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Asian Theatre Journal 17.2 (2000) 292-293

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The Metacultural Theater of Oh T'ae-sok: Five Plays from the Korean Avant-Garde. Translated by Ah-jeong Kim and R. B. Graves. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1999. 164 pp. + illus. Cloth $33.00; paper $14.95

This book is the first English anthology of plays by Oh T'ae-s(breve)ok, Korea's leading playwright and most prominent director, who is also considered one of the most original theatre artists working in Asia today. The book includes five of Oh's most frequently staged plays ranging from the 1970s to the 1990s: Bicycle (1983), Intimacy Between Father and Son (1992), Ch'un-p'ung's Wife (1976), Lifecord (1974), and Why Did Shim Ch'(breve)ong Plunge into the Sea Twice? (1991).

In view of the dearth of resource materials available in English, this book provides a valuable addition to Korean theatre scholarship. Given the succinct and clear style of translation, achieved by the teamwork of a native Korean speaker, Ah-jeong Kim, and a native speaker of English, R. B. Graves, these translations can be used both as texts for world drama courses and as performance scripts for the stage. Full-page performance photographs of the five plays and a translator's note help to promote understanding of Oh
T'ae-s(breve)ok's plays. Other useful features are a selected bibliography and the McCune-Reischauer system for romanizing the Korean alphabet.

A strength of this anthology lies in its brief and yet reliable introduction, which exhibits substantive research and a deep understanding of Oh T'ae-s(breve)ok's theatre from a cross-cultural perspective. In the introduction, the translators present a brief history of modern Korean theatre to contextualize the biographical information and Oh's professional status in today's Korean theatre. It also offers careful interpretive summaries of the five plays.

From the time of his debut in the late 1960s, Oh T'ae-s(breve)ok was regarded by the establishment theatre of realism as a renegade genius who indulged in his own kind of abstract theatre games. It took quite some time before his genius came to be accepted and truly appreciated by the public. To date he has written some thirty-odd plays of diverse styles and themes. All his plays embody Oh's strenuous experimental spirit, the thrust of which derives from [End Page 292] his search for a uniquely Korean spirit (Hankuk-hon) or Korean-ness (Hankuk-sung)--that is, Korean identity.

The unique sense of irony, paradox, and humor that characterizes Oh's dramatic structure and ethos derive from his modernized theatrical transformations of a similar spirit and ethos embedded in traditional Korean folk performances, such as mask-dance dramas and puppetry. Framed by the experimental theatrical techniques of episodic structure and synchronic collapsing of different times--which the introduction attributes to the Western influences of Artaud, Brecht, Grotowski, and others--these characteristics collectively create stunning visual images. Thus the introduction quite convincingly portrays Oh as a Korean postmodernist. Through his plays, seemingly Western in their external forms, however, Oh has created a unique vision of Korea as an ontological universe as well as a phenomenological reality.

In this regard, one wonders about the point of view involved in the word "metacultural" in the book's title. The introduction states that Oh's "metacultural theatre views cultures as processes that may be modified in the theatre, but only by being considered as processes in relation to other processes" (p. 20). It is not quite clear how translators Kim and Graves define "metacultural" generically in relation to the specificity of each of the book's five plays. One can only draw conjectures from the general implications of the argument. In trying to project Oh T'ae-s(breve)ok as a Korean multiculturalist, the introduction tends to minimize the importance of his nationalist spirit as an indigenous playwright. This is justifiable in the sense that the translators want...