Drama, Theatre, and the Korean Shakespeare

Last Christmas, Charles Montgomery of the blog “Korean Literature in Translation” wrote a short but thought-provoking post on the role of drama (i.e. dramatic literature) in Korea. Referencing a paper by Chan E. Park and the Wikipedia-entry on “Korean Theatre”, he threw up some quite provocative questions that I gave some thoughts over the holidays:

What is the public recognition/importance of drama in Korea?

So why is drama, apparently, not that important in literature?

So, is it safe to say that dramatic theater is essentially an import, that hasn’t really impacted the larger culture?

My answer, originally intended to be a short comment, grew longer and longer. Here is what I came up with:

First of all, I think the distinction between theatre (=performance) and drama (=literature) that Chan E. Park makes is essential.

I begin with drama: I agree that drama is not that important in (Korean) literature. But isn’t that the same anywhere? Except for a handful of classics like Shakespeare or Goethe (authors whose works we read mostly at school or college), drama doesn’t really play such a big role once we leave the theatre, does it? How many dramatists in the fullest sense are there, that are not hired by theatres, either by direct commission or through contests, resideny programs and the like? At least that’s how I see it in Germany, and I think the situation in Korea is similar. (Anyway, there are many quite prolific Korean dramatists, you can find a list of some recent anthologies of translated Korean drama on my blog. Of the listed works, I liked “O Chang-gun’s Toenail” by Pak Choyeol very much.)

The close relation between dramatic writing and theatre practice is not surprising and hardly a modern phenomenon: Shakespeare wrote for the actors, not for the book shelf, Brecht had his own ensemble (and uncredited co-writing team), and the Greeks were directors of their own plays. In Korea, too, many (if not most) of the famous playwrights are also practitioners, such as Lee Yun-taek (이윤택) and “his” Street Theater Troupe (연희단거리패), Oh Tae-sok (오태석) and the Mokhwa Company (극단목화). Or Yu Chijin (유치진, 1905–74), maybe the most famous modern Korean dramatist who wrote plays since the colonial period and became the first director of the National Theater after World War 2.

In sum, I’d say that drama as a literary genre is not less important in Korea than in other countries. In fact I was quite surprised how many editions of contemporary drama are available here. Even at the rather small (though well equipped) Hongik Mungo they had multi-volume editions of the works of Lee, Oh and others. I’m not sure about other countries, but in Germany you would be rather lucky to find any current drama in a store of similar size (that is, of a living author – of course there’d be Brecht & Co).

Now theatre: Is it unimportant in Korea, as the short Wikipedia-entry might suggest? No, not at all! Whoever has seen the bustling crowds in Daehangno would agree – maybe the audiences just use other online sites (there are many, many blogs of happy theatre-goers, including the obligatory ticket shot). Of course, there is much less non-Korean research on Korean theatre than, say, on Korean music, literature, or cinema.

But isn’t dramatic theatre “essentially an import, that hasn’t really impacted the larger culture”? In my opinion: Yes and no. Of course, many of the pieces performed by high profile ensembles are Western plays or, more precisely, Western classics. But it’s been a while since the first Western plays were performed in Korea in the early 20th century – surprisingly, also quite a lot of works contemporary at that time, such as Expressionist dramas from Germany. I don’t see a reason to consider dramatic theatre a Western thing per se. (Interestingly, in Korean there is a distinction between “translated plays” 번역극 and “created plays” 창작극, the latter being plays written by Korean authors, thus without need for translation. See my older post on translated theatre.)

With that in mind, I think the question should be not that much about East & West, but more about old & new. In Germany, more than half (I’d guess about 60–70%) of all new theatre productions are classics (even if they are from the 20th century). In Korea, it’s probably more or less similar, though once again, I’d guess that in Korea you’d still find more new pieces by living authors than in Germany—that is, if you go beyond the National Theater or Seoul Arts Center.

Finally, I often read that there was no “theatre” in pre-modern Korea. Even if that refers to dramatic theatre (i.e. performances based on a written text), I think that’s not the whole story. True, pansori might be considered musical storytelling (although I think it makes more sense to think of it as monodrama), but there is also mask dance play and puppetry, both performing arts that feature spoken text. Being folk arts, the scripts wouldn’t necessarily have been written down and published until much later, but now you can get printed editions of these “Korean” dramas, too.

That being said, of course folk drama is different from upper class-literati theatre, same thing in the west (e.g. Christian passion plays, commedia dell’arte etc.). When talking about traditional theatre, Korean historians tend to focus on the folk arts, but there were also more “privileged” forms of theatre. Jungman Park, for example, wrote about “Gwolhui, a Theatre of the Confucian Students in the Chosun Dynasty” (in Asian Theatre Journal, vol. 28, no. 2, Fall 2011, available for subscribers at Project Muse).

To sum it up:

Theatre in Korea today? yes, and very important (I think). Drama in Korea today? yes. Important? Not so much. Theatre in Korea, earlier? yes, quite a lot, but much of it orally transmitted. Thus: Drama in Korea, earlier? yes, a bit…

Oh, and about the “Korean Shakespeare”: There is Shin Chaehyo, not a playwright, but an compiler-editor (and sponsor) of pansori in the mid–19th century. I wouldn’t call him “Korean Shakespeare”, but others do, maybe refering to the fact that Shakespeare, too, was creative “editor” of existing stories.

PS: Who is Orton?

– 29 Dec. 2013 (日)


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 Spoken Drama and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Drama, Theatre, and the Korean Shakespeare

  1. CB says:

    What a nice blog entry, Jan. I will be forwarding it to a colleague here at 외대 who is starting a little comparative research project.

  2. Thanks, CedarBough! Hope I got the part on 탈놀이 right — are the texts today more or less fixed, like in pansori?

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