One Swallow a Day (Heungbu and Nolbu)

As I learned today, the Korean postal service uses the swallow (jebi, 제비) as its symbol, maybe because it is commonly considered a harbinger of good news.

korea-post-2017-02-28But: One swallow doesn’t a spring make, knew already Aristotle. For Heungbu, on the other hand, a swallow made his day, and all the others. Poor Nolbu, on the other hand… The story of the two brothers Heungbu and Nolbu, in its pansori-version known as Heungbu-ga or Heungbo-ga (흥부가 / 흥보가, please tell me if you know the difference!), is a classic fable about the triumph of altruistic over selfish action (read it in Korean and English, if you haven’t yet – thanks to the unfortunately short-lived blog “Asian Story Translations”). It was also adapted as the very first Korean feature-length puppetry stop-motion movie in 1967 (directed by Gang Tae-ung 강태웅), long before Tim Burton and Wallace and Gromit, as the comment to the movie on Youtube proudly notes.

I didn’t see a swallow today, but a magpie, omen for good luck in Korea and a beautiful thief in Germany (and other places, I suppose). Although the lightness of the day – five years and 330 pages later – might not last, I’m still quite happy, having sent it off, for today, till summer. May the new year begin!

— 28 Feb. 2017 (火)

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Best of Blacklist? (Attendum to “Best of Korean Theatre 2016”)

Now the (lunar) year is almost over… I did not mention an important aspect when writing about last years “Best 3” and “Best 7”: The stand they represent against politically motivated censorship, which has been a major issue during the last two years.


In the light of events, it is notable that Kunhyung Park’s All the Soldiers are Pathetic (박근형, 모든 군인은 불쌍하다) appears on both lists, as this is the production that triggered the censorship (검열) scandal in that extended to the world of traditional music and was rekindled by the leaking of the names of almost 10,000 artists blacklisted by official authorities in October 2016.

Kunhyung Park seems to have evoked the wrath of cultural politics with his production of The Frogs in 2014 (I saw the production back then, unfortunately the only piece of the National Theater Company’s Aristophanes-trio). The production features an obvious satirical depiction of former dictator Park Chung-hee and, more importantly, his daughter and (back then) ruling president Park Geun-hye. (As some English-language news-outlets were quick to remark, despite their similar common surname, director Park and president Park are not related – also notable is the consistens misspelling of the play’s title as Frog.)

Arguably as a result of his open criticism of the two Parks, funding for his next piece (All the Soldiers) was denied or, as testimonies suggest, Park was pressured into revoking his application for funding. Subsequently, an engagement for directing a piece at the National Gugak Center (국립국악원) was cancelled in a similar manner in October 2015. (The gugak-magazine Lara provides a good overview in English.)

To no one’s surprise, Park’s name featured prominently on the blacklist leaked in 2016 (a partial list with about 6,000 names is available via Hankyoreh). Another piece (or rather a site-specific performance festival), the “Camino de Ansan 2016” that is conceptualized as a memory-walk for the victims of the Sewol ferry-disaster (potentially critical with regard to the government’s reactions, is also awarded. The selection shows that theatre critics (who also did rallies and public statements when the issues were hot) do not bow to cultural – and in extension – national politics.

Most recently, South Korea’s culture minister Cho Yoon-sun has been arrested in relation to the blacklist. Facing censorship, theatremakers keep on making theatre, so much is clear. Last fall, a Tumblbug-crowdfunding campaign by a cooperation of various ensembles under the title “Project for Right” (권리장전) was successful (the project is also mentioned in a review of 2016 by Jiyoung Jang, translated by Walter Byongsok Chon, via Theatre Times, the expanded Korean original is available online, too, in the webzine Must by Chungmu Art Center). At Gwanghwamun in central Seoul, where theatre is presented in a tent, blacklisted artists also protested with black plastic bags (images via Hankyoreh) It remains open, though, how the art world at large will deal with a situation where those who followed politically motivated directives still remain in numerous positions of power.

Happy New Year!

PS: A good (English) summary of the situation as of last November, with some images of protests in front of the Korean Cultural Center in London, is available on London Korean Links

– 27 Jan. 2017 (金)

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Best of Korean Theatre 2016 (part1): Official Rankings

As this crazy year draws to an end, as usual the best theatre productions in Korea have been selected and awards are handed out. Two of the most important selections are the “best 7” by the monthly journal Korean Theatre Review (월간 한국연극, “2016 공연 베스트 7”) and the “best 3” by the Association of Theatre Critics (한국연극평론가협회, “올해의 연극 베스트 3”). (Various press sources – the official websites are a bit late in this regard – can be found, for example at Munhwa News (문화뉴스), by using the following links: best 3, best 7)

The “best 7” considers all performances shown in the greater Seoul region between Nov. 2015 and Oct. 2016. In the category “premieres” (초연), four works were chosen:

  • Twelve Angry Men (12인의 성난 사람들) by Sansuyu Theatre (극단 산수유), directed by Ryu Ju-yeon (류주연) play by Reginald Rose
  • All the Soldiers are Pathetic (모든 군인은 불쌍하다) by Golmokil Theatre (극단 골목길), written and directed by Kunhyung Park (박근형), co-produced by Namsan Art Center (남산예술센터)
  • Bethany House (베서니 집) by Dong Theatre company (극단 동), directed by Ryang-Won Kang (강량원), play by Laura Marks
  • Sunshine Warriors (썬샤인의 전사들), a play by Kim Eun Sung (김은성), produced by Doosan Art Center (두산아트센터)

Additionally, productions in three other categories were awarded:

  • revival (재공연): “Camino de Ansan 2016” (안산순례길 2016), a multi-site-specific project in the city of Ansan, in memory of the victims of the “Sewol” ferry-disaster
  • children/young audience (아동 청소년극): We are Friends (우리는 친구다, original: Max und Milli, by Volker Ludwig) by Hakchŏn (극단 학전)
  • foreign production (해외공연): Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (Ein Volksfeind, 민중의 적) by Schaubühne Berlin (샤우뷔네 베를린), director: Thomas Ostermeier, guest performance at LG Arts Center

For the “best 3”, all performances shown from Dec. 2015 until Nov. 2016 are eligbile. Two of the three also appear in the “best 7”:

  • All the Soldiers are Pathetic (모든 군인은 불쌍하다)
  • Bethany House (베서니 집)
  • Goebbel’s Theatre (괴벨스 극장) by ensemble Watchman (극단 파수꾼), directed by Yi Eun-jun (이은준), play by Oh Se-hyeok (오세혁)

Although aware of some of these productions, I wasn’t able to see any of them – besides teaching, wrapping up my dissertation kept me at the desk. I planned to see the guest performance of Ein Volksfeind, too, about which I had heard a lot, but then didn’t find the time, unfortunately. I would have loved to hear how the mid-play discussion among the audience developed. (Some videos – all in German, though – give an idea of the tour and include statements from the discussion: a mini-documentary, a videocast by actor David Ruland, and a report by Deutsche Welle.)

But being busy doesn’t mean that I didn’t spend a minute in the theatre. Follow up for some thoughts about my own top 5 or something, hopefully before the end of the year…

– 22 Dec. 2016 (木)

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Beyond To Live or To Die: Hamlet in Korean Translation, Part 1

Translation is interpretation. It is creation as well as dismissal. It is a series of choices that are hard to count, even harder to overestimate.

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, 1676, Source: Horace Howard Furness Memorial Library, via Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text & Image (public domain)

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, 1676, Source: Horace Howard Furness Memorial Library, via Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text & Image (public domain)

I once again was reminded of this practical fact while browsing through a number of Korean translations of Hamlet, a bit of research I did for a short interview on Shakespeare in Korea earlier this year. Since the 1920s, Shakespeare is read, translated, and staged in Korea. The first “translations” of Shakespeare were in fact prose renderings based on Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales of Shakespeare (also available as an audio book at Libri Vox), until Hyeon Cheol used the Japanese translation of the drama by his teacher Shoyo Tsubouchi from 1909 as a source. His complete translation of Hamlet, the very first in Korean, albeit not directly from the original, was first serialized in the magazine Gaebyeok (개벽 開闢, “Creation”), volumes 11–30 in 1921 and 22, and then in full in 1923 (현철, 하믈레트, 박문서관 1923).

