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  • Modern Korean Drama: An Anthology
  • Kathy Foley
Modern Korean Drama: An Anthology. Edited by Richard Nichols. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. 352 pp. Cloth $25.00.

As editor Richard Nichols notes, volumes dedicated to South Korea's modern drama in English are rare: this is the first multi-dramatist anthology of South Korean post-independence work since Wedding Day and Other Korean Plays in 1983 (Korean National Commission for UNESCO 1983). Translation and discussion of selected works by a single important figure—Oh T'ae-sok (1999), Lee Yun-t'aek (2007), Lee Kang-baek (2008), and Yu Chijin (2005)—have been the norm in publications of the last decade. Nichols's volume opts for wider coverage and gives an overview of post-1962 modern drama though scripts that indicate diverse directions playwrights have explored. This text will be useful to those seeking a textbook on Korean modern drama because it includes background and playable, accessible translations. [End Page 386]

The introduction notes that class distinctions and a Confucian ethos confined performance to lower-class genres in the Choson period (1392-1910). Nichols credits Japanese shinpa ("new school" drama) and shingeki (new theatre) for development of modern drama as a genre supported by intellectuals in colonial Korea (1908-1945). With the end of Japanese rule, the US presence and its then current psychological realism had impact on playwriting. However, authors sought to reenvision theatre in a distinctly Korean way by the 1970s and 1980s. Censorship, Nichols notes, was a constraint in the theatre from the beginning of the century until 1988. He also notes that the lack of any true proscenium stage space made the pursuit of realism difficult to achieve. The proliferation of small stages with limited technical possibilities along with the return to Korea-centered themes, movement styles, and music have made the trend since the 1970s experimental and hybrid. Nichols notes influences of indigenous theatre, pan-Asian models, absurdism, and Brecht are important in the creations of the last decades.

Two classics of modern drama—Ch'a Pomsok's Burning Mountain (1962) and Pak Choyol's Ochang-Gun's Toenail (1974)—represent the earliest work in this volume. Four scripts come from the 1990s. An as yet unproduced play, Ch'o Sunghui (2004), which looks at the life of the eponymous dancer who went to North Korea in the 1950s, is the final script. The seven plays give insight into the political and social concerns of the authors as well as their particular aesthetics.

Ch'a Pomsok's Burning Mountain (1962) is a realist script that reflects the grim circumstances of women living in a mountain village during the Korean War. The women are caught between the Communists above and Republic of Korea forces below—both groups have drafted or killed all their men. "Oh what unlucky people we are! If we go up we'll be killed, if we come down we will be destroyed" (p. 45). When a man deserts from the communist camp, a young widow hides him and they become lovers. Another widow discovers and demands a share of the fugitive. She threatens to report him to the ROK forces if she does not get her way. Confucian ethics that require widows to remain faithful to dead husbands and armies that seize all the men to dash them against each other in the name of ideology—these forces leave no room for the desire of the young to live and love.

The translation by Janet Poole is accessible, and the village perspective on how ordinary people were ground between two aggressors is communicated. I saw the 2007 musical Dancing Shadow, a version of Burning Mountain adapted by Ariel Dorfman with music by Eric Woolfson; it was the ultimate antimusical with gray lighting, gloomy songs, and constrained movement. (How much dancing can you do when all the living are starving and terrified, and your chorus is a grove of trees representing the writhing dead souls and brutalized landscape?) This original script is much more playable.

O Chang-gun's Toenail, written by Pak Choyol in 1974 and translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, is another piece that invites staging. It...


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