Classics Department’s Mae Smethurst was noted noh scholar

Woman with glasses

Mae Elizabeth Johnson Smethurst, who spent her entire career in Pitt’s Classics Department, died Dec. 15, 2019 at 84 at home.

Smethurst was born May 28, 1935, in Hancock, Mich. The granddaughter of Finnish immigrants, she spoke Finnish before English. At age 7, 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, who would become her husband, intellectual partner and best friend. She passed away one week before she and Dick would have celebrated their 63rd anniversary. After getting married in 1956, Dick went to Japan to serve in the U.S. Army. Mae joined him after her graduation in 1957. 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.

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” in Tokyo.

Mae took her Ph.D. 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. She chaired the department from 1988-94 and retired 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. 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 2004-05. 

From early on, Mae actively engaged with scholars of Japanese literature and theater. 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.

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.

“The Artistry of Aeschylus and Zeami” was translated into Japanese in 1994 by Professor Kiso Akiko, carving a place for English-language 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 Translation Prize by the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture at Columbia University. 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 and published by the Nogami Memorial Noh Theatre Research Institute at Hosei University.

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 Pitt, 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.

Along with Dick and colleagues at Pitt, she helped create an exhibit and digital database of the noh prints of Tsukioka Kōgyo. Throughout her life, she continued to find ways to make the arts she loved accessible to colleagues, students, and the community.

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.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. March 27 in Heinz Memorial Chapel.