- Dramatic Action in Greek Tragedy and Noh: Reading with and Beyond Aristotle by Mae J. Smethurst
Mae J. Smethurst’s scholarship offers an illuminating examination of aspects of Japanese nō through Aristotle’s Poetics. Smethurst focuses on genzai or realistic nō alongside tragedies by Sophocles and Euripides that Aristotle favored. Published by Lexington Books, this text is part of the series Greek Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches curated in partnership with Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies. As an interdisciplinary text, this scholarship is distinctive for its impressive depth and intricate knowledge in the areas of both Greek tragedy and Japanese nō. This allows for an incredibly rich examination of the structures of nō and tragedy. This work is informed by a breadth of knowledge of both forms, references to multiple plays, and keen awareness of scholarship in both fields. As a result, the text makes an enriching and profound contribution to studies in world theatre and, in particular, curriculum and scholarship that seek to diminish an East-West dichotomy. It is a dynamic text that contributes an in-depth examination of dramatic devises in genzai nō (also called present-day nō) with plot and Greek tragedy along with detailed insights into Aristotle’s poetics.
Genzai nō are seen as peripheral to the most celebrated mugen (dream) plays of the nō tradition. In genzai nō the characters are alive at the same moment in time. This contrasts with mugen nō, in which a spirit of the dead can speak to the living. Zeami in his treatises wrote that mugen nō and particularly the play Izutsu, in which a ghost remembers her departed husband and sees him as her reflection in a well, is an ideal example of the highest beauty [End Page 622] of nō. At first glace, this study could be seen to overlook the central nō plays and focus on the outliers of the nō tradition. However, Smethurst points out the importance of genzai nō at different points in the history of the form and that there were many popular genzai nō plays in the repertoire in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Furthermore, when we consider the larger body of Smethurst’s work, this recent focus on genzai nō is immediately appropriate. Her earlier book, The Artistry of Aeschylus and Zeami: A Comparative Study of Greek Tragedy and Noh, focuses on Zeami’s treatises and examines mugen nō along side Aeschylean tragedy. This current work, reads nō and Greek tragedy through the Poetics. Smethurst’s volume focuses on realistic nō with plot for an examination of how these plays adhere to the ideals of Aristotle’s prescriptions for tragedy.
A detailed introduction explains the goals of this scholarship as both to elucidate the artistic value of genzai nō and to examine Aristotle’s preference for a three-actor limit in tragedy. While it may seem to be a stretch to make comparisons and connections between nō and tragedy, Smethurst focuses narrowly on specific structures of text in the two forms and is careful to avoid larger generalizations. Cognizant of the vast differences that she describes as spatial, temporal, and cultural, between these forms, Smethurst seeks to evaluate precise features of particular plays to provide insights into their dramatic structures. She acknowledges that the similarities between mugen nō and Greek tragedy are vast but finds points of connection between plot driven genzai nō and tragedies by Sophocles and Euripides. My skepticism for her approach gave way after reading her introduction, which is informed by key scholars and actors in nō and a sensitivity to the difficulties these kinds of analysis present. I came to see that in many ways this is distinctive scholarship that contributes to broader understandings of the structures of dramatic action in two radically different and unconnected theatre traditions. The analysis is possible because it is largely based on the texts and narratives of the plays. The introduction offers a brief discussion of staging techniques in terms of props, stage space, audience, and masks. Performative aspects of nō and...