Toilet People: Representing Struggles of North Korean Refugees on Stage

I found the flyer by chance (after a meeting for our then upcoming symposium “Pansori in Europe”) at the Korean Culture Center in Berlin. Playwright Lee Yeo-Jin (이여진) would present and talk about her recent work Toilet People (토일릿 피플, 2015).

I hadn’t seen anything from her, but the announcement by Dr. Holmer Brochlos (my first Korean teacher at Freie Universität), who hosted the evening, sounded promising: In her works, Lee Yeo-Jin combines satirical and phantastic elements to address current issues in Korea.

Toilet People is about a group of refugees from North Korea, now resettled in the South. The play focuses on continuing discussions between the head-doctor of a counselling center for traumatised refugees and a politician, the former applying for government funding for what seems to be a good cause. At the Cultural Center, several students of FU, scattered around the auditorium (filled to the last seat!), presented a reading of the first scenes. With the doctor and the politician interpreting, questioning, and finally denying the stories told by the refugees (who pop up and re-tell their tales), it soon becomes clear that the refugees – all called “Hann” (한결, i.e. “united as one” in the original) – are pawns in larger games but also have their own agenda.

Premiere of Toilet People (Arko Arts Theater, February–March 2016)

Opening the following debate, Lee Yeo-jin expressed her intentions to shine a light on the ambivalent reactions in South Korean society to the increasing number of refugees from the North of the peninsula. Nominally members of the same people, the variety of terms (e.g. 탈민자, 새토민, 피난자), each with their own connotations, show the ambivalent reception of the “Brothers and Sisters in the North” (thus the title of Cho Sung-Hyung’s (조성형, homepage) latest documentary film that is well aware of the ambiguity in these inter-Korean family relations).

In the course of the Q&A it became clear that Lee had not conducted interviews with refugees herself. Nevertheless, her work seems to be research-based. She directly references, among others, German doctor and refugee activist Dr. Flaschen, who suggests in a Wall Street Journal-article to send radios to the North in order to provoke collective rebellion through education. In the play, multifunctional lavatories serve a similar function, a technological means to “safe” North Koreans. (I couldn’t find any reference to Dr. Flaschen, though.)

A lively discussion followed Lee’s explanations, ranging from comparisons with East-West-German relations (Brochlos noted that communication across the “wall” was much easier), the universal fact of refugees being used for others’ causes, and the perspective of young Koreans vis-à-vis North Koreans at their school or university. One attendant brought up her unease and wondered whether she should treat North Korean refugees like children of “multicultural families” (다문화 가정, usually referring to Korean men who married women from South-East-Asian countries).

Lee Yeo-jin also compared the struggles of North Korean refugees in South Korean society with the challenges on the competitive job market that all young Koreans face, suggesting that the situation of refugees may serve as a metaphor for the general precarity of Koreans today. But wouldn’t that reading amount to an exploitation of refugees’ suffering, once again for a seemingly “good cause”, to make a point on stage?

Revival of Toilet People (Sogang University, Mary Hall, June–July 2017)

Another interesting question concerned casting choices: Were “real” North Koreans considered as actors? Toilet People is right now on show in Seoul. In the production by ensemble “Little Legend” (극단 작은신화, on Facebook) that premiered last year at ARKO Arts Theater (2016.2.25–3.13) and is shown again at Sogang University’s Mary Hall (“currently” at the time of writing, 2017.6.29–7.9), the refugee roles are played by (South Korean) actors who have practiced “North Korean dialect” (Lee wasn’t sure if she could say it like that, but I suppose she meant dialects of provinces located in the North).

Of course, the mere fact of putting (fictional) refugees on stage implies problems of representation, which are also tackled, for example, by German theatre productions that are about and/or involve refugees. (See the short bibliography below.)

Looking forward to see Lee Yeo-jin’s Toilet People on stage, whether in Korea or in Germany, where an English-language reading took place at art space Non Berlin earlier this month… A full-fledged production in German might be a timely intervention into one of the most daring problems German society is dealing with right now.

As a preview, the following video trailer from 2016 must sufffice:

— 5 July 2017 (수)

Further reading on theatre facing the current “refugee crisis” in Germany, in chronological order:

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Upcoming Pansori and Changgeuk at the National Theater: The National Repertory Season 2017–18

The National Theater of Korea just presented its upcoming “National Repertory Season 2017–18” (국립극장 레퍼토리시즌). Every year, during the summer break, fans of gugak, pansori, and changgeuk are looking forward which new pieces will be shown, which earlier productions will be shown again (thus made it into the repertory), and who is featured in the “Wanchang Pansori”-series – and if it is not discontinued. (It is not – and the two first performances are Chunhyang-ga by Yu Su-jeong and Simcheong-ga by Heo Ae-seon!)

