Asian Theatre Journal 19.2 (2002) 351-354
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With the development of South Korea's "economic miracle" over the last two decades came recognition of contemporary South Korean theatre as a leader in the Asian theatre community and as a significant player on the world theatre stage. South Korean theatre companies toured in Europe and Asia and a South Korean production of The Last Empress performed in New York City. (All Korean references in this review are to South Korea.) A Korean was the moving force behind the establishment of the Beseto (Beijing-Seoul-Tokyo) Theatre Festival, now in its eighth year, and a Korean is the current president of the International Theatre Institute. Koreans were silver medalists in stage design at the Prague Quadrennial exhibitions in 1991 and 1996, respectively. The vice president of theInternational Theatre Critics Associationis a Korean, as is the director of the World Cup 2002 opening ceremonies. Despite these and other attainments, contemporary Korean theatre and its talented artists remain largely unknown in the West. The coeditor of Contemporary Korean Theatre, Kim Yun-Cheol (president of the Korean Association of Theatre Critics), notes in his preface that the "book aims at providing the world theatre community with a window into contemporary Korean theatre." The only text of its kind in English, Contemporary Korean Theatre hits the mark—a valuable addition to the sparse English-language materials dealing with modern Korean theatre and dramatic literature. [End Page 351]
"Some Generalizations on the Korean Theatre at the Turn of the Millennium" touches upon information available in two other volumes, most notably the impressive Korean Cultural Heritage (Vol. III, 1997), but also provides valuable insights into the development of feminist dramatic literature, the recent depoliticization of theatre, and the increasing importance of musical theatre in Korea. Still, much has changed in Korean theatre over the five years since Korean Cultural Heritage was published and, given Kim Yun-Cheol's wide-ranging familiarity with contemporary drama and theatre, one might wish for a longer, more detailed introduction in which the uneven quality of contemporary Korean stage acting particularly had been addressed.
The romanization of Korean names in the book is problematic. The family name romanized as YI in the text is the same family name romanized as LEE in an earlier section. Yi Yun-Taek has the same surname as Lee Kang-Baek, but both forms are used in the text. The Western reader unfamiliar with romanization of Korean may well think that the surnames are different though in fact they are the same. Given the promulgation of new romanization standards by the South Korean government in 2000 and the lingering variant uses of the McCune-Reischauer system, confusion may be unavoidable under current conditions, but consistent romanization within this text should have been the minimal standard. Romanization consistent with that in Contemporary Korean Theatre is used in this review unless a name is used in a title employing another system (such as Oh T'ae-Sok).
Contemporary Korean Theatre is divided into three sections. An essay on each of seven playwrights, seven directors, and six designers, written by a leading Korean scholar, critic, or theatre artist, provides insights into the education, training, body of work, and themes or aesthetic elements running through that work. The playwrights featured are Park Jo-Yeol, Lee Kun-Sam, Choi In-Hoon, Oh Tae-Sok, Lee Kang-Baek, Kim Kwang-Lim, and Cho Kwang-Hwa. Of these, Oh Tae-Sok is the subject of a significant collection of plays in English translation: The Metacultural Theater of Oh T'ae-Sok, by Ah-Jeong Kim and R.B. Graves (1999). Lee Kang-Baek generally is recognized as Korea's leading "literary" playwright (in contrast to Oh Tae-Sok, for example, whose plays are largely detailed scenarios for his particular kind of physically demanding corporeal theatre), but few of Lee's plays have been translated into English...