- Some Personal Recollections of Benito Ortolani
I do not believe anybody else had as long and close a professional relationship with Benito Ortolani as I. We first met in Tokyo in 1963. I had gone to Japan as one of three East-West Center grantees from the University of Hawai‘i; the East-West Center had been established by the federal government a year earlier and Benito had been asked to oversee the first crop of East-West Center grantees sent to Japan to study theatre. Father Ortolani, as he was then known, was a thirty-five-year-old Jesuit priest teaching at Sophia University; I had never met a priest before, and he was completely unlike any preconceptions I may have had. My very first published article, originally written as part of my master’s thesis, was a series of four interviews with leading kabuki actors, each of whom Father Ortolani contacted on my behalf to set up dressing room appointments. He and I then lugged a heavy Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder on Tokyo’s buses and trains to each session, where he served as my interpreter, as my Japanese then was inadequate to doing the interviews on my own. [End Page 358]
I met him next in 1971, at Brooklyn College, where I had begun teaching six years earlier. Although he had come to New York to join the recently inaugurated Columbia University Theatre Department, when that program quickly fell apart due to what I believe were financial reasons, he’d been able to land a job teaching Asian literature in what was then the Comparative Literature Department at Brooklyn. He soon managed to switch into the newly created Theatre Department (in 1973 it had separated from what had been the Speech and Theatre Department). In 1976 he was elected chair, a position he held until he retired, a quarter of a century later. When he retired, I succeeded him as chair.
He and I were two of America’s best-known scholars of Japanese theatre, but, unfortunately, we were trapped in a department that had little interest in our field. It was an academic anomaly that we were never able to overcome. The Brooklyn College theatre faculty was focused on training students in Western theatre, and was increasingly performance oriented; as in so many other programs the academic aspects of theatre education were respected but not considered a priority. My production of a kabuki play in 1976, while appreciated, was a true rarity. Benito taught Japanese theatre as a brief unit within a graduate survey course on theatre history. His familiarity with European theatre history was great, and his students gained enormously from his lectures. On several occasions he arranged for Japanese theatre practitioners to give lecture demonstrations for the entire department. He also was instrumental in bringing Tadashi Suzuki’s production of Trojan Women to the campus.
During his heyday, it was hard not to hold Benito in the highest regard, not only for his intelligence and learning but for the distinguished way in which he bore himself. He dressed nattily in well-tailored suits and ties (he was fond of wearing his suit jacket in Continental fashion, draped over his shoulders) while those around him were typically clothed in jeans and sneakers, and he carried with him the air of a courtly European. His musically accented but crystal-clear English was marked by long sentences that made me think of German syntax, but he was always a compelling speaker. His contributions to Japanese theatre scholarship are very important; I’m happy to see his work as a “founder of the field” remembered in the pages of ATJ. [End Page 359]
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Brooklyn College, CUNY, and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written or edited twenty-six books and is a former editor of Asian Theatre Journal (1992–2004). In 2009 he became the first theatre scholar to receive an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Emeritus Fellowship, and he is on the committee for the annual Drama Desk Awards in New York City.