But since the first Korean translation of Hamlet from the English original by Seol Jeong-sik in 1949 (설정식, 하므렡, 백양당), closely followed by a “scholarly” translation by Choe Jae-seo (최재서, 햄릿, 연희춘추, 1954, two years later re-published as a bilingual edition at 한일문화사) and a translation for the stage by Han Ro-dan (한로단, 하므렡, 동문, 1954, for ensemble Sinhyeop 신협, the de-facto national theatre company at that time), the work has been translated countless times. The various ways of spelling the title, too, were soon standardized to “햄릿” (Haemlit), stressing the original English (or American?) pronounciation rather than the Japanese-sounding multi-syllable forms of “하믈레트” (Hameulleteu) or “하므렡” (Hameulet) that rather follow spelling than pronounciation.

anonymous, Edwin Booth as Hamlet, color lithograph, 1873 Source: Library of Congress (public domain)

anonymous, Edwin Booth as Hamlet, color lithograph, 1873
Source: Library of Congress (public domain)

A book published in 2005 by the Scholars for English Studies in Korea (SESK, 영미문학연구회) is of great help when – thus the title – “In Search of Good Translations of English and American Classics” (영미문학연구회 엮음, 영미 명작 좋은 번역을 찾아서, 창비 2005, publisher’s site, available at Google Books). The authors of this tome evaluate relevant translations of fourteen US-American and twenty-two British works, from Poe and Melville to Fitzgerald and Hemingway, from Chaucer, Milton, Dickens, and the Brontës to Conrad, Joyce, and Woolf. (A second volume published in 2007 including two more plays, Waiting for Godot and A Streetcar Named Desire) Shakespeare comes last, with chapters on all four “big” tragedies. The one on Hamlet (pp. 543–79) goes into detail about the merits of the different versions and provides the following top-ten list:

  1. 최재서, 햄맅, 연희춘추사 1954.
  2. 설정식, 하므렡, 백양당 1949.
  3. 한로단, 하므렡, 동문사 1954.
  4. 김재남, 햄릿, 을지서적 1995 (1st: 을유문화사 1961)
  5. 여석기, 햄릿, 동화출판공사 1970.
  6. 이경식, 햄릿, 서울대학교 출판부 1996, 1998 (1st: 대양서적 1974)
  7. 신정옥, 햄릿, 진예원 1989, 2002.
  8. 이덕수, 햄리트, 형설출판사 1990, 2002.
  9. 최종철, 햄릿, 민음사 1994, 2002.
  10. 김종환, 햄릿, 계명대학교출판부 1997, 2001.

(tldr: nothing beats the post-war pioneers!)

The chapter also includes the following statistics (as of 2005?):

  • Hamlet has been published in 112 different editions, by 59 different translators, including two who co-translators.
  • The chapter compares 31 publications (by 32 translators), of which, again, 13 items are categorized as “more or less close plagiats”, leaving 18 original translations.
  • The version plagiarized the most times is Kim Jae-nam’s translation, first published in 1961 (김재남, 햄릿, 을유문화).
  • “Special cases” include prose translations (this time not from the Lambs’ Tales, but from Shakespeare) by Kim Ji-ho (김지호, 햄릿, 베니스의 상인, 한국파스퇴르 2001) and Han Yong-hwan (한용환, 함레트, 멕베드, 신문화 1974), both bundled with another work; and verse translations (운문 번역) by Choe Chong-jeol (최종철, 1994) and Kim Jong-hwan (김종환, 1997).
The World Literature, Shakespeare-Volume 1, inc. Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Samseongdang, 1983.

The World Literature, Shakespeare-Volume 1, inc. Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Samseongdang, 1983.

For a comprehensive account on how “Shakespeare Came to Korea”, Shin Jeong-ok’s eponimous book (신정옥, 셰익스피어 한국에 오다, 백산출판사, 1998) from 1998, although based on a number of articles from the 80s, is still the first place to look. In English, some information on Shakespeare’s reception in Korea is available, too. Jong-hwan Kim did a PhD on “Shakespeare in Korea” at the University of Nebraska in 1992, focusing on translations, productions, and scholarship between 1906 (the first mention of Shakespeare’s name in a modernist magazine) and 1989. He condensed his results into an article (“Shakespeare in a Korean Cultural Context”, Asian Theatre Journal 12.1, (1995), 37–49, PDF at JStor), probably the most accessible general account of Shakespeare in Korea.

The earliest Korean versions of Hamlet available at my university’s library date to the 1970s and 80s. They are often published in large volumes as parts of series such as “World’s Famous Classic” (Geumseong 1990), “The World Literature” (Samseong-dang 1974, 1983), or “Great Books” (Hak Won, 1983). In Korean, the title of these series is inevitably 세계문학[대]전집 / 世界文學[大]全集 (“[Big] Complete Edition of World Literature”) and the volumes dedicated to Shakespeare usually include Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare, Hamlet, translated by Sim Jeong-ok, Jeonyewon World Literature Series Vol. 301, 1989.

Shakespeare, Hamlet, translated by Sim Jeong-ok, Jeonyewon World Literature Series Vol. 301, 1989.

Later, books like Four Tragedies of Shakespeare (4대 비극, transl. Gwon Eung-ho [권응호], published by Hyewon in 1993) or single volumes, sometimes as cheap editions in educational series (by 전예원, 지만지, 민음사 etc.) became common. There are also a few books that collect (and re-translate) famous phrases or soliloquies from various of Shakespeare’s works (e.g. the bi-langual Soliloquies and Speeches [독백과 대사], transl. Song Ok [송옥], published by Dong-in in 2014).

This overview on available Korean translations of Hamlet turned out longer than expected. I thus have to postpone a closer discussion of the actual translations to next time –

– 10 May 2016 (火)

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The First Half of 2016: Activities from April to July

For the bi-annual newsletter of the Association for Korean Music Research, I listed my recent activities. Here, I provide some more links for those interested:

newsletter-oct-2016-copyThis year I am focusing on wrapping up my PhD-dissertation on “Creating Communities in Contemporary Pansori”. These are some other (more or less) academic activities related to music and theatre:

– 15 Oct. 2016 (土)

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(One of) the First Theatre(s) in Seoul was Here!

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.

wongaksa memorial stone located on Saeanmoon-ro, in front of Saemoonan Presbyterian ChurchThis 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)

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Daehangno Poster Session 6

After lunch at 이모네 and before seeing the interesting production of Brecht’s Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis by Hyoungjin Im (임형진) and his ensemble “Theaterraum” (테아터라움 철학하는 몸), once again some more posters caught my eye…

In descending order:

5. Hamlet – the Play (햄릿 – 더 플레이)

Maybe in 2016 producing another Hamlet (although this time not – so much – after Shakespeare, it seems) does not merit a prize for creativity, but this poster does (still on show at Chungmu Arts Center until Oct. 16, tickets via Interpark).


4. Nude King (누드왕)

This play (an adaptation of Hans-Christian Andersen?) receives an award for its stark iconography. (Unfortunately, the curtain fell on Aug. 7)


3. Avant-garde Sinpa-geuk (아방가르드 신파극)

A production for theatre scholars? Sinpa (신파) is a localized form of Japanese shimpa, modernized kabuki, that had its heydays in the early 20th century. It might even have been considered avant-garde until naturalist drama (singeuk, “new drama”) based on European models received that label. So “avant-garde sinpa-geuk” is an oxymoron? Or maybe not? (Sept. 7–11 at Namsan Drama Center)


2. Archive Platform 2016 by the National Contemporary Dance Company (국립현대무용단 아카이브 플랫폼 2016)

Besides the nice “material-design”, this showcase of three young choreographers is awarded second prize for including pink factory-participant Hye-jin Shin (신혜진) and her piece “Skirt-ology” (스커트-올로지) – looking forward!


1. The Baden-Baden Lesson on Consent – Why are You so Tired? (Das Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis – Warum bist du so müde? 동의에 관한 바덴의 학습극 – 무엇이 당신을 소진시키는가)

Of course – a little big performance of an early piece by Brecht, when he was still more interested in the politics of acting than staging a spectacular (epic) piece of theatre. Same here!


– 21 Aug. 2016 (日)

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