Rest in Peace, William Cleary

A college musical version of Chunhyang-jeon (춘향전, “The Story of Chunhyang”), from the 60s, in English? Quite a while ago, I had read somewhere about Chun Hyang Song—the title is a tricky word-play with the heroines family name—and stumbled upon it again just now. When I googled for the contacts of William Cleary, writer and composer of the work and a professor at Sogang University back then, I found an obituary and was surprised to see that he passed away just a few days ago, at the age of eighty-five.

As I read the article, I learned a bit about what seems to have been an interesting life. Born in 1926,

[h]e served in the Navy from 1944-1946, entered the Jesuit order in 1947 and studied at Saint Louis University. He spent 22 years as a Jesuit, teaching literature, music and drama. In 1964, while teaching at Sogang University in Seoul, Korea, he wrote “Chun Hyang Song”, a musical comedy based on a Korean folk tale. It was revived for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and again in 2006 at Seoul’s Co-Ex Theater.

Chun Hyang Song has been published in the anthology A Yang for Every Yin: Dramatizations of Korean Classics, edited by John Holstein (Seoul Selection, 2005). The volume contains several other theatrical versions of famous folk tales such as Tokki-jeon (토끼전, “The Story of the Rabbit”, better known as a the pansori piece 수궁가, Sugung-ga, “The Song of the Underwater Palace”) or Heungbo-jeon (흥보전, “The Story of Heungbo [and Nolbo]”). In the book’s preface, Holstein talks about the origin’s of the musical:

The students needed a play in English, the teacher was interested in Korean culture—and the rest is history. So to speak. […] The writer of Chun Hyang Song started off in a big way. He wrote the script and the music of the full two-act musical for a full-scale production. At popular demand it soon encored to an even larger audience off campus. A few years later it was performed again at another major university. It was most recently selected for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul as the play that would show Korea’s best-loved story to the world, and was produced with a bigger budget and to wider acclaim. […] I saw William Cleary’s Chun Hyang Song back around 1984, when our English Department students at Sungkyunkwan University performed it, and I have been humming its tunes ever since.

An excerpt of Chun Hyang Song is available at John Holstein’s homepage (pdf) and some soundbites—recordings from the 1988 performance—can be found on Cleary’s homepage which also features information on his other works, as well as some interesting comments on matters related to the Catholic church.

There must be some records in the archives of Sogang University… Maybe sometime I’ll have the chance to view some footage from the original performance. Or some of Cleary’s former students stages a memorial revival. Time will tell.

— 12 May 2012 (土)

Dedicated to the memory of William Cleary (12.12.1926 – 3.5.2012)


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 Rest in Peace, William Cleary

  1. Tom Cleary says:

    Dear Jan Creutzenberg, Thanks very much for this blog entry on my father’s work. I grew up listening to him singing the music of ‘Chun Hyang Song’ and as a result am a pianist and music director. I am just doing some research now on gathering recordings of the show, and working with John Holstein. He would be delighted to have been remembered in this way for his work. Sincerely, Tom Cleary, Essex Junction, VT, USA

  2. Roddy O'Neil Cleary says:

    Thanks Jan, Your blog entry lit up my heart. Bill was a total joy to be married to for 43 years! You can imagine how I miss him. He died in the faith that he was “going home”. And I share that belief. We were blest with two gifted sons who continue his musical legacy. Bill continued to be beautifully productive and buoyant throughout his lifetime. Once again, thank you!

  3. Dear Mrs O’Neil Cleary, dear Mr. Cleary,
    thank you both for your heart-warming messages – and sorry for my late reply. I’m happy that you enjoyed my post. When I wrote it over a year ago, I had no idea that someone of Bill Cleary’s family would read it sometime on the other side of the globe…
    It’s good to hear about the research in his work, too. Please let me know how it is going and if I can help in any way!
    I send you my best regards from Seoul.
    Sincerely, Jan Creutzenberg

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