BMCR 2014.01.61

Dramatic Action in Greek Tragedy and Noh: Reading with and beyond Aristotle. Greek Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches

, Dramatic Action in Greek Tragedy and Noh: Reading with and beyond Aristotle. Greek Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches. Lanham, MD; Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books, 2013. x, 115. ISBN 9780739172421 $55.00.


Mae Smethurst’s new book continues her project of comparing noh and tragedy begun with The Artistry of Aeschylus and Zeami (Princeton UP, 1989). Whereas her earlier book drew on mugen (“phantasm”) noh and Zeami’s theoretical writings to illuminate Aeschylean dramaturgy, the first half of this one reverses the procedure, using tragedy to shed light on certain plays from the other major category of noh, genzai (“present time”) noh. These plays feature living characters engaged in something like an Aristotelian plot; accordingly Smethurst bases her comparison on Aristotle and the two plays he favored for their complex plots, Iphigenia in Tauris and Oedipus Tyrannus. In the book’s second half she switches back to using noh to elucidate tragedy, arguing that third person speech by noh actors at emotionally intense moments is comparable to the third actor’s intervention at similar moments in tragedy.

The strengths of this book lie in the same area as those of Aeschylus and Zeami. Smethurst has a fine sense of dramatic action, and it is a delight to read her explication of one effective scene or exchange after another. This alone makes both books of great value to theatre practitioners as well as scholars interested in tragedy or noh. However, I remain unconvinced that the parallels she finds between the two forms are as significant as she claims. I also think her zeal for comparison leads her to say things about noh and tragedy that will be misleading to anyone lacking considerable knowledge of one or both, as well as some things that are simply mistaken.

In an introduction Smethurst mentions basic similarities between noh and tragedy that have long been familiar (e.g., chorus, masks, sparing use of props), then offers a comparison of Philoctetes and the noh Shunkan to argue that Aristotle “could serve well as the theoretical basis of a comparison . . . between realistic noh and tragedy” (9). She acknowledges that most scholars downplay the similarities between the two forms, but insists, “they are correct if we look only at the popular ‘spirit’ ( mugen) noh. If one looks instead at the realistic noh with plot . . . similarities abound” (4); indeed, “the plots of realistic noh and later Greek tragedy are directly comparable” (9).

Before considering these claims, I must comment on Smethurst’s translation of genzai as “realistic.” This implies something about both dramatic form and acting style that is not present in the term either literally or in its use in the noh world. (It means simply that the characters are living in the dramatic present.) Smethurst suggests that plot and living characters are in themselves realistic features of drama that necessarily call for realism in performance. Her point is apparently that if the “noh with plot” were paid more attention, both by scholars appreciating their realism and by actors able to do it justice, the closeness of these plays to tragedy would be more evident. But I suspect the impression of most classicists reading them will be that they bear little formal resemblance to tragedy. (Translations of five are available in Smethurst’s Dramatic Representations of Filial Piety, Cornell East Asia Program, 1998.) Not only is their plot development minimal, they would seem flat and uninteresting if performed in realistic style. As for Smethurst’s chiding of noh actors for not being willing or able to adopt the realistic technique she thinks these plays need and deserve (3, 38), I must say I found it surprising coming from someone who has devoted so much time to the study of noh. If one understands anything about noh acting, one recognizes that trying to inject realism into its strictly codified movement and vocal patterns does nothing to enhance its expressivity, but quickly robs it of its power. As Matsui Akira, a leading noh actor who has collaborated extensively with artists in other performance styles worldwide, pointedly observes, “That’s not noh anymore” (personal communication). If, incidentally, Kanze Hisao excelled at performing genzai noh, it was not because he “was willing to step out of the traditional noh constraints” (38), but because he was one of the greatest noh actors of the postwar generation. Finally, if noh actors find the “noh with plot” lacking interest (and these amount to a handful of plays largely unrepresentative of the modern repertoire), that is surely the actors’ prerogative. (In fact, these plays are composed in a way that allows less scope for noh’s distinctive resources: its evocation of characters’ inner life and slow, deliberate building of tension through the jo-ha-kyū musical and dramatic structure.)

To turn to Smethurst’s main comparative claims, her choice of Philoctetes as the leading example from tragedy is curious, since it is not the first play that comes to mind when one thinks about Aristotelian plot structure. Most of the similarities she mentions between it and Shunkan do not concern Aristotelian features at all; for example, that Shunkan’s despair is as intense as Philoctetes’ (8). Is there, crucially, a change of fortune that meets Aristotle’s standards for the complex plot in either play? The decisive change for Philoctetes, all in all a fortunate one, comes about not through the plot but by a deus ex machina. Shunkan’s fortunes are drastically worsened when he is left alone in exile, but this is the result of his failing to receive a pardon unexpectedly granted his fellow prisoners (virtually a deus ex machina within the play). At most Shunkan satisfies Aristotle’s definition of the simple plot. Beyond the parallels between the condition of exile and the prospect of its end (realized in the one case but not the other), the plots of these plays do not seem closely comparable.

