- Four Contemporary Korean Plays
Translation of Korean literature gains speed as readership abroad increases, with poetry and prose at the forefront. Dramatic literature, especially of twentieth century Korea, has largely been bypassed owing to the perception that plays are mere "scripts" upon which stage productions build. Four Contemporary Korean Plays, a welcome addition to the tiny collection of Korean plays translated in English, offers understanding of how Lee Yun-Taek's experimental plays inform the historical and aesthetic flow of Korean theatre. The book has multiple domains for review: the plays themselves, the translation, and the introductions to modern Korean theatre history, Lee Yun-Taek and his context, and individual plays.
A self-acclaimed cultural anarchist "unwilling to submit to American cultural hegemony and the theatre realism" (10), contemporary playwright Lee Yun-Taek is an artist whose works are "awaited eagerly then debated heatedly" and who utilizes "evocative stage imagery, audacious artistic inspiration, and bold use of color and composition" to capture the "essences of humanity in poignant vignettes" (9). Lee aspires for a "popular theatre" via recovery of the Korean traditional concept of "play" obscured by the mainstream centered on Western realism (Shin Ahyoung, "A Study on the Popularity of Dramas by Lee Yoon Taek," in Drama yōn'gu [Drama Study] 23 [Seoul: Korea Drama Society]: 221–249). Lee is not the only playwright in search of "Korean cultural DNA" (10) among traditional Korean ritual motifs and performative characteristics. Hō Kyu, Oh Taesōk, and Son Chinch'aek among others paved the way for [End Page 381] contemporary traditional theatricality. Like many, Lee in his attempt to forge a purely "Korean" popular theatre, conceptually and stylistically, resorts to such Western imports as Brechtian epic theatricality, Artaudian absurdity, and Kafkaesque existentialism. His plays are interesting hybrids where the lines between Korean and Western, hilarious and serious, traditional and modern are creatively blurred; perhaps his hybridity is the reason behind his national and international recognition. The selected plays manifest "his affection for Korea, her people, and her culture; his earthy, passionate life-force empathy for the lonely and distrust of authoritarianism; and his ability to find truthful humor in emotionally-charged moments" (9–10).
Citizen K (1989), a drama of political persecution set in the torturous years (1981–1988) under the military dictator Chun Doo-Whan, brought Lee instant fame with its perfect timing at the end of the Chun era and its gripping verbal power: "The critical reporter whose back becomes hardened from torture can no longer wield the power of the pen, and the chief editor who every morning brushes dentures where teeth used to be will be much more faithful to self-censorship" (35).
O-Gu: A Ceremony of Death, borrows its title from the Ogu-kut, Korean ritual of purification for the dead, so to say Lee created the word O-gu as the authors do here is misinformation (50). Shown to an estimated 2.7 million Koreans since its first production (1989) up to the most recent rerun (July 2006), the play is a deconstruction of the time-immemorial ritual of soul cleansing. Lee, here, hovers on the faint boundary between the flippancy of nori, "play," and the solemnity of kut, indigenous ritual of healing.
Mask of Fire, A Ceremony of Power is a dramatic adaptation of Park Sangryung's novel Road to Hades (1986), with further inspiration from the poem Dream of a Parched Day on the Isle of Langerhans by the late Lee Hyung-Gi (92). The play is an impressive allegory of power, destruction, and death. Lee unleashes a narrative of force and violence in a play that sometimes teases viewers with pornographic details. This 1993 production earned the designation "stripping play," and it can be viewed either as a serious art or as "commercial erotic opportunism" (91) along with a number of other productions since the mid 1980s, including Maech'un I (Prostitution I), written by O T'aeyöng and produced by Pat'anggol Small...