Mother Courage and Her Scholars: A Chronicle from the Cold War

When passing a second hand bookshop in Hongdae, I could not resist. The owner told me that books on theatre were scarce, still I made a bargain: For the price of a large blueberry yoghurt flatccino I got two volumes that might provide insights on the way academics tackled Bertolt Brecht in the 80s, a time when he still was persona non grata in South Korea, thanks to his communist convictions.

RHIE Won-Yang, Studies on Brecht (1984)

For now just a few preliminary impressions of my first purchase, Studies on Brecht by Won-Yang RHIE (이원양) from 1984. Rhie, emeritus of Hanyang University, is probably the capacity on Brecht in Korea and this book (an edition of his PhD-thesis) is the very first academic book about Brecht published in Korean—which in my eyes legitimates the rather monolithic title.

The subheading (“An Analysis of Brecht’s Theatrical Theory and his Works”) makes more clear what to expect: After the introduction (I) Rhie discusses Brecht’s theory of the epic theatre (서사극) from a historical (II.1) and a systematical perspective (II.2) and then turns his focus onto what is arguably Brecht’s most infamous concept: the alienation-effect (소외효과, II.3). The third and by far longest chapter discusses various of Brecht’s later plays. As far as I can tell, these are indeed not merely summaries of those works but thematically led discussions of Brechtian themes (III.1), e.g. “science and society” or “motherhood in a new era”, as well as an exploration of the techniques of alienation in his plays (III.2). A brief conclusion (IV), a chronology of Brecht’s life (based on Völker’s Brecht-Chronik), and a bibliography are followed by a reprint of a Korean translation of Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (억척어멈과 그 자식들). This collaborative work of Rhie and YANG Hye-suk (梁惠淑) had been previously published in the journal Korean Theatre (한국연극, 1981년 12월호, 27~58편).

In fact, dating to 1981, this is the first published Korean translation of a Brechtian play. Still, that was more than a decade before Mother Courage‘s stage debut in Korea. While the academics could obviously work (and publish) in the shadows of censorship, staging public performances of plays written by a Commie was a no-go until the late 80s. (For a short history of Brecht’s academic and theatrical reception in South Korea see Rhie’s essay “Bertolt Brecht in Korea“, published in the Yearbook of the Korean Brecht Society [= 브레히트와 현대연극 제5집, 1998]. Note that this file needs the Hangul Word Processor.)

Rhie himself went to Germany only after studying Brecht’s works for years. In the foreword, he recalls the experience of seeing plays like Life of Galileo and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny for the first time live on stage, “deep impressions” that he “up until now cannot forget.” He carries on: “Problems, that, despite my best efforts, I had been unable to understand from a theoretical perspective, became solved by the theatrical performance—that feeling cannot be put in words!”

The bibliography, which includes selected German-language secondary literature as well as a list of Korean-language scholarship, is of great interest to me, as it might provide a good impression on academic activity with regard to Brecht around and before the time of publication. The first item on the chronological list of MA-theses has been written by Rhie himself: “Studies on the Epic Theatre, Focusing on Bertolt Brecht”, Seoul National Univ., 1968. While most of the earlier scholarship, the majority from Seoul National, discuss Brecht’s theatrical theories, later texts also tackle specific works like the Threepenny Opera, Baal, and Mother Courage. The journal German Literature (독일문학 aka 獨逸文學 aka Koreanische Zeitschrift für Germanistik) seems to have been a main forum for research papers on Brecht and related issues. Notably, the bibliography also lists at least two Korean scholars who have earned their doctorate in Germany—with a thesis written in German, of course. It is interesting that both of them deal with Brecht’s relation to Asia: Tschong Dae KIM, B.B. und die Geisteswelt des Fernen Ostens (Heidelberg, 1969); Yun-Yeop SONG, B.B. und die chinesische Philosophie (Göttingen, 1977).

Since 1984, Rhie has published various other books: works on German theatre, essays and interviews , a German language textbook, and various translations of German plays, ranging from Friedrich Schiller to Franz Xaver Kroetz and, of course, Brecht (take a quick search on Aladin for details). He served as director both of the Korean Brecht Society (한국브레히트학회) and the Korean Society of German Language and Literature (한국독어독문학회). Besides his academic work, he also acted as translator for concrete performances, among others Brecht’s official debut on Korean stages (Threepenny Opera, 1989), and, most recently, the German-Korean collaboration Der Berliner Gaettong (Alexis Bug/Street Theatre Troupe, 2008, see my review). For his cross-cultural activities, he received the Bundesverdienstkreuz, a German state decoration (report in German and in Korean).

Rhie Won-Yang’s Studies on Brecht have become a classic that every Korean student of German language and literature under the age of fifty has read (according to my friend who must know because she was one of them). Next time, I will take a look at one of the results of that lecture…

— 9 Oct. 2010 (土)

  • 李源洋, 『브레히트 硏究 — 브레히트의 연극 이론과 작품분석』서울: 두레, 1984.
  • RHIE Won-Yang [Yi Wŏn-yang], Studies on Brecht: An Analysis of Brecht’s Theatrical Theory and his Works, Seoul: Dure, 1984 (218 + 95 pp.).

About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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3 Responses to Mother Courage and Her Scholars: A Chronicle from the Cold War

  1. Pingback: The Golden Dragon | Seoul Stages

  2. Pingback: Interview with Alexis Bug, Director of Korean-German Theatre | Seoul Stages

  3. Pingback: Talking about Brecht and Pansori in Toronto (AAS 2017) | Seoul Stages

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