Dramatic Action in Greek Tragedy and Noh
Reading with and beyond Aristotle
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About the author
Mae Smethurst is professor of classics and East Asian literature at the University of Pittsburgh. She has authored two books: The Artistry of Aeschylus and Zeami: A Comparative Study of Greek Tragedy and Noh (Princeton University Press 1989) and Dramatic Representations of Filial Piety (Cornell East Asia 1998). The first book won the Hitomi Arisawa Prize for an outstanding book published by an American university press in 1989-1990, and the second won the United States-Japan Friendship Commission’s prize through the Donald Keene Center at Columbia for an outstanding translation from pre-modern Japanese to English in 2002. She also edited with the help of co-editor Christina Laffin a volume on noh: Ominameshi: A Flower Viewed from Many Directions.
This book explores the ramifications of understanding the similarities and differences between the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles and realistic Japanese noh. First, it looks at the relationship of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy to the tragedies he favored. Next, his definition is applied to realistic noh, in order to show how they do and do not conform to his definition. In the third and fourth chapters, the focus moves to those junctures in the dramas that Aristotle considered crucial to a complex plot - recognitions and sudden reversals -, and shows how they are presented in performance. Chapter 3 examines the climactic moments of realistic noh and demonstrates that it is at precisely these moments that a third actor becomes involved in the dialogue or that an actor in various ways steps out of character. Chapter 4 explores how plays by Euripides and Sophocles deal with critical turns in the plot, as Aristotle defined it. It is not by an actor stepping out of character, but by the playwright’s involvement of the third actor in the dialogue. The argument of this book reveals a similar symbiosis between plot and performance in both dramatic forms. By looking at noh through the lens of Aristotle and two Greek tragedies that he favored, the book uncovers first an Aristotelian plot structure in realistic noh and the relationship between the crucial points in the plot and its performance; and on the Greek side, looking at the tragedies through the lens of noh suggests a hitherto unnoticed relationship between the structure of the tragedies and their performance, that is, the involvement of the third actor at the climactic moments of the plot. This observation helps to account for Aristotle’s view that tragedy be limited to three actors.
; February 2013
130 pages; ISBN 9780739172438Read online
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Title: Dramatic Action in Greek Tragedy and Noh
Author: Mae J. Smethurst
In the press
Historically, Greek tragedy and Japanese Noh have nothing to do with each other, having developed in different eras and geographical regions. Yet both theatrical traditions tell stories of human joy and suffering through characters and action, and they evoke emotional response in audiences past and present. Noh plays are most familiar as mugen or "spirit noh," in which a wandering soul recounts an event in his or her life that is the cause of longing or torment. There are also genzai or "realistic noh," which deal with living people and present action. Some of the best-loved plays in the repertoire are Genzai Noh, Funa Benkei, Sumidagawa, and Ataka. Smethurst, author of The Artistry of Aeschylus and Zeami uses Aristotle's views on tragedy to analyze the plot structure in a group of lesser-known genzai noh texts, comparing them to examples of tragedies by Sophocles and Euripides. She examines the writers' use of action in these noh plays and their incorporation of third-person speech at the plot climax, features that correspond to Aristotle's principle that a tragedy can have only three actors. Smethurst's study of noh texts is uniquely illuminating for scholars of tragedy. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty.