Valentin’s Day or: Here Come the Clowns

Karl Valentin, by caricaturist Franziska Bilek, via wikimedia commonsKarl Valentin (1882-1948) was a comedian avant la lettre, a regular on the stages of Southern Germany during the Weimar Republic. Usually performing alone or with his long-time stage partner (and lover) Liesl Karlstadt, he got a reputation for his linguistic nonsense, constant use of strong Bavarian dialect, and clownish slapstick (sometimes he was referred to as the “Charlie Chaplin of Germany”), making him a forerunner of stand-up comedy. Caricaturist Franziska Bilek immortalized his silhouette. (For information on Valentin’s works see the official memorial homepage)

Valentin attracted attention from beerhouse crowds as well as students and intellectuals. Bertolt Brecht, too, was a great fan (and occasional collaborator). In fact, Brecht attributes major inspiration for his theory of the epic theatre to Valentin’s anarchistic attitude towards theatre. Having staged numerous plays by Brecht and his successors, this might have been a reason for the Korean ensemble Street Theatre Troupe (연희단거리패) to present an evening devoted to Valentin.

연희단거리패, 변두리극장, via doyoart.com

via doyoart.com

For his omnibus revue Byeonduri Geukjang (변두리극장), director O Dong-sik (오동식) chose several scenes from Valentin’s repertory of comic routines and staged them with a great cast of seven actors. The director himself, dressed with a bowler hat and a wig, greeted the guests in front of the Guerilla Theatre (게릴라극장) and lead them inside.

Where to begin? After finishing work I arrived early in Daehang-no, about 30 minutes before the scheduled beginning of the performance at eight. I waited in front of the theatre for a while, had a cigarette and bought a memorial brochure of the Troupe (they turned 25 this season) and then went in—only to find out that the show had already started: While a tall young woman guided the spectators to their respective seats, a magician (none other than the great Lee Seng-heon 이승헌 whose face I knew quite well from repeatedly watching his performance of Hamlet) was presenting his skills to the growing crowd. Mostly harmless, except maybe for a small box that, when touched let out a small rubber gecko that scared some people quite a bit.

Then, still some time before eight, another man entered the stage, sat down and read from today’s newspaper, commenting on current affairs and asking members of the audience for their opinion. The next scene seems to have been taken from Valentin’s piece “Der Theaterbesuch” (adapted as a short film in 1934, see an excerpt of a 2006 production “live from the Malzhaus Plauen”): A couple plans the eponymous “night at the theatre”, discussing how to communicate the news to their son and details such as the fact that the show might begin earlier than the expected eight o’clock—an ironic nod to the situation we were just faced with.

Episodes such as these made a fine night. Numerous short sketches were hold together by an ongoing orchestra rehearsal (scenes obviously taken from Valentin’s “Orchesterprobe”, 1933), with Lee Seng-heon as an eccentric (but all so human) director oscillating between a pale Beethoven and the Heath Ledger’s Joker from the last Batman movie. Half a dozen actors played piano, cello, drum, and various brass instruments, dubbed (or doubled?) by a loud recording. An interesting effect was that at several points it was virtually undecidable whether some parts of the music were produced live on stage or merely pantomimed.

The full orchestra, via doyoart.com

The full orchester, with 이승헌 directing in the centre, via doyoart.com

All in all a breathtaking show, not least thanks to the fact that—against expectations—I could understand most of the rather simple, sometimes repetitive dialogues. Every actor had his or her moment, from the wigged diva who “sang” behind a closed curtain to the musicians who surprised again and again with in-tongue grotesqueness.

The gwangdae, via doyoart.com

Some of the gwangdae, via doyoart.com

All actors were designated as gwangdae (광대) e.g. the dancing gwandae (춤추는 광대, actress 배미향), the nit-picking gwangdae (딴지 거는 광대, actor 홍민수), or the sloppy gwangdae (어설픈 광대, actor 오동식), to name just a few. The term gwangdae can be translated as “clown”, which would be fitting for this kind of cabaret theatre. However, the term is also used for performers of traditional Korean artistry such as tightrope-walking or juggling and, most interesting for me, also singers of pansori. While there exist other ways of designating a pansori performer—sorikkun (소리꾼, lit. “sound-maker”), myeongchang (명창, “master singer”), or simply changja (창자, “singer”) come to mind, the term gwangdae stresses the proletarian, “travelling people” roots of the art.

This fits the Street Theatre Troupe quite well, as its original Korean name—yeonhuidan georipae (연희단거리패)—draws heavily on “traditional” imagery: yeonhui is a designation for pre-dramatic performing arts such as the ones mentioned above; the suffix –pae describes a group, gang, or “troupe” of (often travelling) performers. As the word geori includes the meaning “street”, the ensemble’s translated name, while rendering most of the original meaning, lacks the reference to traditional theatrical arts.

In fact, many of the Street Theatre Troupe’s productions include techniques, themes, and others allusions to folkloric forms of theatre. The Valentin-revue, however, is decidedly modern—or, rather, contemporary. While the show is called “Kabarett theatre” (interestingly rendered 광대극, i.e. “clowns’ theatre” in Korean), refering to political satire shows in Berlin in the 1920s, some jokes, including the interactive newspaper sketch, refer to recent events (thus reviving the day-to-day comedy of 1920s Kabarett), and even more involve the concrete situation of watching theatre. In other words: making the audience aware of their position and drawing them into the performance.

Although the meta-theatrical tenor of the performance got kind of lost as it went on, the intimate location—a steep black-box stage—, the episodic structure, the direct addressing of the audience, the dadaist humor, and not least the frequent musical performances (or make-beliefs thereof) allowed for a dense atmosphere of communal enjoyment beyond the fourth wall. In any case I had not laughed so hard at the theatre for quite a while.

See this award-winning blog for some more first-hand impressions and take a look at the “theatrical trailer”:

As Lee Youn-taek (이윤택), founder and artistic director of the Street Theatre Troupe, notes in the pamphlet, the title of the show, Byeonduri Geukjang (변두리 극장), literally “a theatre at the outskirts [of town]”, is quite fitting also for the Guerilla Theatre which is located a bit apart from the main theatre venues in Daehang-no. Lee further expresses his hope that the spectators clench their teeth, withstand the harsh weather and social alienation, and struggle to find their way to this peripheral place. Well, I found my way and I did not regret it. As long as shows like this exists, getting out for a night at the theatre will always be worthwhile. Or am I just an optimist, according to Valentin “someone who does not take things as tragic as they really are”?

Helge Schneider, (c) AngMoKio, via wikimedia commons

(c) AngMoKio, via Wikimedia

On a side note, I just read that Helge Schneider, possibly the greatest living film maker, musician, and clown in Germany (although not Bavarian) won the “Great Karl Valentin Award”: two buckets of paint. (get some impressions at GettyImages, read a German-language report at Süddeutsche Zeitung)

— 18 Jan. 2012 (水)

  • 카를 발렌틴, 〈변두리극장〉, 연희단거리패, 게릴라극장, 2012년 1월 18일 (수), 19.30시~21.30시까지, 가구역 22변.
  • Karl Valentin, Byeonduri Geukjang, Street Theatre Troupe, Guerilla Theatre, 2012-01-18 (Wed.), 19.30-21.30 p.m., 가구역 22번.

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 Valentin’s Day or: Here Come the Clowns

  1. Pingback: Back Home: Seoul Stages Just Turned Five Years | Seoul Stages

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