Foundlings: Shakespeare Readings in 19th Century Korea (Theatre and Globalization 3)

The Independent (독립신문 영어판), Thursday, 16 Dec. 1897, page 3

The Independent, 16 Dec. 1897 (click for full page as PDF)

Browsing old newspapers (고신문) at Media GaOn (미디어 가온) for the first assignment of the Coursera class on “Theatre and Globalization”, I stumbled upon an interesting piece of information in the column “Local Items”. According to The Independent (독립신문), a reformist paper with an English section (영문판),

There will be a Shakespeare reading in the reading rooms of the Seoul Union to-morrow afternoon at 5 o’clock. It is desired that all readers be there promptly at that hour. Mrs. Alex. Kenmure [?] will serve tea at 4 o’clock.
The Independent, Thursday, 16 Dec. 1897, page 3, column 2, PDF via Media GaOn

Some more browsing yielded a few more announcements of similar readings:

The fourth Shakespeare reading will take place in the reading rooms of the Seoul Union to-morrow afternoon at 5 o’clock. Dr. Cutler and Miss Rothweiler will serve tea at 4 o’clock.
The Independent, Thursday, 13 Jan. 1898, page 2, column 2, PDF

The fifth Shakespeare reading will be given in the reading rooms of the Seoul Union at five o’clock to-morrow afternoon. “Julius Caesar” will be read. Mrs. S. F. Moore will serve tea at four o’clock.
– The Independent, Thursday, 27 Jan. 1898, page 2, column 3, PDF

There will be a Shakespear [sic] reading in the reading rooms of the Seoul Union to-morrow afternoons at 5 o’clock. Mrs. O. R. Avison will serve tea at 4:30 o’clock.
– The Independent, Thursday, 3 Feb. 1898, page 2, column 3, PDF

In total, these are the supposed dates of the Shakespeare-readings at Seoul Union I could find in The Independent, all of them on Friday afternoon, 5 pm:

X. 1897-12-17
4. 1898-01-14
5. 1898-01-28
6. 1898-02-04

Obviously, not all readings have been announced. Although the dates suggest a bi-weekly meeting, with a possibly omitted Dec. 31, the sixth (?) reading took place only one week after the last. I suppose that readings had taken place earlier in Nov. 1897, too. On the other two Fridays of the month, other entertainment events seem to have been held at the Seoul Union.

I did some research on the early reception of Shakespeare in Korea when writing a paper for the German Shakespeare Society back in 2009 (here you can find some follow-up notes). Jong-hwan Kim (김정환), my main source for the historical introduction, is quite clear with regard to the first mentioning of Shakespeare:

It was […], in 1906, in a magazine called Joyangbo, that the name of Shakespeare appeared for the first time in Korea. His name was written not as Shakespeare, however, but as “Saygusbeea,” reflecting the influence of the Japanese way of pronunciation. (p.38)

– Jong-hwan Kim, “Shakespeare in a Korean Cultural Context”, Asian Theatre Journal, 12.1 (Spring, 1995), pp. 37–49 (JSTOR).

I cannot recall any mention of the readings, neither in Kim’s more detailed dissertation (“Shakespeare in Korea. 1906–1989”, Univ. of Nebraska, 1992) nor in Sin Jeong-ok’s major book on the reception of Shakespeare in Korea (신정옥, 셰익스피어 한국에 오다, 백산출판사 1998, “Shakespeare Comes to Korea”), that I used for factchecking.

Given that the readings were announced in The Independent, they can certainly be considered public events. The Seoul Union was “a social center for foreign residents”, where in 1900 the Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society would be founded (see Brother Anthony’s chronology of the RASKB’s early days). But it seems that people from the wider world of theatre were not attending—or at least the influence of these readings must have been minimal.

Kind of an early “dead end” in the reception of Shakespeare and therefore probably unimportant within a wider history of theatre in early modern Korea, these readings are nevertheless quite interesting. They testify to rather simplified deterritorialized practices (readings, maybe by several persons?, instead of stagings) that were taken to “the colonies”, although the British were not the de-facto colonists here in Korea. While colonial centers like Shanghai, Singapore, or Tokyo offered touring acts by ensembles from Britain and elsewhere, Seoul seems to have been a bit of the track (but wait, there’s more from the old newspaper archive to come…).

– 22 Feb. 2015 (日)

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Interview with Alexis Bug, Director of Korean-German Theatre

It was November 9, 2008, exactly nineteen years after the Berlin wall came down. The South-Korean flag was blowing in the blue sky over the People’s Theatre (Volksbühne) in East Berlin. It was the time of Gaettong, an anarchic avenger from Korean folklore, who had come to Germany in order to save the day after re-unification did not live up to its promises…

The Berlin Gaettong, performed by a bunch of rubber puppets built by a German artist known as “das Helmi” and actors from Korea, was one of my first encounters with theatre from Korea. Marcus Braun had adapted a piece by Korean dramatist Kim Gyeong-hwa (김경화) which Alexis Bug had than staged with members of the Korean ensemble back then named Street Theater Troupe (연희단 거리패, today Theatre Troupe “Georipae”). “A true cross-cultural collaboration”, as I wrote in a review for OhmyNews.

