Drawings by János HÁY.
Kim, Yun-Cheol
Kim, Yun-Cheol, Ph. D.
Professor/Korean National Univ. Of Arts
Kim Yun-Cheol

The Influence of Western Drama on Contemporary Korean Theatre

Korea has a rich tradition of performing arts. Throughout its history of 5,000 years, Korean performing arts, including theatre, were strongly influenced by shamanistic and Buddhist rites. Talnori, or mask dance drama, assumed its present form in the mid-13th century, using theatrical acrobatics and dance, and addressing real-life issues and problems such as the corruption of the apostate Buddhist monks, and the suffering of women under the patriarchal, polygamous society. Koktugakshinori, or puppet plays, dates back to the 18th century, which were played by professional troupes, and they also deal with the similar issues to Talnori narrated by the ubiquitous character, called Pakchomji. Pansori, a narrative and dramatic singing by one vocalist and accompanied by a drummer, has been another important theatrical genre since the late 17th century. We have also Changguk, or Korean traditional opera, that developed from Pansori and incorporated some aspects from Western theatre. It began to play at the very beginning of the 20th century. Instead of one vocalist singing and narrating, Changguk employs divided roles and as many performers to play them.

It was in the early 1920s when Korea was under Japanese control that Western Theatre was first brought into the country outside the frame of its traditional performing arts. Ever since it has exerted a great influence on the development of Korean theatre, which has absorbed it with different purposes according to socio-political changes at given times. There are several important landmarks in modern Korean history: the liberation from Japan(1945), the Korean War(1950), the military coup(1961),and the establishment of democratic government(1987). Each of these historical events caused remarkable changes in Korean society, and Western theatre was utilized to reflect and stimulate those changes. To measure the influence we just need to know the percentage of Western plays produced in Korea during those time periods. According to a survey done by Hye-Kyung Lee in “The Transplantation of Western Drama in Korea: Basis of Modern Korean Theatre,” it was close to 20% in the 1920s and 30s, and the ratio soared radically to 29% in the 50s, 48% in the 60s, and 57% in the 70s (Journal of Korean Theatre Association, No. 7, 1995, 553).* This ratio increased until the mid 80s. It was only then, after the military regime officially capitulated to the civic demand for democracy on June 29, 1987, that that figure plunged below 50%. The decline has been steady and now hovers around 30%. By virtue of its abundance, the influence of Western drama on contemporary Korean theater is undeniable.

Compared to this great influence from Western drama, the number of plays from Asian countries like China or Japan has been very limited, and Korean original plays have filled most of the remaining percentage of theatre productions left by Western drama.

*Note: These figures do not apply to the periods just before the liberation and immediately after the Korean War.

Between the 1920s and the liberation from the Japanese control, Western drama was embraced as a dynamic education tool. Shakespeare was first translated in this period and has become the most prominent influence on Korean theatre ever since. However, the majority of the plays introduced around this time were by modern European dramatists. These included Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, Lady Gregory, G. B. Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Victor Hugo, Gerhart Hauptmann and Eugene O’Neill. Korean intellectuals used theatre to enlighten the populace about modern Western ideas of democracy, the rights of individuals, and to encourage national consciousness. European realist and naturalist dramas were most often produced. This helped Korean theatre to shift from a sentimental, exaggerated approach to staging to more natural, true-to-life one. Stanislavsky was introduced in this time period.

Theatre Arts Study Group, founded in 1931, was particularly successful in the realistic staging of Western drama. The founding members were college students, educated in Japan, who specialized in English, French, German, and Russian literature. They were well aware of the European independent and the Irish national theatre movements. They launched small theatre movement in the 30s and attempted to create some good examples of naturalistic staging of European drama. Their first production was Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector General. They went on to stage Jubilee, The Cherry Orchard, The Merchant of Venice, and A Doll’s House. Their staging also reflected the strong influence of the Stanislavsky system. Thanks to this group’s efforts, Western drama made up 21% of the entire repertoire of Korean theatre in the 1930s.

The 1940s was the least active decade for the production of drama from the west with its ratio down to an all time low of 6%. That is very understandable in light of the political situation at that time. Koreans were forced to have two separate military governments in the North and South. The people were so consumed by ideological conflicts there was little interest in theater. It is only after the U.S-led U.N. forces succeeded in preserving the political system of South Korea after the Korean War that the ratio of Western plays began to climb, especially that of American drama. Out of 78 foreign plays played in 1950s, 22 were American. However, even in this America-friendly decade Shakespeare’s Great Tragedies and Ibsen’s realist plays were produced most frequently. Eugene O’Neill’s Ile, Desire Under the Elms, Beyond the Horizon, Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie, and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman were the American plays that attracted the largest Korean audiences. As this list indicates, modified realism was the dominant style of Western drama in the 50s. Many other European dramatists were introduced in this period, as well, albeit rarely: Victor Hugo, Maurice Maeterlinck, John Millington Synge, T.S. Elliot, Luigi Pirandello, Eugene Ionesco, among others. During the 1950s after the liberation our interest in Western theatre exploded. However, that interest sprang from our curiosity about Western culture and literature. Unfortunately, this interest was not translated into production aesthetics that accompanied each dramatic style. In our approach to staging Western drama, we were still immersed in the stereotypical dimensions in which blond wigs and long, high noses dominated the design aesthetic at the expense of any authentic attempt to capture a cultural mannerism.

Between the beginning of the 1960s and mid 80s the performance of Western drama reached the highest level with a ratio significantly above 50%. It is very remarkable that this period coincides with the 25 years of the military governance under the three General-Presidents, initiated by Park Jeong Hee in 1961. The military dictatorship limited the freedom of speech through rigid censorship, and theatre was no exception. No drama was permitted if it contained any possibility of criticizing the political system. It was difficult for Korean plays to pass the censorship, thus making Western plays a reliable and easy alternative. Western drama enjoyed a resurgence in this dark period. Shakespeare was still the most frequently performed European dramatist, but with a difference: his comedies began to be produced as well. Particularly popular were The Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Prior to this his Great Tragedies and tragic histories received the most attention. Chekhov, the second most frequently produced among the Western playwrights, was also loved. His repertoire was performed frequently.

A striking fact in this time was that such absurdist dramatists as Ionesco, Beckett, Albee were among the third most frequently produced Western dramatists. The Bald Soprano, The Chairs, The Lesson, Waiting for Godot, Krapp’s Last Tape, The Zoo Story, and Who Is Afraid of Virginia Wolf? were often performed. Theatre of the absurd was a big jump for a Korean audience that had been exposed almost exclusively to Western realist drama. This popularity can be read in two ways. First, the theatre of the absurd that denies logical reading was itself a symbol of protest against the oppressive political system. Secondly, it was a natural reaction by young theatre people just graduated from college who were forming community theatre companies. They wanted to mount pieces that veered away from psychologizing realist drama, just as the Theatre Arts Study Group did in the 1930s.

Based on the fact that so many young college graduates founded community theatres like Experimental Theatre, Plaza, Bridge, Liberty, and People, many scholars agree that modern Korean theatre began in the early 60s. These groups began to produce non-realist Western drama including modified realism, epic theatre, and avant-garde. Among these diverse theatre styles, it was still the theatre of the absurd that exerted the most influence on contemporary Korean theatre. We had more absurd drama performances in the 60s than in any other decade. Korean theatre people might have found an outlet for their expression of existential dilemma with no exit under the oppressive military government in the theatre of the absurd. Its influence was first shown in the plays of Park Jo-Yeol, Lee Hyun-Hwa, and Oh Tae-Seok.

Park Jo-Yeol, himself a refugee from North Korea, has been longing for the unification of two Koreas and the reunion with his family in the north, just as Estragon and Vladimir waited for Godot. His play The Dialogue between the Two Long-necked Men (1966) follows the same structure as Beckett’s play, simply replacing Godot with Unification. His most popular play, in the style of epic theatre, is General O’s Toenails(1975). This fable is an absurd story of a young simplistic farmer who is recruited to military service by mistaken identity and dies in a war-game between the East and the West Armies. This play was forbidden for more than thirteen years during the military dictatorship. It has since become one of the most popular in the repertoire of the country’s non-realist drama and is revived quite regularly. Oh Tae-Seok wrote several plays in the absurd style like Turning of Seasons and Judas Before the Cock Crows, in the late 60s. It is Lee Hyun-Hwa among these three that has been most faithful to the absurdist style with plays like Looking for John(1969), Who Is It?(1974), Sh-Sh-Sh!!!(1976), and Live Cleansing Ritual(1981). These plays deal primarily with a modern man who loses his identity by motiveless menace and violence from out of nowhere, thus combining Pintersque structure and Artaudian cruelty.

As a result of these two decades of exposure to Western drama (the 1960s and the mid 80s), Korean theatre people began to recognize the importance of searching for and establishing a national identity in their works. Playwright Yun Dae-Seong was the first to use traditional masks in his play Executioner(1969), a social satire on the corruption of the ruling class. This is considered the first attempt to combine a Western tragic narrative and elements of Korean traditional performing arts. Oh Tae-Seok followed suit, but with a better effect, helped by the two outstanding directors, Yoo Deok-Hyung and Ahn Min-Soo. He has become the most prominent playwright with Chobun(1973) and The Umbilical(1974), which were directed by Yoo and Ahn, respectively. Yoo employed Western experimental theatre style and choreographed movements of Asian marshal arts to create an impressive nonverbal theatre. Ahn applied an Artaudian style to this historical drama of the most tragic and destructive father-son relation in the Yi dynasty’s royal families. Directors Yoo and Ahn were both educated in America and some reviewers remarked that they simply reapplied a Western concept of Orientalism to these productions.

From the 70s on, the creation of a new tradition of theater unique to this country, grounded in Western dramactic aesthetics while employing traditional performing arts has become a vital aim of theater in Korea. I call that a creative absorption of Western drama. One of its first examples is Oh Tae-Seok’s Soetuggi Play(1972) that adapted Moliere’s The Tricks of Scapin in the frame of Korean traditional mask dance drama. Ahn Min-Soo also adapted and directed Shakespeare’s Hamlet based on LaoXi’s philosophy and Buddhist’s viewpoint of life in his production of Prince Hamyol(1976). Kim Jeong-Ok reinterpreted Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding, using Korean traditional clowning, shamanistic dance, music and chanting, in his internationally acclaimed production(1982).

After the 1987 declaration of democratization the most distinctive change in Korean theatre was the predominance of light comedies over serious tragedies. This change applied to productions of Western drama as well. Indeed, it was foreshadowed in the 70s by the unusual popularity of Moliere. Only during that period was Moliere more frequently produced than even Shakespeare. Once democracy has been won, Korean people might have wanted to throw away the dark memories of a long military rule. Comedy would have been more appealing to them with its focus on self-preservation by maintaining social norms that tragedy fights against in its hero’s pursuit of self-consummation. It was during this transition, after 1987, that political drama disappeared. Korean theater became rapidly commercialized and Broadway style musicals dominated the contemporary theater scene.

Three Europeans have greatly influenced Korean theatre in terms of production aesthetics: Constantin Stanislavsky, Antonin Artaud, and Bertolt Brecht. Although almost every style of Western drama has been introduced into Korea since 1920s, the greatest majority have belonged to the realist dramatic tradition. In this context the Stanislavsky system has continued to interest Korean theatre people and it will continue to do so via Russia-educated students who began to return in the 90s. Productions of Brecht were forbidden until 1988 when the government lifted the regulations banning plays by dramatists from socialist nations. However, his theory of epic drama was fervently studied in the 70s and he was held up as a role model for writers in the fight against the established social system. Brecht was also embraced by theatre activists. They used his dramatic theory in their political dramatic satires against social absurdities, especially in the form of field and labor drama. Our interest in Brecht has now become more aesthetic than political and The Good Woman of Setzuan is still frequently performed.

Artaud’s dramatic theory was first introduced in Korea in 1960s via his book Theatre and Its Double. However, it was only in 1973 that his theory was first applied to the Korean stage when Ahn Min-Soo directed King Lear in the style of the theatre of cruelty. The director’s concept of cruelty was physical rather than psychical, as was shown in the scene when Gloucester’s eyes were plucked out. He used a woman’s silk stocking dyed bloody red to maximize the dramatic effect.

Other major figures who followed in the Artaudian tradition are Chae Seung-Hoon, director of Heinar Mueller’s Hamletmachine, Chae Yun-Il, director of Live Cleansing Ritual, Oh Tae-Seok, writer and director of Why Did Shim-Chong Throw Herself into the Sea Twice?, Cho Kwang-Hwa, writer and director of The Masculine Drive(1996), and Han Tae-Sook, writer and director of The Train for Xuan(2003).

Today’s Korean theatre is hard to describe outside of the context of its relation to Western drama. This was sometimes used as a tool for enlightment, as a political alternative, or simply as a stimulant for creativity. In today’s era of globalization, its influence will be exerted more and more to create hybrid theatre in which Korean dramatic traditions and Western methodologies mingle with stimulating, if often aesthetically unpredictable, outcomes. Whatever the result, it is an atmosphere in which creativity flourishes.


  © All rights belong to the authors or their heirs. 2004.