during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond.

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 05/29/2020 - 7:55am by .

Fellowships, Scholarships, and Grants, January – April 2020

Some of our short-term fellowship and Classics Everywhere award winners are deferring use of their awards until Fall 2020 or 2021 owing to COVID-19. However, we congratulate everyone who was awarded a scholarship, fellowship or grant this spring, and we thank our selection committees for their hard work.

TLL Fellowship:

Amy Koenig

Pearson Fellowship:

View full article. | Posted in Awards and Fellowships on Wed, 05/27/2020 - 5:32pm by Helen Cullyer.

Please see below a message from the SCS President, followed by a listing of 2020 graduates:

With in-person celebrations ruled out by the coronavirus pandemic, the Society for Classical Studies is proud to recognize the many graduates at all levels across North America who have chosen to make serious and sustained study of the ancient Mediterranean world a significant part of their education.  For those who are earning PhD’s, we welcome the new contributions to knowledge that each of you has made, and we pledge our support and guidance as you negotiate an even more challenging professional landscape than you signed up for.  We warmly salute all degree-recipients who are pursuing careers in the vital enterprise of K-12 education.  For those who are going in other directions, we take great satisfaction in the variety of paths you will be following.  We hope the classical world will remain an important part of your lives, and we invite you to visit our website, read our blog, and join the SCS as “Friends of Classics.”  And we count on you as lifelong advocates for the value of studying Greco-Roman and ancient Mediterranean history and culture: please take every opportunity to spread the word that the ancient world still presents us with new questions to investigate and with multiple points of reference for thinking through our present-day concerns.  Heartfelt congratulations to all!

View full article. | Posted in Presidential Letters on Mon, 05/25/2020 - 12:11pm by Helen Cullyer.

Pages

Latest Stories

Calls for Papers
Call for Papers, “Contact, Colonialism, and Comparison” Conference
SCS Announcements

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy