An Introduction to Contemporary Korean Theatre
Since the 1990s, “in-yer-face theatre”--or “new European theatre” has become one of the predominant phenomena of Western theatre: it originated in Great Britain, and then spread throughout Western and Eastern Europe. This banal and violent form of theatre has been pouring blood and sperm onto stages, relying heavily on the aesthetics of the ugly. Logocentric language has long disappeared from this new stage, which has become the representative theatrical form of this post-dramatic era.
Korean theatre has been influenced by this in-yer-face theatre practice, although to a somewhat lesser degree than in Europe. That influence seems almost inevitable due to the fact that European performances are played so frequently in Seoul. Already since 2000, many such productions have been invited and were well received and well liked. These have included, for example: Fire Face, written by Germany’s representative in-yer-face dramatist, Marius von Mayenburg, and directed by Oskaras Korsunovas of Lithuania; Sara Kane’s Cleansed, directed by Krzysztof Warlikoswki of Poland; The Story of Ronald, Clown of McDonald, written and directed by the Spanish/Argentine director, Roderigo Garcia; and Hamlet, directed by German director Thomas Ostermeier.
The first influence of this new European theatre was seen in works by some established dramatists, who began to portray men in today’s eschatological situation in a violent, even gory, way. One of the very first and best examples of this new trend is The Masculine Drive (1997), written and directed by CHO Kwang-Hwa. The play depicts the political tension between masculine values, such as power and loyalty, and feminine values such as love and emancipation. In the course of the play, the children of a crime organization exert uninhibited violence on their enemies using baseball bats, sashimi knives, bicycle chains, metal pipes, etc. The violence climaxes when CHANG Jeong, the protagonist and boss of the crime organization, cuts the wrist of his gambling-addicted father, onstage with a sharp knife. (In Korea, gun possession is illegal.) Homosexual violence and rape are also graphically represented.
Since The Masculine Drive, Korean stages have been flooded with more and darker violence. Female playwright KIM Myung-Hwa, who used to write literary plays, recently presented a new play, The End of the Royal Palace Restaurant (2008), in this new trend. The play, directed by LEE Gi-Do, focuses on the story of the Master Chef of the Royal Palace Restaurant, who uses human meat to create his best dish, only to end up throwing himself into a big oven with boiling water. Director LEE makes the scene even more graphic. He cheerfully invites an obese woman to the front of the audience, but then puts her into a gigantic freezer. In the very next scene, people bring in a huge chunk of fresh meat, weighing at least 20 kg, and we can easily guess that the chunk has been cut from the helpless victim. The nausea you experience here is not very different from what you feel during Sara Kane’s scenes of cannibalism, or from her scene in which rats carry severed human parts here and there on the stage. Even LEE Kang-Baek, who has long been the frontman for cerebral drama, depicts a similar landscape in his recent play, entitled Yellow Inn (2007). People gather at an inn, located in the middle of a desert frequented mostly by dusty winds. In this apparent oasis, people become divided by their differences in social, political and economic status, and kill each other. Then the innkeeper steals the valuables from the pockets of the dead people. As soon as he finishes his business, gravediggers remove the dead bodies to make room for new guests. Its exaggerated grotesquery, physical violence, dark caricature, and mythic tone are in a direct line with in-yer-face theatre.
Starting in the 1990s, it was the feminist theatre--which seems rather archaic today—that made up the most popular stream in Korean theatre. Feminist ideas had long been suppressed in Korea’s Confucian, patriarchal society—but once unleashed, they exploded all at once. The most successful achievement in this vein, in terms of aesthetic and thematic approach, was Lady Macbeth (1998), restructured and directed by HAN Tae-Sook. She remained faithful to Shakespeare’s narrative frame, but refocused it on Lady Macbeth’s reactions, resulting in a form of hypnotic or therapeutic theatre. She reinforced Lady Macbeth’s subconscious with the performance art of LEE Young-Ran’s object theatre, and accompanied these with a live band, Gong-myung, which plays traditional Korean music, to make a hybrid theatre. Since the premier, Han has revived the play in a different version almost every year, and continues to experiment in search of new forms of hybridity.
Writings and stagings related to homosexual love used to be as marginalized as feminist theatre was as a subject for the theatre, but it has also become a theme of contemporary Korean theatre. There have been several Korean plays dealing very cautiously with this subject matter. Among them, The Train for Seo-An (2003), again written and directed by HAN Tae-Sook, is by far the most successful. The play is set against the story of Emperor Qingshi Huang, who filled his tomb with clay soldiers and horses to protect himself from ageing and death, and highlights a man’s desire to possess another man by confiscating all his documents and memory, that is, his whole being. Director HAN invited artist LIM Ok-Sang to sculpt contemporary versions of the clay figures and, as with her Lady Macbeth, employed Gong-Myung, the traditional percussion band, confirming once again the identity of her theatre. As we saw previously, HAN has a keen interest in the lives of the marginalized, and has demonstrated her great talent in translating that interest into theatrical form.
Korea is a country sharply divided by ideologies and conflicts of interest, and one might expect such a country to have the theme of socio-politics on its main theatrical menu. Recently, however, especially since the LEE Myung-Bak government has been in office, political theatre has been drastically reduced. In fact, the only socio-political theatre in recent years has been The Case of President LEE’s Murder (2010), written and directed by KIM Kwang-Lim. The play’s main character, LEE, is strongly associated with Samsung’s president, LEE Gun-Hee. It deals with murderous corruption at both the individual and corporate levels, and employs dark comedy and highly choreographed movements, along with Korea’s traditional one-person opera form, pansori, and shamanic singing.
At the same time, “history theatre” stands exceptionally at the center of contemporary Korean theatre. It does not approach history with facts, but looks back with a revisionist’s eye on errors in history and calls for a new history, or history as it should have been. OH Tae-Seok and LEE Yun-Taek are in the forefront of this movement. OH’s main concern is conciliation of history’s mistakes. Plays belonging to this vein are Bicycle (1987), Why Did Shim-Cheong Throw Herself into the Sea Twice? (1990), A Chinese Balloon Flower (1994), and I Love DMZ (2002), among many others. For instance, Along the Moonlit Baek-Ma River of 1993 deals with the historical King Eui-Ja of the Baek-Je Kingdom, who lost his country due to his blind love for Keum-Hwa, a beauty sent from the Shilla Kingdom, his nemesis. The play alters this episode in history: a contemporary shaman becomes the beautiful Keum-Hwa through a ritual communion with spirits, meets the spirit of King Eui-Ja, lingering in limbo, and discusses with him the wrongs he committed. Permanent Prisoners of 1998 deals with the Kwang-Ju Massacre of 1980, in which the military junta killed hundreds of civilian freedom fighters. In this play, OH employs the aesthetic principles of the Korean traditional puppet theatre and the shamanic ritual, or gut, to bring about a reconciliation in which the victims forgive their murderers. Regarding this relatively recent, tragic historical event, such a pacifist impulse hardly rings true, socially or emotionally, among Koreans even now.
LEE Yun-Taek consistently questions the social responsibility of intellectuals in his dealings with history. His first history play, Problematic Person, King Yeon-San (1995), looks into this question. In the play, intellectuals easily change sides according to where power lies. The ruling aristocracy’s orientation towards power is skillfully woven into the story of King Yeon-San, who was arguably the most vengeful and womanizing king in the history of the Yi dynasty, which lasted from 1392 until 1910. LEE’s second history play, Provincial Scholar, CHO Nam-Myung (2001), differs from his earlier vulgar, physical plays, and takes a highly semiotic approach to the sophisticated culture of the scholar and the aristocrat. LEE’s A Beautiful Man (2006), directed by NAM Mi-Jeong, employs elements of traditional acrobatics and gut to express LEE’s persistent questions about the intellectual’s participation in society.
In this post-modern time, the tradition of literary theatre is barely surviving in the hands of a few established dramatists. Playwrights of the 1960s, such as LEE Kang-Baek, LEE Man-Hee, and KIM Kwang-Lim, have attempted a philosophical theatre beyond the immediate issues of our daily lives. LEE Kang-Baek makes an existential question out of the divine indifference towards humanity, and the human denial of divinity in his The Head of Dried Pollack (1993), directed by KIM Kwang-Lim. In his Heavenly Feeling (1998), directed by LEE Yun-Taek, he delves in a mythic manner into the relation between content and form in art and religion, juxtaposing the three temporal dimensions of past, present, and future.
KIM Kwang-Lim adopts an intellectual rather than a physical theatre, and an epic or meta-theatrical rather than an indicative approach, digging into the relativity of human existence with his call for liberation from any kind of regulation or confinement. In Search of Love (1993), House (1994), and Come and See Me (1996) are examples. He has recently, however, focused on experimenting with using the Korean theatre as a frame for his plays, such as Puppet Play (1996), Uturi (2002), Why Has the Nymph…? (2007) and shifted his artistic focus from a thematic approach to formalistic experimentation.
Since 2000, the presence of literary theatre has become even more reduced. It may be because the zeitgeist of our time disparages text. Recently, however, two young dramatists, BAE Sam-Sik and KIM Ji-Hoon, have written heavily literary plays, such as The Diary of Yol-Ha (2007), and The Original Copy of a Will (2008), respectively, and won not only raves from critics but also enthusiastic responses from audiences. The Diary of Yol-Ha transforms the historical figure of PARK Ji-won into an unidentifiable animal and has him visit a long-isolated village, tell the villagers grotesque and exotic stories, and stir up confusion and change among the people there. With this, PARK delineates the defensive human instinct to stay complacently in the system, and the contrasting human desire to explore the world outside the system, to obtain freedom. Director SOHN Jin-Check employs a minimalistic form for this text, and succeeds in transforming a literary text into a theatrical piece.
The Original Copy of a Will, directed by LEE Yun-Taek, is four hours long. Its playwright, KIM, is one of the youngest dramatists in Korea. My colleague, KIM Hyung-Gi described this work in the Spring 2009 issue of the Korean Theatre Journal: “[Kim is] exploring, from the eco-feminist viewpoint, the various types of violence that lurk behind capitalism, our social system, and gender discrimination.” Director LEE Yun-Taek translates this heavily literary text into a strong theatrical spectacle by enhancing its performativity through vivid physical violence, sudden and complete demolition of the entire set, which is a shack on a dumpsite. It is a mythic version of the human community after post-eschatology.
The most distinguishable and important dramatic form in Korea since 2000 is the theatre of everydayness. PARK Keun-Hyung, another dramatist who directs his own plays, has been the main catalyst in this vein. Beginning with Homage to Youth (1999), he has been writing a couple of plays every year that are mostly centered on disintegrating families: fathers that have lost their power, mothers that are either dead or deadly aloof from their children, and children that already miss their families even before they disintegrate. Nobody Breathes in the Water (2000), The House (2002), Kyung-Sook, Kyung-Sook’s Dad (2006) are good examples of this track. Don’t Panic Too Much (2009), the most recent play, is by far the best in terms of dramatic form and its thematic contemporaneity. With the situation and characters similar to those of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, or Harold Pinter’s Homecoming, PARK continues his portraits of absurd worlds. With Father as present absence, Mother as absent presence, an irresponsible first son, his wife flirting extra-maritally and in front of her brother-in-law, the second son suffering from constipation and missing Mother who has deserted the family—the composition of the family itself foregrounds the disintegration of the family. PARK is very good at epitomizing familial disintegration through the minutely detailed everydayness of the dramatic actions; he also transcends the limits of realism and moves toward absurdism or modified realism by employing highly expressive devices. In Don’t Panic Too Much, for example, the father hangs himself in the bathroom in the beginning of the show, but continues to communicate with his family members while hanging, asking each family member to bury him. KIM Han-Gil, KIM Myung Hwa, and the late YUN Young-Son are the most visible dramatists who have written a significant number of plays in
this direction. CHOI Jin-A has recently joined this group with her 1-28, Cha-Sook’s House (2010), in which she lectures about house construction by way of her characters, who are trying to build a new house on the site of their old house. No particular dramatic purpose is revealed. They just recollect their memories of the old house and their late father who built it, and try to realize their concept of how a house should be designed. The dramatic action flows from the discussion to the completion of the house’s construction.
One common feature of these writers is that they write these everyday plays in order to highlight the absurdity of our daily lives, which have already become absurd enough.
I cannot deny the global theatre trend that disparages linguistic communication. Very uniquely—or at least unlike Eastern Europe, to which the power of European theatre seems to have shifted—there are still many, maybe too many, playwrights in Korea, and most of them direct their own plays. There are quite a few universities that have various programs for the education of the playwright. I believe this has something to do with Korean culture, which has a deep respect for writers. Unlike the director-dominated European theatre, Korean theatre will continue to follow the leadership of its dramatists, at least for a while. This is good, on the one hand, because they will continue to remind us that theatre was, is, and will be language, or communication, if you will. This is dangerous, on the other hand, because most of the practicing dramatists have turned to directing and begun to write their plays as production scripts, rather than as independent, literary-dramatic works. In other words, these playwrights are becoming more directors than dramatists. Even though they are directing their own plays, they have lost a considerable amount of their linguistic skill. This is why I worry about Korean theatre. But I have to admit that critics are best at worrying. It is simply their job to worry. Isn’t it?
 Yun-Cheol Kim is President of IATC; recipient of the Cultural Order of Korea; Professor in the School of Drama, Korean National University of Arts; and editor of The Korean Theatre Journal, a quarterly. Two-time winner of the "Critic of the Year Award," he has published nine books so far, two of which are anthologies of theatre reviews.