Struggling with the Korean Past: Book Review of Plays by Oh Tae-Suk in German Translation

Oh Tae-Suk, Mumiengrab und andere Theaterstücke (c) Edition Peperkorn

(c) Edition Peperkorn

Last summer in Berlin, I received a book for review, a collection of plays by Korean dramatist Oh Tae-Suk (오태석) in German translation: Mumiengrab und andere Theaterstücke (The Grass Tomb and other Plays, Edition Peperkorn, 2013).

Korea Forum 2014 (c) Korea-Verband

Korea Forum 2014 (c) Korea-Verband

I knew one of the translators, Lee Kyungboon (이경분), who I had he pleasure to meet on several occasions at different conferences. Kai Köhler, her co-translator, is known for his research on Korean literature in (German) translation and I finally met him last year, when he hosted my talk on tradition in contemporay Korean theatre at the Korea-Verband. The Korea-Verband also publishes the German-language journal Korea-Forum, for which I wrote my review. Oh yes, the latest edition of Korea-Forum has just been published and can be ordered online.

Here is an appetizer of my review:

Korea Forum 2014 (c) Korea-Verband

But before I go into details, first a quite awkward erratum: Different from my short vita given at the end of the review, I am still writing my PhD-dissertation. I have not received my doctoral “Promotion”. What a difference one “e” makes!

Korea Forum 2014 (c) Korea-Verband

Oh Tae-Suk (c) Mokwha Repertory Company

Oh Tae-Suk (c) Mokwha Repertory Company

And now back to Oh Tae-Suk (for some biographical notes see KLTI): Today he is famous for his “koreanized” Shakespeare-productions that receive international acclaim. Romeo and Juliet or The Tempest, for example, were successfully shown in the UK. (I mention those in some earlier posts.) But Oh has also been active as an experimental playwright since the 1970s. As a regular contributor to the avantgarde theatre performed at the Drama Center (드라마 센타) by the Dongrang Repertory Ensemble (동랑 레파토리 극단) with works such as The Grass Tomb (초분, 1973) or Lifecord (태, 1974), both of which were shown abroad even back then.

The five works presented in this book span two decades and are as follows:

  • Mumiengrab (Grass Tomb*, 초분, 1973)
  • Nachgeburt (Lifecord, 태, 1974)
  • Fahrrad (Bicycle, 자전거, 1983)
  • Nähe von Vater und Sohn (Intimacy between Father and Son, 부자유친, 1987)
  • Vinylhaus (Greenhouse*, 비닐하우스, 1989)

(*) As far as I know, Mumiengrab and Vinylhaus have not yet been translated into English, so the title “Grass Tomb” is taken from Ah-Jeong Kim’s dissertation “The Modern Uses of Tradition in Contemporary Korean Theatre” (Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1995), the title “Greenhouse” is my translation.

The book was quite a tough read, although each of the five plays is not very long. With many blanks that ask to be filled and numerous indirect references to Korean history, both more recent and pre-modern, they clearly deal with the quite peculiar and specific situation of living in contemporary Korea. Nevertheless, as I discuss in more detail in the review, they also offer material for more general thoughts on the human condition, from life under traditional social orders in transformation to the indoctrinating methods of totalitarian systems.

Although productions of Oh’s pieces outside of Korea certainly need a confident and creative director who knows what to build on – and what to cut out –, I am certain that these works offer more than some insights into the Korean world of theatre. Oh is known for his improvisational methods and many of his pieces where for the most part crewted in rehearsal. I hope that someone will pick up some of the treads prepared by Oh Tae-Suk and knit some new sweaters.

Although this is the first German anthology exclusively dedicated to Oh Tae-Suk, there are some more translations of his works available. These are some of his pieces that I could locate:


  • Warum das Mädchen Sim-Tscheong zweimal ins Wasser ging (심청이는 왜 두번 인당수에 몸을 던졌는가, 1990), in: Vier moderne koreanische Theaterstücke, transl. Kim Miy-Hye and Sylvia Bräsel, Göttingen 1996: Peperkorn. (Publisher)


  • Bellflower (도라지, 1994), transl. Yi Hyŏngjin and Richard Nichols, in Modern Korean Drama: An Anthology, ed. Richard Nichols, New York 2009: Columbia University Press. (Publisher, see my review)
  • The Metacultural Theater of Oh T’ae-sok: Five Plays from the Korean Avant-Garde, transl. Ah-Jeong Kim and R. B. Graves, Honolulu 1999: University of Hawai’i Press. (Publisher)
    • Bicycle (자전거, 1983)
    • Intimacy between Father and Son (부자유친, 1987)
    • Lifecord (태, 1974)
    • Ch’un-p’ung’s Wife (충풍의 처, 1976)
    • Why Did Shim Ch’ŏng Plunge into the Sea Twice? (심청이는 왜 두번 인당수에 몸을 던졌는가, 1990)
  • The Drug Peddler (약장사, 1975), transl. Sŏl Sun-bong, in Korea Journal 20.3 (March 1980), pp. 44–54 ((full-text available online), reprinted in: Wedding Day and other Korean Plays, edited by the Korean National Commission for UNESCO, Seoul 1983: Si-sa-yong-o-sa Publishers. (Review)


  • La Bicyclette (자전거, 1983), in: Théâtres Coréens: Sept pièces contemporaines, transl. Im Hye-gyông and Cathy Rapin, Paris/Montréal 1998: L’Harmattan. (Publisher)

In 2004, Kai Köhler had a very interesting interview with Oh Tae-Suk (in German). The dramatist talks about reactions on his works in Korea (“It’s really funny that Korean audiences are by now very much educated in a European way and often are perplexed when facing my plays.”), highlights his particular rhythmic breathing technique that many of his dialogues are based on (“At most 20% of the actors can speak such a rhythm; I’m always very sorry about that.”), explains the situation of theatre in Korea (“Most spectators are curious students who don’t have money … professional life is often so tiring that the young people stay away after passing their exams. The actors usually want to start a family at the age of 35 and then leave my ensemble to work for the TV or the movies where they can earn more money.”), and expresses the hope that his piece Fahrrad might be played in Germany, some day. So far it hasn’t, but now the translation is there—a great chance for what might be a really exciting cross-cultural ghost-ride on the Korean bike.

– 27 March 2015 (金)

  • Oh Tae-Suk, Mumiengrab und andere Theaterstücke (“The Grass Tomb” and other Plays), transl. into German by Lee Kyungboon and Kai Köhler, with an afterword by Kai Köhler, Göttingen 2013: Edition Peperkorn. (Publisher)

About Jan Creutzenberg

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