(c) National Theater of Korea

It is the fifth season, from the beginning under the artistic direction of Kim Seong-nyeo (김성녀, 국립창극단 예술감독), which already featured several bold experiments but rather few long-term sellers. (See an earlier post for my preview of the first National Repertory Season 2012–13)

This year, surprises are few. Nevertheless, the season sounds promising. Here is the brief run-down of the upcoming performances by the National Changgeuk Company (국립창극단), followed by some comments (click on the posters for the official production


First, a new piece by Lee Jaram (이자람) in February 2018 (maybe this time with her on stage?), which is of course always welcome. Whether her yet unnamed production will kick of a “New Changgeuk”-series (新창극) remains to be seen. Also, last year’s Mr Heungbo (흥보씨), that seems to have attracted many audiences, is shown again in June 2018 – great for me, as I couldn’t see it in spring 2016 and now have another chance. Interestingly, the venue has changed from the main stage of the National Theater on Namsan to the recently renovated and more centrally located Myeongdong Theater.

(c) National Theater of Korea

(c) National Theater of Korea

The revival of Ong Keng Sen’s adaptation of Euripides Women of Troy (트로이의 여인) in November 2017, a production I first saw last year, is likewise a safe bet. The piece combined pansori singing by some of the greatest members of the ensemble and a story about female loss and post-war mourning quite persuasively.Women of Troy also travels to London in June 2018 and there is a special event with tickets and round trips to the UK as prizes.

The most astonishing news is the changgeuk-adaptation of The Wildfire (산불), premiering rather soon in October. Who will adapt and stage this classic Korean post-war drama by Cha Beom-seok (차범석, translated as “Burning Mountain” by Janet Poole) is not yet clear. I wonder if this is in fact a revival of the 2007 production, adapted and directed by Park Seong-hwan (박성환), or a completely new production (the latter seems to be the case).

(c) National Theater of Korea

In 2007, still under the artistic direction of Yu Yeong-dae (유영대), Wildfire was among the first pieces in a series of “Young Changgeuk” (젊은 창극) that – unfortunately – remained rather short. The production was revived the following year, but since then there has been no changgeuk-version of a original Korean play, although some theatre director Han Tae-suk (한태숙) staged a changgeuk based on the folk tale of Janghwa [and] Hongryeon (장화홍련, 2012) and several Western classics (including Medea, Orfeo, and Women of Troy) were staged as changgeuk.

(c) National Theater of Korea

After three years of new madang nori-plays (based on classical pansori) every end-of-year, the first one (Simcheong is Coming, 심청이 온다, from 2013) is shown again this winter. It seems that these large-scale in-the-round comedies, featuring well-known singers and all directed (so far) by madang nori godfather Son Jin-chaek (손진책), turned out audience magnets, as they are usually shown for quite a while, this time more than two months, from early December until mid-February.

(c) National Theater of Korea

Son Jin-chaek is also listed as the director of a new changgeuk-piece (tentatively) called Jin Chae-seon (진채선), to premiere in April 2018. It is about the eponimous first female pansori singer who lived in the second half of the 19th century. The poster suggests, however, that the plot is set in contemporary times. There have been several productions by ensemble Taroo that deal with this subject matter (Jin Chae-seon in 2011, Unhyeon Palace Romance in 2013, Jin Chae-seon’s Story in 2014), as well as a feature film two years ago, so that my excitement is not as high as it could be. Nevertheless, this piece fits well with another adaptation of a pansori-related plot, Seopyeonje (서편제, 2013), based the novels by Lee Cheong-jun (이청준) and the eponymous movie (available online, thanks to the Korean Film Archive).

Already in November, the (traditional) National Orchestra of Korea (국립국악관현악단) presents a cross-over event, presumably parts from all five (canonical) pieces of pansori – thus the title – performed by the orchestra. Innovative experiment or uninteresting fusion? Remains to be seen, or rather: heard.

(c) National Theater of Korea

A variety of pieces, some appealing to popular taste, other to theatregoers and fans of experimental music theatre – I’m looking forward to some new approaches to changgeuk!

— 17 July 2017 (月)

Productions by the National Changgeuk Company of Korea and other Pansori Related Events at the National Theater (National Repertory Season 2017–18)



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Experiments by Šilhom on Board the MS Stubnitz


MS Stubnitz, in the Southern part of Hamburg’s HafenCity

Hamburg: Sun in the morning, a walk through the Botanical Garden (including the greenhouses), a short visit at the Asien-Afrika-Institut, then rain, too much to leave the umbrella at home, not enough to keep us from walking to the HafenCity, past the Busan Bridge, to the MS Stubnitz.


This ship, formerly part of the East German high seas fishing fleet, travelled between different cities on the short of the Baltic and the North Sea, serving as a venue for concerts and theatre, and has been in Hamburg harbour for a while now (see Wikipedia for details). Tonight, the band Šilhom from Slovenia played for a selected few in the hull of the Stubnitz.


Inside the ship’s hull, waiting for the band

When I saw the various drums and lutes waiting on stage, I expected some kind of Balkan-beat world music – so much for the “chains of belonging”, unbearable lightness of being and so on… The stage suggested some kind of metal, by its mere materiality.


But to my surprise, the three band members produced a repetitive, sometimes entrancing sound, in the tradition of minimalist composers like Steve Reich, with various looping patterns intermingling with each other, overlapping, transforming, producing new lines of melody and rhythm. A wonderful show on a rainy day. Check out their music, if possible live, if not online:

(More on Facebook and Bandcamp, information on Wikipedia).

— 24 July 2017 (月)

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Symposium on “Pansori in Europe” in Berlin, inc. Performance (July 14–15, 2017) #europansori

Pansori_und Symposium_main_1920_1080

Planned since last summer, the symposium on “Pansori in Europe: Between Mediation and Appropriation” at the Korean Culture Center in Berlin is now merely a week away. (Almost) Everything is set, speakers are preparing, and the pansori singer Yun Jin-chul (윤진철) and drummer Cho Yong-su (조용수), who will perform Jeokbyeok-ga (적벽가, “Song of the Red Cliff”) in full on the 14th (at ufaFabrik, see Facebook-event for details), are almost on their way.

The symposium which I organized together with Matthias Entreß features scholars and practitioners, experts on pansori as well as artists and organizers who have to deal with the realities of presenting this traditional performing art to audiences outside of Korea.

The symposium takes place on Saturday, July 15, at “space GODO” at the Korean Cultural Center (Leipziger Platz 3, 10117 Berlin). From 11am to 6.30pm, lectures, presentations, and many discussions offer a diverse program for everyone interested in theatre, music, and cultural transfers between Asia and Europe.

The first part (on mediation) is about more “traditional” guest performances by masters from Korea and includes – besides Matthias who has organized numerous pansori performances all over Germany – also Hervé Péjaudier and Han Yumi who have done similar work in France and have just organized a performance of the “lost” pansori piece Le Dit de Demoiselle Sugyeong (숙영낭자가) at their K-Vox Festival. Discussants include Heinz-Dieter Reese (who organised the 1985 “Horizonte”-festival in Berlin) and musicologist Shin-Hyang Yun.

In the second part, on experimental appropriation, various ways of adapting pansori to new contexts will be discussed. Barbara Wall (Hamburg) and Dorothea Suh (Halle) will talk about new pansori works by Korean and German artists, respectively. Then, theatre makers Soogi Kang and Dietmar Lenz (Theater Salpuri, Berlin), composers Il-Ryun Chung (Berlin), Jared Redmond (Seoul), and Sebastian Claren (Berlin), and cultural curator Hyo Jin Shin (Berlin) will discuss their experiences with border-crossing pansori-related projects. Singer Sol-i So (Dresden), accompanied by drummer Harim Kim (Berlin), will showcase some songs and rhythms and share their unique perspectives as Korea-trained musicians in Germany.

With a wonderful line-up of scholars and practitioners, the symposium promises interesting presentations and in-depth discussions — I’m looking forward to learn more about various aspects of how pansori is performed, taught, and made fruitful for new art works in Europe!

The event will be mostly in German, but we attempt to provide some help for those who rely on English.

This is the full flyer of the event – please share widely (click for a larger version):

Flyer für Internet

And this is the translated announcement and the program:

Pansori in Europe: Between Mediation and Appropriation

Pansori, a traditional genre of singing/storytelling is well known beyond the borders of Korea, not least since its appointment as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO in 2003. Even before, master singers from Korea have performed in Europe and non-Korean researchers and artists show great interest into this idiosyncratic art, characterized by epic tales and vocal virtuosity. Today, guest performances and cross-border artistic collaborations are nothing unusual. At the same time, a lively pansori culture is emerging in Europe, with workshops, competitions and new artistic works.

image[15]Which forms of performance were crucial in the “European” reception of pansori? How can audiences outside of Korea be familiarized with this foreign tradition and what experiences are possible? With other arts lend themselves for intercultural experiments? Which role does a cultural heritage play for Korean migrants and the following generations? Who organizes artistic exchanges, and how? What concrete “interweavings” result from these encounters? And is it possible, between cultural policies and creative appropriation, to secure that the authenticity of the art does not get lost in translation?

Scholars of music, theatre, and literature from Germany, France, Korea, and the US are invited to discuss these and other questions historical, aesthetic and practical perspectives in Berlin. With lectures, discussion roundtables, and – of course – pansori performances, we attempt not only to review the history and current practice of pansori in Europe, but also to explore methods for future projects.


11 am: Opening

Welcome address

Introductory lecture by Jan Creutzenberg

11.30 am –1.30 pm: Part 1 “Translation and Mediation”

Lecture by Matthias R. Entreß

Panel discussion with pansori artists Yun Jin-chul and Cho Yong-su

Lecture-performance by Hervé Péjaudier and Han Yumi (in English)


1.30–2.30 pm: Lunch break

2.30–3.30 pm: Discussion on *pansori* as music

With musicians, composers, and musicologists

3.30–6 pm Part 2 “Revival, Experiment and Appropriation”

Lecture by Barbara Wall

Lecture by Dorothea Suh

Discussion on experimental appropriation of pansori, with artists, theatremakers, and composers

6 pm: Roundtable discussion on “Perspectives for Pansori in Europe”

— 14–15 July 2017 (金~土)

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Things I learned at #AAS 2017, part3 (Saturday, 18 March + Sunday, 19 March)

Old Toronto

Old Toronto

This year’s conference of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) in Toronto (March 16–19), the first one I ever attended, was enormous. Still overwhelmed by the experience, I publish some of my notes on the various panels I attended and presentations I heard, interspersed with tweets I posted during the conference. Due to the volume, I organise the material in daily instalments – meaning that each post focuses on one conference day, I probably won’t be able to keep up a daily posting rate. In my listings, presentations in bold are those I heard myself, while those in italics refer to situations where I couldn’t hear a presentation as I had to leave early or came late.

This is the third part of my impressions at AAS 2017, from the presentations I attended on Saturday and Sunday (18 and 19 March).

I just found out that Andrew Field (Duke Kunshan University), who runs the wonderful blog “Shanghai Sojourns” on all kinds of music performances in Kunshan and elsewhere in China, just posted his own reflections on AAS 2017 – I have to say that as a grad student, I shared many of the feelings he mentioned about his first attendances over a decade ago… Still, thanks not least to my great panel, but also due to

“Koreanness” on Display: From the Museum to the Musical Stage

Panel 227, Sat, March 18, 10:45am to 12:45pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Mezzanine, Chestnut East

  • Seungyoun Choi (Korea University), “‘Koreanness’ and Nation Building: Yegrin Musical Company’s Representation of the City and the Country in Ggotnimi Ggotnimi Ggotnimi”
  • Jan Creutzenberg (Freie Universität Berlin/Sungshin University), “Towards a More International ‘Koreanness’? The Influence of Brecht on Pansori-Theatre”
  • CedarBough T. Saeji (University of British Columbia), “Dynamic Korea on Display: Commodification of Tradition in Performances for Tourists”
  • Young-Sin Park (Binghamton University, SUNY), “Representing ‘Koreanness’ through the Exhibitions of the National Museum of Korea”
  • Discussant: Haeree Choi, Yonsei University

Finally, our panel on “Koreanness”, a concept that encompasses “all things Korean” and is often used in national branding, policy making, and promotion. We presented a range of case studies where Korea is “put on display” for ideological ends or consumption, mostly drawing from thr performing arts.

Seungyoun Choi, who was ill and could not attend in person, had sent her presentation on an early production of Yegrin Musical Company as a video. While the file was still downloading, I began my presentation on the use of Brecht – both his plays and concepts – in producing “Korean” theatre. The works I discussed included changgeuk productions at the National Theater (Chung Wishing’s Caucasian Chalk Circle (코카서스의 백묵원), currently on a re -run, and Achim Freyer’s Brechtian adaptation of the Korean classic Sugung-ga (수궁가), as well as more experimental (nevertheless even more successful) new pansori works by Lee Jaram (Sacheon-ga and Eokcheok-ga). You can find a bit more on my presentation in this sneak-preview-post.