Chapter One surveys the key concepts of the Poetics and shows how they apply to IT and OT. As Smethurst concedes, this chapter is likely to hold few surprises for the professional classicist, but it does set out the criteria for an analysis of drama along Aristotelian lines clearly and concisely. It will be useful to anyone exploring the Poetics and its application to drama for the first time, and it will also be of interest to the seasoned scholar or theatre practitioner. Smethurst’s sensitive encounters with the plays are the most convincing part of her book, and will be illuminating even about episodes the reader knows well.

Chapter Two applies Aristotle to noh. I don’t have space to consider each play covered, but Aisomegawa can suffice, especially since “it probably fits the Aristotelian mold better than any other noh” (42). We can grant that it presents some features of Aristotelian plot. There are changes of fortune involving close relations brought about by a probable or necessary sequence of actions. There is piteousness aplenty, though probably not much fear. The most Aristotelian feature is a mutual recognition of a father and son, but this does not amount to a reversal inasmuch as it realizes the mother’s goal from the outset of bringing them together. Often, the suggested parallels turn out to be not so exact or pertinent on closer examination. For example, Smethurst says of the resurrection promised for the mother (who had drowned herself when she thought she had failed), “we recognize this as a peripety” (48). But while a definite change of fortune, it is not a reversal arising unexpectedly from the plot but an answer to the father’s ad hoc prayer. One might nevertheless compare Athena’s saving appearance ex machina in IT, also an answer to prayer. But the mother’s resurrection, granted for her good deeds in her past life, involves karma (which Smethurst notes) rather than the inherited curse and divine directives at work in IT. Given how different these are as dramatic premises, let alone how different is Athena’s speech, as a performance, from the dance of the beneficent god in the noh, it seems somehow beside the point to insist on the slight plot parallel. For an example at the linguistic level, Smethurst suggests the words fushigi and gongo dōdan present “a clear analogue to the Greek words denoting surprise [e.g., to thaumaston ]” (48). Perhaps fushigi does so. But the more frequent gongo dōdan means something else. A phrase of Buddhist origin referring literally to what is inexpressible, it passed into popular speech as a term of moral outrage. In the uses Smethurst cites in Aisomegawa and other plays it generally does not mean, “I am amazed (at this turn of events),” but, “I can’t believe someone said (or did) that.”

The biggest problem with Aisomegawa though is that it is unique among noh plays in the complexity of its plot. However much it conforms to Aristotelian principles, it is not representative even of the other “noh with plot.” Indeed, its plot elements are essentially comic: the domestic melodrama involving ordinary (albeit upper class) people, the love triangle, the abandoned child who reunites mother and father, the happy ending ensured by divine providence. In Japan, all this belongs more to kabuki than noh. The remaining plays Smethurst discusses are cut from more tragic—and noh- like—cloth, but I still find their plot and other parallels to tragedy largely superficial. As an example of where I think the classicist would like to hear more about the differences, Smethurst acknowledges that harmartia is generally not a factor in noh. This points to a divergence between Greek and Japanese views of fate and human agency that one suspects is of much greater significance than incidental parallels of plot or language.

Chapters Three and Four (with a short Coda) concern the use of third person speech by actors in noh and of all three actors speaking together in tragedy. I found this the most fascinating part of the book, but also the most questionable. That both devices tend to occur in pivotal or emotional scenes and highlight them is one of the book’s more valuable points. But when Smethurst probes further into the dramatic effect of these devices and argues that it is the same in noh and tragedy, difficulties arise. She misrepresents noh acting when she says actors using the third person “step out of” character to observe the character from outside (creating a “distanciation,” 63–4). This imposes a Western view of acting on noh, where actors do not “step into” or “out of” character, but carefully follow kata (“prescribed forms”). The sense of character comes not from the actor alone but from the ensemble of actor, chorus and musicians working together (the drummers’ vocal calls make a key contribution). Smethurst cites a manuscript reader’s observation that the uses of the third person are “attempts to make the performances communal, social experiences shared by the actor with the spectators and to underscore the collaborative relation that holds among the performers” (91 with n. 5). This is correct (and accords with my point about the creation of character by the entire ensemble), but it should be stressed that such communal and collaborative relations pertain throughout the performance. The use of the third person is simply an invitation to all to become more empathetically engaged (it regularly cues the chorus to enter and chant for the actor in a more expansive mode). Thus it might better be called “outreach” than “distanciation.”

When Smethurst brings the idea of “distanciation” into her discussion of the third actor in tragedy, it appears even less applicable. In the recognition scene of IT (725–1088), for example, I can appreciate that the three actors attract special attention, increasing the emotional impact. But when Smethurst speaks of the third actor’s “distanciation of the other two” that “provides an opportunity for the spectators to reflect on the moment” (90), I must confess I can’t see her point. Her observation that the third actor typically interacts with the other two only in pivotal scenes would be well worth developing through a focus on tragic dramaturgy per se.

All in all, I think noh and tragedy are better dealt with on their own terms. To the extent comparison may be useful, the differences rather than the similarities are more revealing.