Alexis Bug has continued cooperating with Korean actors and other theatremakers and I remember vividly seeing his production of Brecht’s Arturo Ui a few years ago. So I was happy to hear that I’d be able to meet him for an interview, right in front of his current workplace, the historical Myeongdong Theater. Alexis Bug is currently right in the middle of rehearsals for the new play The Power, which will premiere on June 5. Despite his busy schedule, we had interesting conversation on his various German-Korean collaborations, his experiences at the rehearsals, and his outlook on theatre in Korea and Germany.

In front of Myeongdong Theater (c) Jan Creutzenberg

In front of Myeongdong Theater (c) Jan Creutzenberg

In the following interview, Alexis Bug talks about his involvement with Korean theatre, shares his thoughts on acting styles in Germany and Korea, and explains why his coming production fits perfectly into the busy shopping district of Myeongdong.

1. Collaborations

How did you get the chance to direct your first German-Korean co-production?

Rather by chance. After the premiere of my first major production, an adaptation of the Boulevard-comedy Arsenic and Old Lace at Ballhaus Ost in Berlin, someone came into the dressing room and told me: “There is some Korean guy who’d like to see you.” That turned out to be Lee Yun-taek (이윤택), a famous director and head of the Theater Troupe “Goripae”.

Der Berliner Gaettong (c) Theater Troupe "Georipae"

Der Berliner Gaettong (c) Theater Troupe “Georipae”

Without thinking much about it and without consulting with his dramaturg (who he doesn’t have, anyway), he invited my production to Korea, to perform at the theatre festival in Miryang (밀양여름공연예술제). A day later, he made me an additional offer. He asked me to adapt and modernize a Korean folk play, The Gaettong who Lives Behind the Mountains (산 넘어 개똥아, see a video on Youtube). The next summer in Miryang, I both showed my former work and staged the new one.

How did you approach the task of staging a Korean play?

At that time I had only seen a video recording of the play. I knew neither text nor translation. But while watching the tape, I could understand what the play was about: spring, renewal, cycle of life.

I then asked Marcus Braun, who is better known as a novelist than as a playwright in Germany, to adapt it into a new play about the German reunification: Hence The Berlin Gaettong (see a video-trailer). The play deals with the question of what a renewal actually is. And was the German reunification a renewal at all—or maybe not so much?

How did you happen to direct Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in 2011?

Der Aufstieg des Arturo Ui (c) Theater Troupe "Georipae"

Der Aufstieg des Arturo Ui (c) Theater Troupe “Georipae”

Prof. Won-yang Rhie (이원양, see my earlier post on his research on Brecht) played a very important role. He had translated The Berlin Gaettong back into Korean. While working together, we had a good time and became friends. It was due to him that I could direct the Korean premiere of Brecht’s Arturo Ui, with Prof. Rhie once again acting as translator.

Let us talk about your current production, the world premiere of The Power (original German title: Sterne wie Staub, “Stars Like Dust”), a piece written in German and performed by a Korean ensemble in Korean. How did this rather peculiar constellation happen?

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (c) Theater Troupe "Georipae"

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (c) Theater Troupe “Georipae”

Last year I was in Korea to stage The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (셰익스피어 의 모든 것). At the same time, Deutsches Theater did a guest performance of Dea Loher’s Diebe (Thieves / 도둑 들). The Goethe-Institut had invited me to the reception and there I met Yun Gwang-jin (윤광진, director of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon and others), a theatre director whom I knew from Miryang. He had seen all my work there and, given that I now have a certain history in Korea, he suggested to take it to the next level. That’s why he made the contact with the National Theatre Company of Korea (국립극단).

How about the cooperation with playwright Nis-Momme Stockmann? How is his piece of interest for a Korean audience?

Two years ago, Nis-Momme Stockmann spent three months in Kyoto, that was his first longer sojourn in East Asia. We knew each other since I staged the premiere of his play Inga and Lutz in 2010 (see n). When I returned from Seoul last year, we met in Berlin and talked about a possible play for Korea. From the start, he was very enthusiastic about the project.

The Power (c) National Theater Company of Korea

The Power (c) National Theater Company of Korea

He found it particularly appealing to present a critique of capitalism in Korea, something very big, a piece about globalization, about the meaning of it all. In the middle of Myeongdong, the most expensive district of Seoul, where one square meter costs $ 100,000, or so I have heard. I first visited Myeongdong with Prof. Rhie who wanted to show me around the “historical centre” of Seoul. The other day I was late for rehearsal because I had lost my way in this shopping jungle. To stage the play in this environment is quite a statement, I think. For German guests, the way to the theater provides a fitting introduction to the piece.

2. Rehearsals

Did you make any particular experiences when rehearsing?

I staged my first play here, The Berlin Gaettong, within three and a half weeks, including delays due to translation. It was mostly thanks to the Korean actors that we could proceed this fast—they are simply much more efficient, more diligent than German actors. I make the same experience in the production [of The Power] now: In Germany, I would schedule at least two months for rehearsals, and we probably still would not get as far as we did here in merely six weeks.

While working with the Theater Troupe “Georipae”, I spent most of the time in Lee Yun-taek’s theater village in Miryang. We came to Seoul only for the last week of rehearsals and therefore I could not see very much of the city.

The actors’ workload is enormous, they are really living a life for the theater, even in their free time! Regardless of their respective status in the ensemble, the actors repair the roof, cook food, bring the stage decoration to Seoul—there is always something to do. Like in the Middle Ages, working for the Love of God in the monastery. And I, too, was as a “theatre monk”, so to speak, and rehearsed from morning to night.

So this is really some kind of artistic commune?

Yes, but with a clearly identifiable leader!

That is my next question: How much creative freedom did you enjoy? How far were you involved in the whole production processes?

For casting I mostly relied on Lee Yun-taek. He provided me with available actors and if that did not work out I could also recast. Otherwise, he always gave me a lot of freedom. It was clear, however, that this was only because he was satisfied with my work. I also saw directors sitting in the auditorium while someone from the ensemble, or Lee Yun-taek himself, took over the rehearsal.

How do you communicate with the actors during rehearsals?

When working together with Prof. Rhie, he also acted as an interpreter during rehearsals, besides his role of dramaturg. Because we had fun together that was no problem. It was actually great because he, as an expert with perfect German language skills, was able to transmit my ideas very well.

That said, it was also of great help that I could rely on my gestic vocabulary. As a trained actor, I am used to communicating regardless of language. That’s the key to my work with the actors here.

Regarding rehearsals, how does your current work with the actors of the National Theater Company differ from your earlier collaborations with Lee Youn-taek’s Theater Troupe “Georipae”?

With “Georipae”, I usually worked with Lee Seung-heon (이승헌) and Kim Mi-suk (김미숙), two longstanding members of the ensemble. In addition, there were always a lot of young actors, many of them still in training. With the National Theater Company, this is of course quite different. The actors are all very professional and very experienced. Lee Yun-taek’s concept, on the other hand, is to introduce drama students to the stage early on. That’s the difference.

Myeongdong Theater (c) Jan Creutzenberg

Myeongdong Theater (c) Jan Creutzenberg

When rehearsing, do you find any time at all to attend other theatre performances?

Yes, this time I saw two plays here in Myeongdong Theater, of course also in order to experience the theater. When I participated in the summer festival in Miryang, I saw a lot of other performances, too. I know and appreciate in particular the works of Lee Yun-taek’s Ensemble “Georipae”, because the theatre they make is so physical and playful.

But I also see very different performances. During the last year, I might even have seen more theatre in Korea than in Germany!

3. Theatre in Germany and Korea

Do you think that a production of a Korean play would be of interest for German audiences?

I am not quite sure, as the Germans seem to be very much self-concerned.
interested in themselves.
I do not see much interest in premieres or foreign pieces, or new drama from abroud in general. Of course there are the usual suspects, like Jasmina Reza, maybe a few American and British playwrights, too. I would consider staging a contemporay Korean play in Germany rather difficult.

Going from one project to the next, I am thinking about further developing my collaborations with Korea. Bringing a Korean piece to Germany, as part of this process, sounds appealing to me.

How does acting in the theatre in Korea and Germany differ from each other?

When comparing stage acting in Germany and Korea, I like the very physical and unpsychological acting style in Korea. In Germany there is a certain prevailing realism, which some call “psychological realism”. I, on the other hand, rather consider it “commercial realism”—and I am glad that I do not see it here.

Could you talk a little bit more about this “commercial realism”, and how it takes shape?

In the early 20th century, realism came to German theatre and new playing techniques became necessary. To date, the Stanislavsky-style still dominates German stages. Actors are trained to be natural, authentic. In my opinion, the result is that everyone is doing more or less the same. The phrase most often heard in castingshows is “Be yourself!”. And in the end whoever conforms best to a very stereotypical template of the pop star wins, a poor copy of a commercial concept of authenticity. It works the same way on the theatre stage.

The last time I was “natural” was as a baby. In the moment of uttering my first word, I became artificial. I see it when looking at my own children: When they began to speak, that was particularly artifical, because they tried to imitate mum and dad with the few means they possessed. I can only acquire the language by repeating the words of others. So it is not my own. I am myself when I feel free, then I stop controlling myself and start to play. But then I am not natural. I am not a tree.

What aspects of Korean theater would you like to show in Germany?

I would like to show how Korean theatremakers succeed in handing down and preserving acting techniques and theatre styles. We do not achieve this in Germany. Preservation of old buildings is great—“historical cities” in Germany still look historical—, but in the field of theatre we are busy putting old plays into new, contemporary forms, which often do not fit or match well, actually. I would like to try to find a form for this emotional, bodily play that also draws upon traditions.

Thank you very much for the interview. 

Alexis Bug in front of the stage entrance (c) Alexis Bug

Alexis Bug in front of the stage entrance (c) Alexis Bug

Alexis Bug, born in 1973, is trained as an actor, published several theatre plays, and is currently mostly working as a stage director. Since 2007, he has collaborated on various occasions with Korean ensembles, translators, and actors. Several of his German productions have also shown as guest performances in Korea. Currently, he is rehearsing with the National Theater Company of Korea for the new play The Power by Nis-Momme Stockmann, to be premiered on June 5, 2015. (See his homepage for details on his earlier pieces.)


Interview conducted and translated from German by Jan Creutzenberg.

— 26 May 2016 (火)

  • Der Berliner Gaettong (베를린 개똥이), adapted by Marcus Braun, after Kim Kyung Hwa’s play San neomeo Gaettong-a (산 넘어 개똥아, “Beyond the Mountains: Dog Shit”), directed by Alexis Bug, actors and puppeteers: Street Theatre Troupe, das Helmi, performances in Korea (Seoul, Busan, Miryang, Geochang) and Germany (Berlin, Hamburg, Köln), 2008.
  • Der Aufstieg des Arturo Ui (아르투로 우이의 출세), written by Bertolt Brecht, translated into Korean by Won-Yang Rhie, directed by Alexis Bug, produced by Street Theatre Troupe, premiere: Guerilla Theatre Seoul, April 2011.
  • The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (셰익스피어의 모든 것), written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield, translated into Korean by Hwang Hye-rim, directed by Alexis Bug, produced by Street Theatre Troupe, actors: Lee Seung-heon, Hwang Hye-rim, Lee Won-hui, premiere: Guerilla Theatre Seoul, June 2014.
  • The Power (더 파워), written by Nis-Momme Stockmann, translated into Korean by Eun-Soo Jang, directed by Alexis Bug, production: National Drama Company of Korea, Premiere: Myeongdong Theater Seoul, June 2015.
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Struggling with the Korean Past: Book Review of Plays by Oh Tae-Suk in German Translation

Oh Tae-Suk, Mumiengrab und andere Theaterstücke (c) Edition Peperkorn

(c) Edition Peperkorn

Last summer in Berlin, I received a book for review, a collection of plays by Korean dramatist Oh Tae-Suk (오태석) in German translation: Mumiengrab und andere Theaterstücke (The Grass Tomb and other Plays, Edition Peperkorn, 2013).

Korea Forum 2014 (c) Korea-Verband

Korea Forum 2014 (c) Korea-Verband

I knew one of the translators, Lee Kyungboon (이경분), who I had he pleasure to meet on several occasions at different conferences. Kai Köhler, her co-translator, is known for his research on Korean literature in (German) translation and I finally met him last year, when he hosted my talk on tradition in contemporay Korean theatre at the Korea-Verband. The Korea-Verband also publishes the German-language journal Korea-Forum, for which I wrote my review. Oh yes, the latest edition of Korea-Forum has just been published and can be ordered online.

Here is an appetizer of my review:

Korea Forum 2014 (c) Korea-Verband

But before I go into details, first a quite awkward erratum: Different from my short vita given at the end of the review, I am still writing my PhD-dissertation. I have not received my doctoral “Promotion”. What a difference one “e” makes!

Korea Forum 2014 (c) Korea-Verband

Oh Tae-Suk (c) Mokwha Repertory Company

Oh Tae-Suk (c) Mokwha Repertory Company

And now back to Oh Tae-Suk (for some biographical notes see KLTI): Today he is famous for his “koreanized” Shakespeare-productions that receive international acclaim. Romeo and Juliet or The Tempest, for example, were successfully shown in the UK. (I mention those in some earlier posts.) But Oh has also been active as an experimental playwright since the 1970s. As a regular contributor to the avantgarde theatre performed at the Drama Center (드라마 센타) by the Dongrang Repertory Ensemble (동랑 레파토리 극단) with works such as The Grass Tomb (초분, 1973) or Lifecord (태, 1974), both of which were shown abroad even back then.

The five works presented in this book span two decades and are as follows:

  • Mumiengrab (Grass Tomb*, 초분, 1973)
  • Nachgeburt (Lifecord, 태, 1974)
  • Fahrrad (Bicycle, 자전거, 1983)
  • Nähe von Vater und Sohn (Intimacy between Father and Son, 부자유친, 1987)
  • Vinylhaus (Greenhouse*, 비닐하우스, 1989)

(*) As far as I know, Mumiengrab and Vinylhaus have not yet been translated into English, so the title “Grass Tomb” is taken from Ah-Jeong Kim’s dissertation “The Modern Uses of Tradition in Contemporary Korean Theatre” (Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1995), the title “Greenhouse” is my translation.)

The book was quite a tough read, although each of the five plays is not very long. With many blanks that aks to be filled and numerous indirect references to Korean history, both more recent and pre-modern, they clearly deal with the quite peculiar and specific situation of living in contemporary Korea. Nevertheless, as I discuss in more detail in the review, they also offer material for more general thoughts on the human condition, from life under traditional social orders in transformation to the indoctrinating methods of totalitarian systems.

Although productions of Oh’s pieces outside of Korea certainly need a confident and creative director who knows what to build on – and what to cut out –, I am certain that these works offer more than some insights into the Korean world of theatre. Oh is known for his improvisational methods and many of his pieces where for the most part crewted in rehearsal. I hope that someone will pick up some of the treads prepared by Oh Tae-Suk and knit some new sweaters.

Although this is the first German anthology exclusively dedicated to Oh Tae-Suk, there are some more translations of his works available. These are some of his pieces that I could locate:


  • Warum das Mädchen Sim-Tscheong zweimal ins Wasser ging (심청이는 왜 두번 인당수에 몸을 던졌는가, 1990), in: Vier moderne koreanische Theaterstücke, transl. Kim Miy-Hye and Sylvia Bräsel, Göttingen 1996: Peperkorn. (Publisher)


  • Bellflower (도라지, 1994), transl. Yi Hyŏngjin and Richard Nichols, in Modern Korean Drama: An Anthology, ed. Richard Nichols, New York 2009: Columbia University Press. (Publisher, see my review)
  • The Metacultural Theater of Oh T’ae-sok: Five Plays from the Korean Avant-Garde, transl. Ah-Jeong Kim and R. B. Graves, Honolulu 1999: University of Hawai’i Press. (Publisher)
    • Bicycle (자전거, 1983)
    • Intimacy between Father and Son (부자유친, 1987)
    • Lifecord (태, 1974)
    • Ch’un-p’ung’s Wife (충풍의 처, 1976)
    • Why Did Shim Ch’ŏng Plunge into the Sea Twice? (심청이는 왜 두번 인당수에 몸을 던졌는가, 1990)
  • The Drug Peddler (약장사, 1975), transl. Sŏl Sun-bong, in Korea Journal 20.3 (March 1980), pp. 44–54 ((full-text available online), reprinted in: Wedding Day and other Korean Plays, edited by the Korean National Commission for UNESCO, Seoul 1983: Si-sa-yong-o-sa Publishers. (Review)


  • La Bicyclette (자전거, 1983), in: Théâtres Coréens: Sept pièces contemporaines, transl. Im Hye-gyông and Cathy Rapin, Paris/Montréal 1998: L’Harmattan. (Publisher)

In 2004, Kai Köhler had a very interesting interview with Oh Tae-Suk (in German). The dramatist talks about reactions on his works in Korea (“It’s really funny that Korean audiences are by now very much educated in a European way and often are perplexed when facing my plays.”), highlights his particular rhythmic breathing technique that many of his dialogues are based on (“At most 20% of the actors can speak such a rhythm; I’m always very sorry about that.”), explains the situation of theatre in Korea (“Most spectators are curious students who don’t have money … professional life is often so tiring that the young people stay away after passing their exams. The actors usually want to start a family at the age of 35 and then leave my ensemble to work for the TV or the movies where they can earn more money.”), and expresses the hope that his piece Fahrrad might be played in Germany, some day. So far it hasn’t, but now the translation is there—a great chance for what might be a really exciting cross-cultural ghost-ride on the Korean bike.

– 27 March 2015 (金)

  • Oh Tae-Suk, Mumiengrab und andere Theaterstücke (“The Grass Tomb” and other Plays), transl. into German by Lee Kyungboon and Kai Köhler, with an afterword by Kai Köhler, Göttingen 2013: Edition Peperkorn. (Publisher)
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Myeongdong Theatre (Theater and Globalization 2)

While most of Christopher Balme’s Coursera-MOOC on Theatre and Globalization was about ephemerals and moving things (ensembles, people, ideas etc.), “immobilities” (Korean: 부동산, German: Immobilien) such as theatre buildings also played an important role as cultural hubs and “contact zones” (Mary Louise Pratt) for diverse encounters between groups and individuals.

Myeongdong Theater today, May 2015

Myeongdong Theater today, May 2015

In my second assignment, I discuss the checkered histories of the place known today as Myeongdong [Art] Theatre (명동예술극장). Located in the midst of buzzling Myeongdong, half-way from either Myeongdong station (명동역) and Eulgiro1-ga (을지로입구역), the changing uses of this this building since the 1930s tell a story of the transformations of modern Korea, from a Japanese colony to a cultural power.

For this assignment I expanded on some earlier research for a presentation at Sogang University, back then as part of the Korean language class. My team’s topic was “myeongso” (명소, lit. “place with a name”, i.e. famous localities) and Steven covered the 63 Building (육삼 빌딩), icon of the “Han-River Miracle”, while “the other” Stephen discussed the neo-traditional shopping street in Insa-dong. Myeongdong Theatre, while not of particular scenic beauty, is interesting historically and I have also seen some great performances there (as well as some more academically rigurous productions). It’s certainly worth a visit!

This is my (slightly streamlined) take on the Myeongdong Theatre, illustrated with some historical images:

In pre-modern Korea, theatre (and music) was not performed in designated public buildings but rather outside (village squares) or in semi-private settings at upper class homes or at the Royal Court. The first buildings specifically dedicated to performing arts date to the late 19th and early 20th century. In English, Andrew Killick offers an overview of the Korean theatre scene of that time in his book on changgeuk (Killick, In Search of Korean Traditional Opera, Univ. of Hawai’i Press, 2010).

The Japanese and, presumably, the Chinese community had their own theatre(s) and the Seoul Electric Company, a Korean-American joint venture that had introduced street cars and city lights, opened a commercial theatre with stage lighting. The first documented “Korean” indoor theatre is the Hyeomnyulsa (협률사 / 協律社), built in 1902. Today, few colonial buildings remain in Korea, as many were demolished or destroyed, not least due to the Korean War and postcolonial politics.

The Myeondong Theater, named after its location, is – as far as I know – the only remaining theatre building that dates back to the colonial era. Myeongdong, in the 1920s and 30s the heart of modernizing Seoul and home to the first department stores, bank, and cinemas (see a blogpost by Robert Koehler at The Marmot’s Hole), nowadays is known as a shopping district and tourist zone. The checkered history of the Myeongdong Theater is quite remarkable, probably not untypical for a postcolonial setting, and might be read as emblematic for the recent history of Korea.

For the following brief chronology I draw on two texts, a Korean-language essay on “The Historicity and New Identity of the Myeongdong Theater” by Kim Seong-hui published in The Korean Theatre Journal (연극평론) in 2011 and a shorter and slightly imprecise English article from 2009 by Kim Moon-hwan (“Renovated Myeong-dong Art Theater Opens its Doors”) from Koreana, an English quarterly on Korean culture and art published by the government-run Korea Foundation (한국국제교류재단).

  • built in 1934 by a Japanese architect, “with tendencies of modernist and neo-classicist experiments that were in rage at that time, flavored with Renaissance-style and Baroquish decoration” (Kim Seong-hui, p. 45)
  • inaugurated as a cinema in 1936 (“Meiji Theatre”, 명치좌 / 明治座)
  • used as a cinema and theatre (“International Theatre”, 국제극장) for two years under the American military government after Liberation in 1945
  • became the residence of the municipal government of Seoul (시공관) in 1947, still with occasional performances
  • housed the National Theater of Korea (국립극장) since 1957 (while still serving as a governmental facility)
  • re-opened as the “Myeongdong National Theater” after renovations in 1962
  • hosted not only the national performings arts companies but also private ensembles well into the 70s
  • sold to a financial company in 1976 (and subsequently turned into office space) after the inauguration of the current National Theater on Mt. Namsan
  • evoked a “Restoration Movement” when demolition became imminent in the late 90s to early 2000s
  • re-acquired by the Ministry of Culture, renovated, and finally re-opened as “Myeongdong Theater” (명동예술극장) in 2009.

The following gallery shows some older pictures of the building (from the Japanese Wikipedia)

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In its heydays, the building hosted various notable events, including the first official symphony concert (1946), both the first Western opera performed in Korea (La Traviata, 1948) and the first opera authored by a Korean composer (The Tale of Chunhyang, 1950), the first Korean performance of Hamlet (1949), and the first Miss Korea Ceremony (1957, see a video on Vimeo).

Myeongdong Theater (명동예술극장), 2012

Myeongdong Theater (명동예술극장), 2012

Today, the Myeongdong Theater, with a historically renovated exterior and state-of-the-art stage technology, presents mostly spoken theatre, many Western classics and some Korean pieces produced by high-ranking directors, often with star actors. (My picture on the left shows a poster of a Hedda Gabler-production) Under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture, together with a second venue, Chongdong Theater (정동극장), dedicated to traditional performances, it serves as a showcase of Korean theatre. According to the official homepage, “This historically significant theater building from the past has been resurrected and is now dedicated to producing quality contemporary theater and steadfastly embracing the future.”

Various historical images can be found on the blog “Memorandum” and on another blog dedicated to the “Memories of Myeongdong National Theater”.

– 14 March 2015 (土)

  • 김성희, “명동예술극장의 역사성과 새로운 정체성” (The historicity and new identity of Myeongdong Theatre), 연극평론 60 (2011). (Link)
  • Kim Moon-hwan, “Renovated Myeong-dong Art Theater Opens its Doors”, Koreana (Sept. 2009). (Link)
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Back Home: Seoul Stages Just Turned Five Years

It’s been exactly five years since I started this blog,*** right after arriving in Seoul for a year of intensive Korean classes at Sogang University. My first post is, when I read it today, a rather obscure text on memories, ghosts, and a walk through my neighborhood in Sinchon (신촌), all written in front of a convenience store overlooking the rotary. Indeed, this area is still quite “haunted” for me and I spent a considerable amount of time here, one month in a motel, one week in a guesthouse, and almost a year in a hasukjip (student boarding house), all within a radius of one minute.

After settling down on the other side of Mapo district in late 2011, I have visited the neighborhood infrequently, often for a performance at Mary Hall, the on-campus theatre of Sogang University (She She Pop are regulars there). There are new apartment blocks as well as new buildings on campus, the former railroad tracks between Sinchon and Hongdae have been turned into a park (at least partly), there is a new subway station, some restaurants are gone, others have emerged. What is clear is that things keep on changing… and so will this blog.

When looking back at the last five years of mostly irregular blogging, I found my original plan—to present parts of my ongoing research on pansori—to give way to more diverse impressions, often unrelated to pansori or theatre. Recently, I went to see more art exhibitions and wrote about some of them. In 2010 and 2011, when I was in the middle of getting into existing Korean-language research on theatre, I posted translations of the tables of contents from books that had impressed me. Now that I have grown (a bit) more accustomed to reading in Korean, I rarely do this anymore. At times I experienced with videos, but kind of grew tired of holding the cellphone, especially during performances. Nowadays, I try to add more images and galleries. From the start, the blog has been a great way to keep on writing, more casual and wider in scope than the dissertation.

Here are some fun facts from the last five years, provided by WordPress:

The most popular post is, incredibly, one of those translated tables of contents, that of Seo Yeon-ho’s History of Korean Theatre (the first volume on modern, i.e. Colonial era theatre). The runner-up is a glorified link to English translations of the five classical pansori pieces provided by the Jeonju Int’l Sori Festival, probably the most click-baity post I ever wrote. Seems that just adding the word “free” really works! The third place goes to a follow-up to a Shakespeare paper that took quite a lot of time, in effect an “update” with several mini reviews of literature on the matter that were published after the article.

The number of posts per year has, after the enthusiam (and freedom as a student) of the first year (32 posts in eight months) had worn down, steadily increased: nineteen (2011), twenty-one (2012), twenty-four (2013), twenty-five (2014), and so far ten this year. Recently I have re-visited many posts drafted out at an earlier time and generally posted shorter texts (mostly written on the way to work and back), this way increasing the posting rate a bit. I’m not sure if I can keep this up, but we’ll see.

world map of blog visitors between 2012-02-25 and 2015-05-12 via

world map of blog visitors between 2012-02-25 and 2015-05-12 via

With regard to the visitors’ location of origin, South Korea clearly dominates with 3,877  thus during a period of about three years. The United States (2,826), Germany (1,850) and the Philippines (1,061!) follow, then Great Britain (531), France (316), Singapore (286), and Canada (267).

The most frequent search string, besides my name, is “pansori lyrics” (remember, those free ones) and then, interestingly, “karl valentin”, an early 20th-century comedian from Germany (I wrote a report on a Korean production that uses some of his sketches quite a while ago.)

The majority of referals (whatever that might be?) comes from Facebook and there are some from Twitter (where I am not very active). But there are also those visitors who come from other blogs that put me on their blogroll—thanks a lot to the following three that I know of (finally did the same):

  • Prof. CedarBough Saeji’s “Footnotes” on mask dance play, pungmul-training, Korean academia, and so much else—and with great photos!
  • French filmmaker Yann Kerloch’s “Timeless, bottomless”, where he shares his “views on Korean music, movies, and whatever I want”.
  • Janet Hilts’ “timbre.tales”, a blog on classical music, both old and new, in Korea and by Koreans, unfortunately a bit sleepy these days.

Finally, to get an overview on what I usually write about, this is the top–12 of categories (some posts are filed under two), unsurprisingly spearheaded by pansori-related posts and more or less detailed recollections of performances I attended:

I hope that this might be an occasion for some of you to dig a bit deeper into this mess of ephemeralia, “objects that people tend to accumulate, like receipts and ticket stubs and tissues” (according to the Urban Dictionary). Like German new folk philosopher Odo Marquard (about whose death at the age of eighty-seven I just learned today) said: “I don’t collect, I just don’t throw anything away.” (quoted from memory)

– 12 May 2015 (火)

PS: By the way, I recently found out about a “twin site” on theatre in Japan: “Tokyo Stages”. Since early 2009, Tokyo-based writer, editor and translator William Andrews blogs on “Japanese contemporary theatre and performing arts”. Have a look at his insightful and detailed texts on a variety of themes related to theatre in and about Japan.

*** Although the first post is dated May 2nd, I actually posted in on the 12th. As you may have noted, the dates given at the end of my posts are not necessarily identical with the day of uploading. They rather refer to a date relevant to the content of the post.

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New Exhibition at Hapjungjigu: Incompetent Talents by Kang Dong-Hyeong


After the opening of art space Hapjeong Jigu (합정지구, Facebook) earlier this year, this is already the third exhibition. On show are recent works by painter Kang Dong-Hyeong (강동형), graduate of Kookmin University (국민대학교).

If there is a connecting theme, it might be the slightly idealised depiction of situations commonly associated with uselessness. The Korean title “Dajae Muneung” (다재 무능, Versatile Talents/Incompetence) slightly alludes to this, while the English one (“Cultivated Mind”) might be read slightly more cynically.

Three middle-aged men crammed in a small underground room, one immersed in his cellphone, another playing a driving game on an elaborate homecomputer setting, the third somewhere in-between (Guild room / 집회소); two guys shooting cans just for fun, somewhere in the countryside, in a non-descript backyard, a third one taking their picture (Marksmen / 숙련된 사수들); two men drawing comical characters on a whiteboard, certain to be whiped out soon (Trace / 따라그리기); three men sitting on a wooden resting place (평상), in different poses somewhere between exalted and exhausted, surrounded by packs of cigarettes, empty plates, and a PET-bottle of beer (11 PM / 오후 열한 시).

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The funny thing: On the opening, I could spot many of those faces depicted in the paintings… (see some pictures on Facebook)

One of the few paintings that might invite a concrete political interpretation is Stand (버티기), a phalanx of neon-yellow policemen with one “civilian” bystander (a demonstrator?) reflecting in a cartoonish speech bubble-style: “The whole day I have been thinking about you while walking and in the sky I was looking at the grey clouds were flowing by, seething” (하루를 너의 생각 하면서 걷다가 바라본 하늘엔 흰 구름 말이없이 흐르고 푸르름), lyrics from the song “Just the Laughter of that Woman” (그녀의 웃음소리뿐) by veteran singer Lee Moon Sae (이문세, *1957), the “pioneer of the ballad movement”  (listen to the song on Youtube).

Kang Dong-Hyeong 강동형 Stand 버티기, oil on canvas, 117x80cm, 2015

Kang Dong-Hyeong (강동형) Stand (버티기), oil on canvas, 117x80cm, 2015

Is this another way of looking at a generation of apolitical mid-thirties with their heads in the clouds? But then, the daydreamer is rather looking down than skywards. According to the artist, the painting is also a comment on the military culture—almost all men have to serve for two years—and its influences on social and spiritual life in Korea. I couldn’t stop but think of the recent demonstrations in the wake of the one-year-memorial of the man-made Sewolho-catastrophe, too, although the painting might not be directly related.

Kang Dong-Hyeong 강동형 Shoes 신발, pen and ink on paper 종이에 펜과 먹, 2014

Kang Dong-Hyeong 강동형 Shoes 신발, pen and ink on paper 종이에 펜과 먹, 2014

Besides nine oil paintings of various formats, there are also twelve pages of ink-drawn manhwa, the short story “Shoes” (새신발) which deals with the precarious situation of a generation unable to buy the desired footwear. If you find the handlettering in the original drawings difficult to read, there is also a version with printed text in the exhibition pamphlet, available for 3,000 ₩.