IMG_1621 by Vicki Sung-yeon Kwon

Thanks to Vicki Sung-yeon Kwon for taking a picture!

CedarBough T. Saeji, who also hosted our panel, followed up with a discussion of mixed-media performance that use traditional Korean arts and are aimed at tourists (but mostly attended by domestic audiences). Although quite different in content, the productions The Queen’s Banquet (왕비의 잔치), Ga-on (가온), and Sim Chong (심청, at the infamous Korea House) all feature various traditional performing arts, adjusted to an undifferentiated audience of tourists, with the historical context removed and structural changes to increase excitement, often supported by stage technology such as motion capturing or animations. The commodification of Korean culture, a regular result of attempts to create “global palatability”, are also of great interest to me, as many of these hybrid shows feature elements of pansori, whether plots, singing techniques, or other performance styles. They also offer an interesting, often ignored perspective on the problems inherent in the “globalization of tradition”.

Finally, changing the field towards fine arts, Young-Sin Park considered how oversea exhbitions of the National Museum of Korea contributed to the construction of national imagery. She focused on two examples, an early touring exhibition of Masterpieces of Korean Art (1957–59, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. et al., see Chewon Kim’s review in Artibus Asiae, via JSTOR), and the recent Silla’s Golden Kingdom (2013–14, Metropolitan Museum of Art, see a New York Times-review). While both heavily state-sponsored exhibitions promoted the myth of national purity, with the former particularly aimed at improving Korea’s image after the recent war and assert cultural independency in relation to China and Japan, they were also influenced by American curators, making them a fascinating, ambivalent object of study.

To our regret, Seungyoun Choi could not attend the conference in person, but fortunately she had recorded her presentation on video. The only problem was that the video was quite large and it was still in the middle of downloading while I presented. As I was very interested in her theme (and still am), early (US-style) musical in Korea, I found it a pity that we couldn’t share some thoughts on her interesting paper. I’ll make sure to catch up later on that matter!

Our discussant, Haeree Choi, who runs the online magazine Dance Post Korea (댄스포스트코리아), had some very relevant comments and questions up her sleeve. Some of them, specifically aimed at my paper were as follows:
* Are the productions of the National Changguk Company successful in “national branding”?
* For which target audience (domestic, tourists, international, diaspora)?
* Are there also underlying economic goals – or are these productions purely “representational”?
* Is the use of technology, but also foreign sources, based on the perception of a lack in traditional Korean arts?

I couldn’t answer all of them, but the following discussion turned out very productive and gave me food for thought for months to come.

Reports from the Local Courts: A New Archival Window onto Local Communities in Eighteenth-Century Korea

Panel 266, Sat, March 18, 3:00 to 5:00pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, 4th Floor, Yorkville West

  • Matt Lauer (University of California, Los Angeles), “The Gang-Beating of the Slave Myŏngaek: A Magistrate’s Strategic Representation of Slave Resistance”
  • Sun Joo Kim (Harvard University), “The Emergence of Commercial Economy and Local Government Finance in Mid-Eighteenth Century P’yŏngyang”
  • Jungwon Kim (Columbia University), “Encountering the Law: Local Courts and Legal Knowledge Production in Eighteenth-Century Korea”
  • Discussant: Masato Hasegawa (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science)

I heard just the very first talk (by Matt Lauer) on this panel, about an 18th century court case in Namwon that included everything a good drama needs: Love, slavery, and a fight of passion… The discussion of the complicated case brought fore many fascinating details and presented the contradicting rhetoric of those involved, that switched between humanizing and dehumanizing the slave subject, in full clarity. Matt, who recently completed his PhD-project, a microhistorical approach to pre-modern Namwon in Jeolla-do, also mentioned to me that he had found some sources on local pansori performances during his research – very much looking forward to hear more!

After some talks with publishers at the book fair, I went to my final panel today – which turned out one of the best of the whole conference:

Pop Translation: Translating Contemporary Chinese Plays for English-Speaking Audiences

Panel 307, Sat, March 18, 5:15 to 7:15pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Mezzanine, Willow West

Discussants: Claire Conceison (MIT), John B. Weinstein (Bard College), Fang Zhang (University of Toronto)

In this panel, rather than the typical presentations, three experts on translating Chinese plays into English talked freely about their experiences.

We also played a game inspired by Meng Jinghui’s play I Love XXX, conceived and written in collaboration with his friends Shi hang, Wang Xiaoli, and Huang Jingang, and translated by Claire Conceison (in Meng Jinghui, I Love XXX and Other Plays, edited and translated by Claire Conceison, published by Seagull Books 2016, distributed by University of Chicago Press, more on Meng), also available in Siyuan Liu’s and Kevin J. Wetmore’s Methuen Drama Anthology of Modern Asian Plays). It was very simple: Everyone adds something – whatever comes to mind – to the phrase “I love…”. Together, we created a series of affective expressions that tended to relate to each other, the surroundings (snow was a favorite!), and the participating individuals on various levels. But the result was astonishing and at times poetic. I’m sure to play this dramatic game sometime with my students in German, after all “Ich liebe…” is one of the most widely known phrases, not only in Korea. This wery welcoming, casual yet highly informative and interesting panel was a highlight of the whole conference. I was certainly surprised to hear about college performances of Chinese plays in (English) translations. For Korean drama in translation, opportunities for productions abroad are extremely rare. I can only remember reading about one which took place at Columbia in 2010: The adaptation Walkabout Yeolha directed by Kon Yi, based on Walter Byongsok Chon’s translation Inching Towards Yeolha, a Korean drama by Sam-Shik Pai (see a review on The Theatre Times).

We – our “Koreanness”-panel – ended this day with a Thai-dinner around the corner and a beer with the ASCK, the Alliance of Scholars Concerned about Korea. I think we all had a wonderful time and I’m very thankful for this opportunity to present and discuss some of my research on a huge conference, yet in the comfort zone of a dedicated, supportive group. One of the best conference experiences I had so far, although I lost my shawl on the last day of the conference – fortunately, the sun was shining!

Sunday morning passed by quickly and quite unspectacularly, with two presentations that related only marginally to my own research.

Archives in Between: Digital Humanities and Material Culture in East Asian Studies Scholarship and Teaching

Panel 319, Sun, March 19, 8:30am to 10:30am, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Mezzanine, Cedar

* Paul D. Barclay, Lafayette College
* Nora S. Dimmock, University of Rochester
* Eric Luhrs, Lafayette College
* Tracy Stuber, University of Rochester
* Michaela Kelly, Lafayette College

Nevertheless, I think the database “ReEnvisioning Japan” (hosted by Univ. of Rochester, also on Facebook) on “Japan as destination in 20th century visual and material culture” is worth mentioning and will surely a great resource for those working on the colonial era, as well as anyone interested in souvenirs, travel gifts, and postcards…

The new version (linked above) was launched just before AAS and seems a bit slow (at least in Korea), the (still active) older version seems to be slightly faster (or maybe it’s just my computer?).

Examining Critical Problems in 20th-Century Korean Art: History, Ideology, Identity, and Forgery

Panel 351, Sun, March 19, 10:45am to 12:45pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Mezzanine, Willow East

  • Virginia H. Moon (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), “The Making of a Discipline: Korean Modern Art and its Historiography”
  • Jinyoung A. Jin (Stony Brook University), “Lee Quede: A Forgotten Modernist in the Vortex of Ideological Conflict”
  • Jungsil Jenny Lee (University of Kansas), “Roaring Bull and Stony Silence: Two Faces of Korean Modern Art”
  • Sunglim Kim (Dartmouth College), “Chun Kyung-Ja’s The Beauty and its Forgery Scandal”
indoor winter-wonderland at Sheraton Centre Toronto

indoor winter-wonderland at Sheraton Centre Toronto

– 18–19 March 2017 (土/日)

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Possibly the First Mention of Brecht in Colonial Korea (Dong-a Ilbo, 1933)

While browsing online newspaper archives, I (more or less) coincidentally stumbled upon what might be the very first reference to Bertolt Brecht in Korean media. At least I cannot remember reading anything about this (albeit brief) mention, or any earlier ones in the existing research on Brecht.

동아일보 1933-06-18, p5 more close-up Brecht marked

An early (possibly the first?) mention of Bertolt Brecht’s name in Korean media

The article in question was published on June 18, 1933, in the newspaper Dong-a Ilbo (동아일보), at that time a daily paper rather critical of imperial Japan. On page five, several journalists reported on some trends in foreign literature, under the title “Overview of Modern World Literature” (현대세계문단총관 現代世界文壇總觀) including Great Britain, France, Russia, Japan, and the US. You can see images of featured authors, including James Joyce and André Gide.

