Translated Theatre

Western Drama in Korea, 1900–1995

Western Drama in Korea, 1900–1995

The history of Korean theatre is also the history of the importation, translation, and adaptation of Western theatre. In fact, the twists and turns in the process of reception that set in roughly a hundred years ago illuminate not only on the internal struggles and debates of the Korean theatre world, but also the political, cultural, and academic relations to the USA and Europe, because it is these “hard facts” that make theatrical exchange possible in the first place. Edited by SIN Jeong-ok (신정옥, specialist on Shakespeare and author of the most comprehensive monography on his reception in Korea,『셰익스피어 한국에 오다』, 1998, Baeksan), the volume Western Theatre in Korea presents detailed data on the introduction and reception of plays from the West, covering the period from 1900 to 1995.

In other words, it is a chronicle of beonyeok-geuk (번역극), literally “translated theatre”. Sin gives a short introduction into the matter (pp. 11-28), evaluating the reception of Western theatre in Korea as rather “amateurish” up until the 1970s. The lack of theatremakers proficient in foreign languages resulted in an indirect transfer of dramatic literature and theoretical material, mostly via Japan and (later) the US. The result of this “tendentious” reception was a very restricted repertoire and a twisted imitation of Western Realism not fit to express Korean emotions and ideas. Sin opts for a localized adaptation of Western theatre, rooted in systematic research on the specific needs of Korean audiences. Or, even better, instead of beonyeok-geuk more changjak-geuk (창작극, lit. “creative theatre”) based on drama written in Korean.

In the main part, divided by country, various scholars of the respective language and literature discuss Korean productions of foreign plays. England including Ireland (신정옥 herself, pp. 29-156), the United States (이혜경, pp. 157-252), France (신현숙, pp. 253-348), and Germany (김창화, pp. 349-412) each get their own chapter, divided along common historiographic periodization: colonial period (1910-45), liberation and Korean War (1945-60), military rule and economic growth (1960-1987), democratisation (1988-). Russia, Greece, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Poland, and South Africa are bundled together as “various countries” (written by 전신재, pp. 413-448), each discussed on merely a few pages. An extended index (200 pages!) of performances of foreign plays—both in Korean translation and in the original language—makes a useful addition for the further study of tendencies in reception.

Drawing on this material and extrapolated statistics, JEON Sin-jae (전신재) makes a first effort to analyse “The Meaning of the Tendencious Reception” (pp. 449-502), that is the excluding focus on specific countries (England and the US, together covering over 50% of performances), time periods (modern plays, except for Shakespeare), authors (dito), and even single works (Waiting for Godot topping Hamlet).

Interestingly, the most performed German “play” is 〈빨간 피터의 고백〉 (“Red Peter’s Confession”), an adaptation of Kafka’s short story “Ein Bericht für eine Akademie” (“A Report to an Academy”). Having seen an impressive performance of Kafka’s text way back in Berlin, I do not doubt the ongoing appeal of this one-person piece. A quick google-search brings up, for example, a recent performance at Artnabi.

Other general tendencies include the selection of comedies over tragedies, social and political plays over psychological and philosophical ones, as well as a special interest for family dramas. Overall, this volume offers a vast array of material and inspiration for further studies. The focus on the detailed presentation of data rather than the application of theatro-historiographic concepts thereupon might be considered a drawback. However, this encyclopedic approach makes Western Drama in Korea an ideal starting point for a diversity of more in-depth and theorising scholarship on specific time periods, authors and theatremakers, cultural policies, or the social impact of theatre in Korea, to name just a few.

— 1 Dec. 2010 (水)

  • SIN Jeong-ok (ed.), Western Drama in Korea, 1900–1995, Sohwa, 1999.
  • 신정옥 외,『한국에서의 서양 연극  1900년~1995년까지』, 소화, 1999.

About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
This entry was posted in Readings in Secondary Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Translated Theatre

  1. Pingback: Drama, Theatre, and the Korean Shakespeare | Seoul Stages

  2. Pingback: Monkey Business, or: Red Peter’s Return | Seoul Stages

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