Foundlings: The Dwarf Ensemble (Theatre and Globalization 1)

This spring I joined a class on “Theatre and Globalization” at Coursera to give this MOOC-thing a try. The class is run by Christopher Balme and his team of the Research Project “Global Theatre Histories” at LMU München (see also the blog of the related “Theatre Scapes”-project on Mapping Theatre Histories. Although in my research I do not focus on theatre history, I thought the class might be a good chance to learn more about the world of theatre and dig a bit into the checkered annals of Korea’s recent history.

Also, the class promised connections with participants from all over the world. In fact, I was astonished about the sheer variety of backgrounds and interests of those who introduced themselves in the forum (a small fraction of the 3000 participants in total). This is my attempt at the first assignment: Find an article from a newspaper published a hundred years ago…

Maeil Sinbo, March 2nd, 1915 (page 3), via Media Gaon (click for link to PDF-file)

Maeil Sinbo, March 2nd, 1915 (page 3), via Media Gaon (click for link to PDF-file)

Unfortunately, the thousands of articles and comments by the participants are not publicly available (yet?) and peer-reviewing turned out to be a rather simple check of credentials, rather than actually commenting on the found material. In any case, this is my take on the anonymous article about a visiting theatre troupe of “dwarves” I found in the Maeil Sinbo (매일 신보 / 每日申報, lit. “Daily News”) from March 2nd, 1915 (page 3, row 6, column 3, available as a pdf via the “Media Gaon”-database 미디어 가온).


I used the “Media Gaon”-database, a meta-searchengine run by the Korea Press Foundation. The English-language version is mainly aimed at foreign journalists and pretty much useless for historical research, but the main page in Korean offers access to newspapers from the late 19th and early 20th century.

It proved difficult to find English-language coverage of events in 1915. Although a few English-language newspapers (and English-language sections) existed, most of them had to cease publication in the early years of the 20th century. Publishing in English was mainly a means of pro-independent (thus anti-Japanese) activists which, given the official annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910 and the rather suppressive censorship politics, seems to be the main cause of their shut-down.

Therefore, for this assignment I chose a short note in Korean in the March 2nd 1915 edition of Maeil Sinbo on a touring company of “Russian dwarves”. The article is on page three, in row six, column three from the left. In the linked pdf-file (which shows the whole page three), it can be identified by the empty square in front of the title.

The article is written in an old form of the Korean script hangeul, which looks a bit different from texts today. A friend helped me to transcribe this old hangeul to a modern version, which I then translated rather freely, focusing on the information rather than readability (see below).

The article does not mention anything about the actual performance but focuses entirely on the unusual “dwarf” actors. Although two theatre genres (comedy and musical drama) are mentioned, it is not entirely clear whether these were performed by the ensemble or whether the author has actually seen a performance. The touring route of the Russian ensemble mentioned consists of three cities in what is today North-East China. At that point, Beijing and Tianjin were part of China, while Dalian was part of Manchuria, an area north of the Korean peninsula that was under heavy influence by Japan, but with Russia nearby. The article suggests that cultural transfers (such as touring theatre ensembles) could proceed despite rising tensions between China, Japan, and Russia in that region. The author of the article seems to be a correspondent in Manchuria, as the article does not mention any performances in Korea. The curiosity and surprise about the “dwarf”-actors suggests that similar performances had not toured all the way down to Korea, or at least not regularly.

The article exoticizes the visual peculiarity of the “dwarf”-actors and praises their artistic skills. The focus on their bodily features, in total absence of any words about a play, on first view might suggest something like a “freak show” or a cabinet of curiosities. But the reference to the Russian Imperial Theatre, as well as the use of specific Korean terminology that was at that time (as far as I know) specifically used for Western-style theatre (such as actor, stage, comedy) makes it quite safe to assume that the ensemble was performing theatre. Further research on the Russian Imperial Theatre, its ensemble members, and its touring programs should help to clarify the context of the performance reported here.


Dwarf Theatre Ensemble

Actors of the Russian Imperial Theatre have come through Beijing and Tianjin to Dalian. The ensemble, headed by someone called “Nagobuiriseuki”, is a curious one. It consists of ten actors who are all small in size, charming Russian dwarves. The smallest one among them is “Sereuhuyenowa”, a girl of 15 years, who is only about 72 cm high. The biggest one is about 90 cm high. It is surprising that there are people of such small size among the Russians, who are famous for their tall size. Originally, people whose bodies are similar in size to normal people but who have amusingly short hands and legs were called “dwarf”. But the whole body development of these Russian actors seems even and their appearance is handsome, they are really very actor-like. When these people go up on stage and play they are truly charming and amazing, whether it is a comedy or a musical drama. (Maeil Sinbo, March 2, 1915)

"Dwarf Theatre Ensemble", Maeil Sinbo, March 2nd, 1915 (page 3, row 6, column 3), via Media Gaon

“Dwarf Theatre Ensemble”, Maeil Sinbo, March 2nd, 1915 (page 3, row 6, column 3), via Media Gaon

난쟁이 연극단

아라사(러시아) 대실(?) 극장 배우라 칭하고 북경, 텐진 등지를 지나 대련으로 온 진묘한(진기하고 묘한) 연극단이 있는데, 그 두목(을) ’나고부이리스키’라 칭하고 배우 십여 인은 못 다 적고 사랑스러운 러시아 사람의 난쟁이이니 그중 제일 적은 것은 ’세르후예노와’라 칭하는 열여섯 살 되는 계집아이인데 키가 두 자 네 치 (2척 4촌 = 약 72 cm)에 지나지 못하고 그중 제일 큰 것이 석 자 (3척 = 약 90 cm) 밖에 못되니 큰 사람으로 유명한 러시아 사람 중 이러한 적은 사람이 있는 것은 진기한 일이요, 원래 난쟁이라 하는 것은 몸둥이는 보통 사람과 같고 손과 다리만 짧고 지극히 우습게 된 것인데 이 러시아 난쟁이 배우는 오체의 발달이 균일하고 용모가 수려하여 참 배우다운 사람들이요, 이 사람들이 무대에 오르고 희극이라든지 가극이라든지 하는 것은 참 사랑스럽고 진기하다더라. (매일신보 1915년3월2일)

– 22 Feb. 2015 (日)

About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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