Seo Hang-seok (서항석, other romanizations are Hang-Suck Suh, or Sun Hang-Sok, as I learned later) wrote on “The Instantaneously Real Tendency in Germany” (독일 즉실적 경향 / 獨逸即實的傾向), noting that given recent political developments – Hitler had been elected chancellor earlier that year and non-Nazi parties would be outlawed just a few weeks later (see Wikipedia on Hitler’s rise to power) – artists would have to face realities in a more immediate fashion than before.

동아일보 (東亞日報), 1933년 6월 18일 (日), 5면

동아일보 (東亞日報), 1933년 6월 18일 (日), 5면 [click for original at Naver]

In his article that is split in two parts (bottom left and right, marked in blue), he mentions several famous German-language authors, presumably those he considers capable of this task. These include Thomas Mann (토마스 만, pictured in the featured image), [Carl] Zuckmayer (추크마이에르), Joseph Roth (로제프 로오트 [sic]), Alfred Döblin (알프레드 되블린), and “old master” [Gerhard] Hauptmann (하우프트만), whose work had been productively received in Korea at that time. For example, early feminist writer Kim Myeong-sun (김명순, 1896–1951) had adapted Hauptmann’s play Einsame Menschen into several novels (see 신혜수, “김명순의 하우프트만 문화번역 연구”, 국제어문 69 (2016): 175–99 at RISS).

And [Bertolt] Brecht (브레히트) is mentioned, alongside playwrights [Fritz von] Unruh (운루우), [Franz] Werfel (붸르펠), expressionist sculptor [Ernst] Barlach (바를라하), and others.

동아일보 1933-06-18, p5 part1

The first part of the article (left)

When I entered the search term “브레히트”, I was interested in reviews of the first official performances of Brecht’s plays in the late 1980s – for most of the post-war period, he was censored as a communist author (see other blogposts on Brecht). At the time of writing – mid-1933 – he Brecht was already on the run, having left Germany soon after Hitler’s election as chancellor earlier that year. I did not expect that it was possible under Japanese colonial rule to express quite openly anti-Nazi opinions, like this article, which sounds like an endorsement of progressive and critical authors… But then again the 1936 Anti-Comintern Pact between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, that signalled closer collaboration, was still some years away.

동아일보 1933-06-18, p5 part2

The second part of the article (right), Brecht mentioned in the upper section

In some cases, authors are paired with their most famous work (such as “Alfred Döblin, author of Berlin Alexanderplatz [백림 알렉산더 광장]) and several of them were known among intellectuals in Korea. Still, I have no idea who would recognize Brecht at that time. I could not find earlier mentions in the Dong-a Ilbo, but it would be interesting to look for traces of Brecht in other colonial newspapers. Unfortunately, the research site Media GaOn (where I found some news on early Shakespeare readings in 19th-century Seoul) seems to be down. A replacement, the database BigKinds by the Korea Press Foundation (한국언론진흥재단), seems to work fine but does not yield any relevant results for “브레히트” before 1933.

Another surprise was the author of this article (Seo Hang-seok), who turned out a quite prominent figure in the Korean world of theatre. But that’s another story…

– 10 May 2017 (水)

  • 서항석 (徐恒錫), “獨逸 即實的 傾向 (독일 즉실적 경향)”, 동아일보 (東亞日報), 1933년 6월 18일 (日), 5면. [via Naver]
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Ten Years Hamlet the Musical

Today, on Buddha’s Birthday, I walked past some posters for this year’s revival, the 10th anniversary of the Korean production (see here for details), nonetheless, in a tunnel in Yeonnam-dong, a gentrifying neighborhood known for its increasing density of artistic cafés, fancy restaurants, and guesthouses.

I read about this long-seller musical, an import from Czechia, while doing research on popular productions of Shakespeare in Korea, for a chapter of my dissertation that focuses on Taroo’s “Pansori Hamlet Project” (타루, 판소리 햄릿 프로젝트, see some blogposts on this ongoing project).

Yeeyon Im (임이연, all following quotes are from two of her papers, from 2012 and 2016, see below for bibliographic details), whose criticism of “Koreanized” Shakespeare proved highly fruitful in my discussion of Lee Yun-taek’s Hamlet, highlights the decreasing importance of the “high-brow legitimacy” – as “ready-made cultural prestige” – that the “Shakespeare Brand” used to imply (2016: 83).