Kang Dong-Hyeong 강동형 artist picture in front of Trace 따라그리기, oil on canvas, 117x80cm, 2015

Artist Kang Dong-Hyeong (강동형) in front of the painting Trace (따라그리기, oil on canvas, 117x80cm, 2015)

Among the paintings, I think I like Trace (따라그리기) best. It is shown on the street-display so you can see it even outside the opening hours (Tue-Sun, 12–7pm). Have look if you pass by!

– 24 April 2015 (금)

  • 강동형, 다재 무능, 합정지구 (마포구 서교동 444-9번지), 2015년4월24일 ~ 5월15일, 무료입장.
  • Kang Dong-Hyeong, Cultivated Mind, Hapjungjigu (Seoul Mapo-gu Seogyo-dong No. 444-9), 2015–04–24 ~ 05–15, free entrance.
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We’ll Meet Again: Lee Man Hee Retrospective at the Korean Film Archive

Before the Cinema

Before the Cinema

I had seen a few Korean movies in Paris, but those were for the most part international festival darlings like Oldboy (올드보이) by Park Chan-wook, Binjip (빈집) and almost everything else by Kim Ki-duk, The President’s Last Bang (그때 그사람들) by Im Sang-soo, or French favorites like Le Jour où le cochon est tombé dans le puits (돼지가 우물에 빠진 날, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well) and Conte de cinéma (극장전, Tale of Cinema, see my review of a later Berlin-screening) by Hong Sang-soo. These were recent productions about contemporary life in Korea or, in a few cases, about more recent historical events, such as the assassination of “president” Park Chung-hee.

The one and only movie I saw in Korea, however, was from the 60s and had just been rediscovered when I attended a screening in 2006. It was Holiday (aka A Day Off, 휴일, 1968) by Lee Man Hee (이만희 / 李晩熙, 1931–1975, see a more extended essay on the “forgotten master” at KoBiz). Due to censorship, the movie could not be shown publicly after production, got lost and had just been rediscovered and brought to the big screen then.

A Time of Cinema - Lee Man Hee Retrospective at Cinematheque KOFA

A Time of Cinema – Lee Man Hee Retrospective at Cinematheque KOFA

Today, I went to see Homebound (귀로 / 歸路, 1967, screening info) that, as it turned out, opened the full-scale retrospective “A Time of Cinema” (영화의시간), held on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Lee’s death. He died at the early age of fourty-three, but his output is tremendous: In a span of less than fifteen years, he shot over fifty movies, about half of which remain. Twenty-six films are shown at the Cinématheque KOFA until May 14. There are usually three screenings a day and all of them are free of entrance, some screenings also feature English subtitles (marked in the schedule). Several events, as well as a photo exhibition at the Cinema Museum one floor above accompany the retrospective. (See also a report on a Lee Man Hee-retrospective at the London Korean Film Festival 2011)

Lee Man Hee, Homebound (1967) via Korean Film Archive

Lee Man Hee, Homebound (1967) via Korean Film Archive

Homebound turned out to be a fascinating melodrama, old-school in black and white, with much rainfall, close-ups of clocks, and cigarette smoke. The constellation is simple: An invalid and traumatized war veteran (Kim Jin-kyu 김진규) who writes newspaper serials and a beautiful wife (Moon Jeongsook 문정숙) who sacrifices her life and ambitions for her husband. She delivers his manuscripts, which replicate the story of the impotent husband and his idealized wife but fail to gain popular success, to the news office in central Seoul, where she eventually meets a daring journalist (Kim Jeong-cheol 김정철), from the society section, nonetheless. As time passes, the two develop a strange relationship, close to an affair, but the attachment of the wife to her husband undermines the romance, although everyone (even her husband, by giving his serial novel a new twist) suggests to her to find another man.

And then there is the setting, downtown Seoul in the late 60s, the train station, a nearby church (the office highrise in-between, where I used to work for a year or two, has not been built yet), surrounding restaurants and bars, as well as the smokey newsroom… Masses of people walking by, dressed in traditional clothes or salesman-attire, taxis and limousines, buses and a streetcar (didn’t know they still existed at that time), and a surreal car chase in the middle of a six line road at night. Besides the story, which, despite the very simple setting, is emotionally quite complex, the historical impressions alone made the film worth watching.

Anyway, having attended the screening in quite casual clothes, I felt underdressed and didn’t join the numerous actors, directors, film critics, and other contemporaries of Lee Man Hee, who were present at the opening, in their attack on the buffet. I will surely return to the cinema, though, for more imagery of Seoul in the 1960s and some more great movies to come!

PS: Just found out that the film is available online at Youtube, courtesy of the Korean Film Archive. You have to prove that you are older than 19 years to see it, though. There is also a blogpost with some film stills and the original poster, as well as the recording of a talk (in Korean) on “Korean society and womanhood, seen through movies” by Prof. Kim So-yeong (김소영), held after a screening of the film in 2013.

– 23 April 2

  • “영화의 시간” – 이만희 감독 전작전, 한국영상자료원, 시네마테크 KOFA 1관, 2015년4월23일~5월14일, 무료입장.
  • “Time of Cinema”, Lee Man Hee Retrospective, Korean Film Archive, Cinematheque KOFA, 2015–04–23 ~ 05–14, free entrance.
Posted in At the Movies | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments