Histories of Korean Theatre, part 1 (Modern Theatre)

Both in order to get a broader knowledge on the recent history of theatre in Korea and quotable reference works, I had been looking for a reliable, up-to-date historiography of Korean theatre for quite a while. A friend suggested Suh Yon-ho’s opus magnus Korean Theatre History (서연호, 『한국연극사』) that so far consists of two volumes, covering the first and the second half of the 20th century, respectively.

In the introductory words on his methodology (ch. 1.1.1 and 1.1.2 are identical in both volumes) Suh distinguishes two general types of historiographic works on theatre:

  • socio-cultural histories of theatre, that is a “history concerning theatre” (연극에 관한 역사, alternatively “theatre in history”), a positivist approach that systematically reconstructs the contexts in which theatre took place and retrospectively evaluates the effects of different styles, movements, productions on society, i.e. their historical significance. Monographies that fall in this category which, according to Suh, make the majority of historical works on Korean theatre, include various general Korean Theatre Histories (한국연극사) by 박진 (1972), 이두현 (1973), 이진순 (1977), 서항석 (1987), to name just a few.
  • aesthetic histories of theatre, that is a “history of theatre” (연극의 역사) that is concerned with the developments of theatrical form or style (양식, 형식) from within the theatre world. Besides KIM Jae-cheol’s classic History of Korean Theatre (김재철,『한국연극사, 근대편』, 1933), one of the earliest academic works on theatre in Korea, the respective studies that Suh lists tend to take a smaller focus, e.g. on popular mask theatre, changgeuk, or productions of Shakespeare.

Suh interprets theatre as “a means to express the spirit of its time” (시대정신의 표현양식),”: “Changes in [theatre-]styles [양식의 변화] reflect the spirit of the times [시대정신]”, i.e. social events turn into artistic material and, the other way around, its reception gives artistic creation social meaning. Therefore, he tries to harmonize these social and aesthetic perspectives, aiming at an “overall perspective” (총체적인 관점) on “theatrical realities” (연극적 현실) by “considering peripheral and central factors [주변적 혹은 중핵적 요인들] at the same time.” (1.1.1)

Nevertheless, his historiography does not follow a strict chronology. Instead of historical events, the periodic division that structures his work is based on stylistic developments. Another methodological premise is the focus on performances as the object of study. Dramatic literature, scripts, and other sources that help to grasp performances retrospectively have to be critically evaluated.

To what extent Suh reaches these goals remains to be seen. So far I have skimmed merely through some of chapters that directly concern my research (e.g. ch. 2.6 “The Situation of Music Theatre” and 2.10 “Modernization of Classics” in the “Modern” volume; 2.4 “Inheritance and Identity Crisis of Changgeuk” and 3.1 “Reception and Acculturation of Epic Theatre” in the “Contemporary” volume).

For now, I provide merely a translation of the extensive table of contents which should give some idea on what to expect. Later I plan to translate or at least comment on certain key passages, probably from the chapters mentioned above.

So let’s start with the first volume on Modern Theatre in Korea which roughly covers the Colonial Period, from 1900 (pre-colonial Japanese exertion of influence) until 1950 (post-war ideological struggles just before the Korea War). In one sentence, Suh locates the establishment of modern theatre in Korea (indoor, for a paying public, based on dramatic literature) as a process that is characterized by “competitions between three different types of theatrical forms” which are popular sinpa-style theatre, the tradition-based hybrid changgeuk, and intellectual-political realistic theatre aka singeuk.

Depending on common usage and necessity, I translate or transliterate technical terms, providing the hangeul-spelling, necessary explanations and occasional links in brackets, longer definitions as footnotes. As each sub-chapter of the main part two deals with a specific theatre style or school, I highlight these designation in the headline.

Suh Yon-ho, Korean Theatre History: Modern Theatre.

Foreword (9-10)

CHAPTER ONE: Introduction

1. Methodology of Korean Theatre History (19-32)

2. The Cultural Basis for the Formation of Modern Theatre (33-62)

CHAPTER TWO: The Establishment of Modern Theatre and Stylistic Differentiation

1. The Establishment of Dramatic Literature and Early Works (65-77)

2. The Establishment and Extinction of Korean Sinpa Theatre (79-122)

3. The Transformation and Development of Changgeuk (123-156)

4. The Introduction and Expansion of Realist Theatre (157-215)

5. Trends and Continuities of Popular Theatre (217-258)

6. The Boom of Musical Theatre (259-281)

7. Germination and Growth of Proletarian Theatre (283-318)

8. Attempts at Expressionism (319-328)

9. Historical Theatre and Demands of the Times (329-345)

10. The Modernization of Classics (347-357)

11. A Reconsideration of the Actual Circumstances of Pro-Japanese Propaganda Theatre (359-404)


1. Stylistic Value and Meaning of Modern Theatre (407-418)

2. Abstract in Japanese (419-431) and English (432-441)

Index (443-455)



CHAPTER ONE: Introduction

1. Methodology of Korean Theatre History

1) “Theatre in History” (연극에 관한 역사) or “History of Theatre” (연극의 역사)
2) Range of Study and Stylistic Categorization
3) Conception and Periodic Division of Modern Theatre
4) Modern Styles and Their Korean Reception

2. The Cultural Basis for the Formation of Modern Theatre

1) The Arrival of Japanese Theatre
2) The Policy of the Japanese Resident-General (Tonggambu, 통감부)
3) The System of Censorship
4) The Establishment of Theatres
5) The Rise of a New Type of Audience
6) The Idea of Enlightenment (Gaehwa Sasang, 개화사상)
7) The Movement for the Unification of Spoken and Written Language (Eonmun Ilchi, 언문일치) and the Publication of Novels
8) Limits of Reception and Creation

CHAPTER TWO: The Establishment of Modern Theatre and Stylistic Differentiation

1. The Establishment of Dramatic Literature and Early Works

1) Early Narrative Theatre (hwasul-geuk, 화술극) and Original Plays (changjak huigok, 창작희곡)
2) »Byeongja Samin«* and the Essence of Narrative Theatre
3) The Theatrical Understanding of Stage and Reality
* »Byeongja Samin« (<병자삼인>, “Three Sick Men”) by Jo Il-jae (조일재, 1863–1944) is considered the first original Korean drama. Published in a daily paper in 1912, this adaptation of a Japanese shimpa piece called 優勝劣敗 (“Survival of the Fittest”) was never performed, however. Cf. a paper written in Korean by Kim Jae-suk and another by Woo Su-jin.

2. The Establishment and Extinction of Korean Sinpa Theatre

1) New Theatre (sinyeongeuk, 신연극), Shimpa Theatre (sinpa-geuk, 신파극), Korean Sinpa Theatre (sinpajo-geuk, 신파조극)*
2) The Star System
3) From Adapted Plays (beonan-geuk, 번안극) to Kino-Drama (yeonswae-geuk, 연쇄극)
4) The Difference between “Adapted Plays” and “Original Plays” (wonjak-geuk, 원작극)
5) Sentimental Narration and Exaggerated Acting
6) Transition and Extinction of Sinpa
7) The Significance of Sinpajo-geuk (신파조극)
* I translate sinpajo-geuk (신파조극) as “Korean Sinpa Theatre” because Suh uses this historic term to differentiate between Japanese Shimpa and Korean Sinpa. Both are popular and commercial forms of theatre—the Korean version being a reaction to the Japanese—with different historical trajectories and meanings. As both words consist of the same hanja 新派, they are consequently written the same way in hangeul. Shimpa (as well as sinpa) means “new school” or “new style” and was termed in opposition to kyūha (舊派), “old style”, in this case generelly referring to kabuki and other (Japanese) theatre traditions which shimpa seeked to modernize. Suh adds the syllable –jo (조 / 調), changing the meaning to kind of “in the mode of shimpa/sinpa“, with the aim of using it in a wider sense that includes various forms of “Korean-style melodrama” (한국적인 멜로드라마), not only those modeled on Japanese precursors.

3. The Transformation and Development of Changgeuk

1) New Theatre (sinyeongeuk, 신연극), Changgeukjo (창극조), “Divided-Role Singing” (bunchang, 분창), Changgeuk (창극)*
2) The Differenciation of Characters and “Divided-Role Singing”
3) The Changgeuk-Movement and the Gwangdae (광대, old-school pansori-singers)
4) The Original-Changgeuk »Eunsegye«**
5) Performance Tours and the Expansion of Changgeuk Scripts
6) The Korean Vocal Music Association (Joseon Seongak Yeonguhoe, 조선성악연구회) and the Changgeuk Ensembles
7) The History of Gukgeuk (국극, “national theatre”) and Yeosong Gukgeuk (여성국극, “female national theatre”)
8) The Significance of Changgeuk
* Changgeuk is a “traditionesque” form of staged pansori that emerged in the Colonial Period. Instead of translating the word as “Singing Theatre” or “Traditional (Korean) Opera”, I chose to retain the original term. For an extensive study on the history and the present state of changgeuk (as well as on yeoseong gukgeuk, a related genre performed exclusively by women) see Andrew Killick’s excellent recent book In Search of Korean Traditional Opera (http://www.uhpress.hawaii.edu/p-6141-9780824832902.aspx)
** »Eunsegye« (<신세계>, “Silver World”) by pro-Japanese, reform-oriented writer Yi In-jik (이인직, 1862–1916) is often discussed as either the first production of singeuk (신극, “new theatre”; at that time, this term referred to the style nowadays known as sinpa or sinpacho-gŭk, see above) as Yi saw himself as a reformer of “old” pansori, or the first recorded performance of the hybrid music theatre later called changgeuk (see * above). See also my 2008 review of a memorial production that celebrated “100 Years of Modern Korean Theatre”, a historical re-imagination of the production process of »Eunsegye« by Bae Sam-sik (배삼식) that “puts the focus more on the actual theater makers … than the playwright Yi, whose reputation still suffers from his pro-Japanese attitude.”

4. The Introduction and Expansion of Realist Theatre

1) New Drama (singeuk, 신극), Realism (rieollijeum, 리얼리즘), Realist Theatre (sasil-geuk, 사실극)
2) The Genealogy of Realism (sasil-juui, 사실주의)
3) The Germination (발아) of Realism
4) The Domiciliation of Realism
5) The Expansion of Realism
6) The Significance of Realist Theatre

5. Trends and Continuities of Popular Theatre

1) Amusement Theatre (heunghaeng-geuk, 흥행극), Interludes (junggan-geuk, 중간극), Movie Interpreter Theatre (byeonsa-geuk, 변사극), Popular Theatre (daejung-geuk, 대중극)
2) Nonsense, Sketches, Jokes, Amusement
3) The Dongyang Theatre*, Resident Troupes, Professionalisation
4) Melodrama (멜로드라마) after the 1930s
5) Farce (파스) after the 1930s
6) The Signficance of Popular Theatre
* The Dongyang Theatre (동양극장, 1930–40) was a private theatre in Seoul, the center of colonial popular theatre.

6. The Boom of Musical Theatre

1) Music Theatre (eumak-geuk, 음악극), Singing Theatre (gageuk, 가극), Musical Theatre (akgeuk, 악극)*
2) The Formation of Musical Theatre
3) Musical Theatre by the Companies Chwiseongjwa (취성좌, 1918–29) and Towolhoe (토월회, 1923–31)
4) The Musical Company Samcheon (삼천가극단)
5) Musical Theatre in the 1940s and 50s
6) The Significance of Musical Theatre
* Varying technical terms that got intermingled in use but designate different kinds of “theater that incorporates music” here: eumak-geuk is the most general term; gageuk is “theatre done by singing”, which technically includes changgeuk (see above), but is usually used for genres based on Western music such as opera; akgeuk, which I translated as “musical theatre” (although it is technically a predecessor to Western Broadway-style musicals that began to bloom after the Korean War under the influence of the US), is “theatre that harmonizes dialogue, movement, songs, dance and light (or popular) music”. It was modeled 

7. Germination and Growth of Proletarian Theatre

1) Tendentious Theatre (gyeonghyang-geuk, 경향극), Proletarian Theatre (peuro-geuk, 프로극), Leftist Theatre (jwaik-geuk, 좌익극), Revolutionary Theatre (hyeokmyeong-geuk, 혁명극)
2) Foundation and Background of Proletarian Theatre
3) The Re-organisation of KAPF and the Proliferation of Proletarian Theatre*
4) Proletarian Theatre by Ethnic Koreans in Japan (재일 조선인)
5) Leftist Theatre after Independence
6) Formation and Unfolding of Leftist Theatre
7) North Korean Theatre
8) The Significance of Proletarian Theatre
* KAPF (카프): Korea Artista Proleta Federatio (조선프롤레타리아예술동맹, 1925–35), a left-wing writers’ society.

