A study of the Korean oral narrative (p'ansori) and its singers (kwangdae) from the earliest known origins to the state of the art in the twentieth century, based upon historical references, extant p'ansori texts, biographical studies of nineteenth-century kwangdae, interviews with living singers, and contemporary recordings.
This Korean oral tradition is treated as related to comparable artforms in other cultures, such as the Chinese chantefable (chu-kung-tiao), Japanese puppet libretti (jōruri), and the Yugoslav oral epic. Accordingly, it is asserted that early kwangdae improvised their narratives on the basis of oral formulae, as described by Albert B. Lord in The Singer of Tales. However, it is assumed that the force of the guildlike organization of kwangdae and the master-disciple relationship through which their art was transmitted resulted in a fixing of texts and a loss of this improvisational character.
In addition, the study considers the relationship between the p'ansori and the folk tale and also discusses the operatic adaptations and commercially printed versions of the oral narrative that began to appear at the end of the nineteenth century.