I was pretty tired after work that day, but my spirits were high as I went over to Seoul Women’s University (서울여자대학교). I was invited to talk on pansori and Brecht there, more specifically on Lee Jaram’s “pansori-Brecht”-piece Sacheon-ga (사천가 / 四川歌), an adaptation of Brecht’s Good Person of Sichuan). Earlier this year, I had presented a paper on this topic at the joint German Lang&Lit Conference. After my presentation, Prof. Shin Hyun Sook (신현숙) had asked me for a guest lecture at her faculty. Now the time had come…
I had rewritten and expanded my paper a bit, providing some introductory notes on Bertolt Brecht and Lee Jaram. I had also streamlined the title of my paper a bit: “판소리와 서사극 사이에: 연극적 대화로서의 이자람의 〈사철가〉” (Between pansori and epic theatre: Lee Jaram’s Sacheon-ga as a theatrical dialogue). Thanks to some days off work (exams and field trip), I had enough time to rehearse.
The presentation went well. Doing what I love to do (and even getting paid for it, this time) was really a great feeling! Some twenty students of German Language and Literature, as well as their teachers, attended the lecture. Afterwards, they asked some very interesting questions. Especially the last one made me think a lot. Boiled down: How can “alienation” work today?
It is often said that the political impetus of Brecht’s pieces (the desire to teach the audience a lesson) has kind of worn of, since the “messages”, maybe revolutionary in Brecht’s time, have become common places and Brecht himself has turned into a modern classic. In Germany, literary critic Hellmuth Karasek declared “Brecht is dead” in 1978, referring to the now proverbial “Brecht-Müdigkeit” (“Brecht-fatigue”).
On the other hand, most genres of Korean gugak, including pansori, are unfamiliar to many Koreans, at least in practice. Apart from specialists or people who are musicians themselves, performances of traditional music or theatre might seem “strange” to many in the audience. In a way, traditional arts nowadays can create a sense of “alienation” and may inspire thoughts about the meaning of the past to modern life in Korea. Of course, the intention of most traditional performances is affirmation rather than the social criticism that Brecht was hoping for, but still…
What happens if an allegorical piece like “The Good Person of Sichuan” is performed using the means of a traditional art like pansori? In my paper I argue for an intriguing mixture of (or rather: oscillation between) familiarity and estrangement. Not so much a “fusion”, but rather, using to the episodic structure of traditional pansori, a juxtaposition of poetic and mundane lyrics, modern and pseudo-traditional quotes, pop and pansori. In short, Sacheon-ga is like a pot of budaejjigae: Everybody will probably find something tasty in there, but at any moment something unexpected might turn up from the spicy broth (I never like the ham—and there should be more beans!).
For the Brechtian, there is the updated and localized political message—but also rather uncritical emotional moments; for the pansori-afficionado, there are some beautiful songs, many allusions to and re-interpretations of the tradition—but also an environment that makes it hard to participate with chuimsae; for the musical-fan (yes, Sacheon-ga also has a bit of that, especially in the later parts), there is the charismatic star, some beautiful pop-songs and a few acrobatic intermezzos—but the minimalistic storytelling and the at times rather outspoken social critique might be a bit disturbing…
Is this the way (postmodern) pansori will go? As a performance more or less disconnected from sponsored tradition, Sacheon-ga has proven quite successful. Since its premiere in 2007, the piece continues to be performed (also by singers other than Lee Jaram) and is regularly invited for oversea performances. When I saw Sacheon-ga again this summer (after two years), I was once again thrilled. In a way, Sacheon-ga has become its own brand, still the continuing transformation of the piece (there were a few allusions to 2013-politics) might keep it fresh.
I couldn’t provide a good answer to the question—neither “on stage” nor now, some days later. But it’s good food for thought that goes right to the core of what interests me about pansori and the arts in general.
Thank you for the great evening to all participants!
— 22 Oct. 2013 (火)
Pictures from the official Facebook page of the Department of German Language and Literature at Seoul Women’s University.