She discusses post-milennial adaptations aiming at general audiences, particularly spectators in their 20s and 30s who tend to be more interested in musicals than conventional theatre. She notes that most of them “remain highbrow, even when they attempt to popularize the Bard.” (2012: 65)

75 2017-05-19 ~ 07-23 디큐브아트센터 뮤지컬 햄릿 posterA typical commercial production with potential for a glocalized reception is Musical Hamlet, a Czech mega-musical that presents the plot as a “tragic romance” close to a melodrama (2016: 80). With songs in Korean translation and a largely non-Korean production team, Musical Hamlet (뮤지컬 햄릿) was shown with success in Seoul between 2007 and 2011. At first, it was presented as “a work that preserves the depth of Shakespeare’s classic and at the same time shows a modern man Hamlet completely different from the classic” (Season One programme, 2007; transl. and qtd. in 2016: 86). But as this marketing (supposedly) resulted in unsatisfying ticket turnouts, the name of Shakespeare (the “S-word”) was down-played throughout the following re-runs (2016: 86).

Now, “after six years of waiting” (6년 간의 기다림 끝에) as the 2017 poster proudly announces, Musical Hamlet returns, with the additional label of “rock opera musical” (in the top right corner of the poster).

The production employs famous actors and eroticized imagery, relying only marginally on the “Shakespeare Brand”. The S-word appears only in small typeface, shadowed by the keywords “love” and “desire” (사랑, 욕망), presumably in fear of suggesting boredom rather than high-class entertainment.

This teaser video doesn’t mention Shakespeare either (as does another, visually slightly different one):

The extended information on Youtube note that “Hamlet, as Shakespeare’s major play, is receiving the most love around the world” (셰익스피어의 대표작이자 전세계에서 가장 많은 사랑을 받은 작품 ‘햄릿’). I couldn’t take a closer look at the dedicated website, as of now…

Not sure if I can make it this time, the entrance fee is rather steep, starting at 70,000 KRW (some 50,- Euro). I’d like to find out, however, what the non-canonical character “Helena” (헬레나), a “good woman who always guards Ophelia’s side” is all about – fabricated opportunity for another female supporting actor or dramatic device in this game of passion? In any case, certainly an interesting event for anyone interested in commercial globalized musical, Korean Shakespeare, and popular culture in general – so I guess I should go!

– 3 May 2017 (水)

  • Im, Yeeyon. 2016. “To Love or Not to Be: Janek Ledecký’s Musical Hamlet and Shakespeare Negotiations in Korea.” Popular Entertainment Studies 7.1–2: 75–92. Full text link
  • 임이연. 2012. “셰익스피어 대중문화와 한국의 실제: 2000년대 연극산업을 중심으로 (Shakespeare and Popular Culture in Korea: Theatre Industry in the New Millennium).” 밀턴과근세영문학 22.1: 41–66. DBpia
  • Musical “Hamlet”. Script, composition: Janec Ledecky, adaptation: Robert Johanson, English lyrics: Janec Ledecky, George Harvilla, Vince Parrillo, arrangement: Martin Kumzak, director: Robert Johanson, Korean lyrics: Wang Yong-beom, Bak In-seon, Won Mi-sol, Bak Ji-hye, music director: Won Mi-sol, choreography: Jayme McDaniel, with Lee Ji-hun, Sin U, Seo Eun-gwang (Hamlet), Lee Jeong-hwa, Choe Seo-yeon (Ophelia), Min Yeong-gi, Kim Jun-hyeon (Claudius), Jeon Su-mi, An Yu-jin (Gertrude) etc., Production: DQ Art Center, with Soribada, Misom ENC, May 19 to July 23, 2017, entrance fee from 70,000 to 130,000 KRW, reservation via Interpark.
  • 뮤지컬 〈햄릿〉, 대본/작곡: 야넥 레데츠키, 각색: 로버트 요한슨, 영어가사: 야넥 레데츠키, 조지 하빌야, 빈스 팔리오, 편곡: 마틴 쿰작, 연출: 로버트 요한슨, 한국어가사: 왕용범, 박인선, 원미솔, 박지혜, 합력연출: 박지혜, 음악감독: 원미솔, 안무: 제이미 백다니엘, 출연: 이지훈, 신우, 서은광 (햄릿), 이정화, 최서연 (오필리어), 민영기, 김준현 (클라우디우스), 전수미, 안유진 (거투르트) 등, 주최: (주)더길, 주관: 소리바다, (주)미솜이엔씨, 디큐브아트센터, 2017년 5월 19일 ~ 7월 23일, 입장료: 70–130,000원, 예매: 인터파크.
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