I had been on the lookout for this for quite a while, knowing it must be somewhere around Gwanghwamun, but I couldn’t find it, until today. Running for the bus, I almost missed it again. But then I stopped and took a closer look.
This memorial stone, installed in 1991, is located a bit down the Saemunan Road (새문안로), from Gwanghwamun station (exit 7) to the West, in front of Saemoonan Presbyterian Church (새문안 교회), to be exact at 37.570184°N 126.973816°E. This information is from the homepage of the Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA, 한국콘텐츠진흥원), which provides some cursory details in addition to the following inscription:
원각사 터 圓覺社 址 우리 나라에서 처음으로 세워진 극장 원각사 있었던 곳. 1909년 이인직(李人稙1882–1916)의 설중매, 은세계등이 공연되었음.
Location of the Wongaksa [This is] the place where the Wongaksa was, the first theatre built in Korea. In the year 1909, the pieces Seoljungmae (“New Year’s Wedding Brokerage”), Eunsegye (“Silver World”), and others by Yi In-jik (1882–1916) were performed here.
As almost all historical works on theatre in Korea note, however, the Wongaksa (원각사, “circle theatre”) was not the very first Western-style theatre (see, for example, Suh Yon-ho’s Korean Theatre History: Modern Theatre, 2003, pp. 48–51). Andrew Killick, in his book on changgeuk, mentions several other indoor theatres that operated in early 20th-century Seoul. He mentions the Huidae (희대), run by the Hyeomnyulsa (협률사, “a special office […] set up within the royal court to oversee its operation”, p. 57, often used as a stand-in for the theatre itself) that opened in 1902, the Gwangmudae (광무대), run by the Seoul Electric Company, the Danseongsa (단성사, June 1907; Seo considers it a cinema, p. 39), the Yeonheungsa (연흥사, Dec. 1907), the Jangansa (장안사, 1907/08; Seo gives July 1908, p. 51), and, possibly and probably, theatres of the Japanese and Chinese communities (see Killick, In Search of Korean Traditional Opera, 2010, pp. 52).
Nevertheless, it is difficult to understate the importance of the Wongaksa as a venue for dramatic innovation. I did not know about the first production mentioned on the memorial sign, but Silver World is, according to Killick’s definition, the first documented changgeuk-performance (p. 61, see the following pages for details on Silver World). I saw a 100th-anniversary-production in 2009, not a remake of the piece itself but the story of its production circumstances. I wrote a review for OhmyNews about it back then, and it is still available!
Like this rather romanticized period piece, history is subject of reinterpretation and, sometimes, rediscovery. An article from 2013 notes that the exact position of the Wongaksa has been discovered: It was not located directly at Saemoonan Presbyterian Church, but rather in a small alley between the church and the adjacent Kumho Art Hall (금호아트홀), now (or, in 2013) occupied by a parking space (주간경향 1046호, 2013–10–15, 윤호우 선임기자).
– 11 Aug. 2015 (火)