8. Attempts at Expressionism

1) The Introduction of Expressionism (pyohyeon-juui, 표현주의)*
2) Kim U-jin’s (김우진, 1897–1926) Pioneer Work
3) Kim Gi-rim’s (김기림, 1908–?) Partial Attempts
4) Jeon Chang-geun’s (전창근, 1908–73) Partial Attempts
5) The Significance of Expressionism
* Apart from a production of Reinhard Goering’s tragedy »Seeschlacht« (“Sea Battle”, 해전 / 海戰, German original published in 1917, Korean premiere in 1932), Expressionism in colonial Korea remained rather literary.

9. Historical Theatre and Demands of the Times

1) Period Plays (sidae-geuk, 시대극) and Historical Theatre (yeoksa-geuk, 역사극)
2) The Historical Theatre Movement (Yeoksa-geuk Undong, 역사극운동)
3) Historical Theatre by Yu Chi-jin (유치진, 1905–74), Im Seon-gyu (임선규, 1912–70), and Ham Se-deok (함세덕, 1915–50)
4) Historical Theatre after Independence
5) The Significance of Historical Theatre

10. The Modernization of Classics

1) Classics, Parody, Modernization
2) Bak Seung-hui’s (박승희, 1901–64) »Baebijang-jeon« (<배비장전>, 1928)*
3) Yu Chi-jin’s (유치진, 1905–74) »Chunhyang-jeon« (<춘향전>, 1936) *
4) Chae Man-sik’s (채만식, 1902–50) »Simbeongsa« (<심봉사>, 1936) *
5) The Significance of the Modernization of Classics
* These plays are based on traditional stories that belong to the repertoire of pansori.

11. A Reconsideration of the Actual Circumstances of Pro-Japanese Propaganda Theatre

1) Four Types of Propaganda Theatre: Gukchaek-geuk (국책극), Gungmin-geuk (국민극), Gugeo-geuk (국어극), Gyeoljeon-geuk (결전극)*
2) The Theatre World after the (Second) Sino-Japanese War (1937–45)
3) The Korean Theatre Association (Choseon Yeongeuk Hyeophoe, 조선연극협회) and the Korean Theatre and Culture Association (Choseon Yeongeuk Munhwa Hyeophoe, 조선연극문화협회)
4) National Drama Competition (Gungmin Yeongeuk Gyeongyeon Daehoe, 국민연극경연대회)
5) The Role of the Hyeondae Ensemble (극단 현대극장, 1941–45)
6) The Mobile Theatre (Idong Yeongeuk, 이동연극, 1941–45?) and the Theatre Talent Show (연극인총궐기 예능제, 1944)**
7) Resistance against Pro-Japanese Theatre (chinil-geuk, 친일극)
8) Form and Influence of Pro-Japanese Theatre
* These types of propaganda theatre were supported by the Japanese government-general. Gukchaek-geuk (“national policy”) is “theatre that backs up and propagates the Japanese Empire’s war policies”; Gungmin-geuk (“[a nation’s] people”) is “theatre that suggests that Korean people become subjects of the Japanese Emperor, i.e. people of Japan”; Gugeo-geuk (“national language”) is “theater performed in Japanese”; Gyeoljeon-geuk (“decisive battle”) is “theatre that agitates for a victorious progress in the Pacific war”.
** The Mobile Theatre consisted of travelling ensembles that, performing recreational shows around the country “to mobilize productive capacity of the rural area in wartime.” (see a paper by Lee Hwa-jin, another by Lee Dukgi that focuses on the Hyeondae Ensemble). The “Talent Show” was organised by the Japanese authorities in late 1944. A collective of famous theatremakers created the production »Bunno-haneun Asia« (<분노하는 아시아>, “Asia in Rage”) to gather spirits for a counterattack against the Allied Forces.


1. Stylistic Value and Meaning of Modern Theatre

2. Abstract in Japanese and English


— 15 Apr.  2011 (金)

  • 서연호,『한국연극사, 근대편』, 연극과 인간 2003.
  • SUH Yon-ho, Korean Theatre History: Modern Theatre, Yeongeuk-gwa Ingan, 2003.

About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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One Response to Histories of Korean Theatre, part 1 (Modern Theatre)

  1. Pingback: (One of) the First Theatre(s) in Seoul was Here! | Seoul Stages

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