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  • In Search of Korean Traditional Opera: Discourses of Ch’anggŭk
  • Areum Jeong
In Search of Korean Traditional Opera: Discourses of Ch’anggŭk. By Andrew Killick. University of Hawai‘i Press, 2010. 254 pp. ISBN 978-0-8248-3290-2. Hardcover, $48.00.

Andrew Killick’s In Search of Korean Traditional Opera: Discourses of Ch’ang gŭk is an interdisciplinary work that examines traditional Korean opera in two distinct forms. One is the discourse about ch’anggŭk and its history—a discourse that constructs ch’anggŭk as Korean traditional opera. The other is the discourse within and through ch’anggŭk, which has propagated certain ideas about Korea and its traditions. Killick is broadly interested in the convergence of discourses of nation, gender, aesthetics, cross-cultural comparison, and the postcolonial conditions that surrounds ch’anggŭk’s status. He focuses on the form and content of performances to answer the question a Korean audience member posed to him and that he discusses in the introduction: “What do you think of Korean traditional opera?” (p. xvi). The most significant component of Killick’s work is his inquiry into Korean nationalism in relation to the performing arts. He discusses why a Korean traditional opera helps formulate Korean national identity, and he suggests ways ch’anggŭk can become better recognized by foreign audiences.

Killick begins with his own spectatorship and interest in researching ch’anggŭk. He examines Korean nationalists’ contemporary attempts to recreate this turn-of-the-twentieth-century genre as a national drama and the difficulties in doing so (p. xviii). He makes a distinction between p’ansori (story singing, which he sees as a traditional genre) and ch’anggŭk, which grows from this earlier genre. Careful discussion of the genesis is inevitable in exploring [End Page 574] how ch’anggŭk in contemporary Korea constructed Korean traditional opera, despite its marginal status as a “tradition” (p. xxx). Drawing on Barry McDonald’s view of “tradition” as a point of departure, Killick defines “tradition” as “a practice invested with a commitment to its continuation and with efforts to protect it from change” in order to examine the crosscultural discourses of ch’anggŭk (pp. xix–xx). Indeed, for Killick, ch’anggŭk is a performance that gives voice to a particular history. He seeks to unpack the values and ideas surrounding its new status as “Korean traditional opera.”

In chapter 2, Killick challenges the accepted myths about the origins of ch’anggŭk and shows how different theories enhance or detract from its claim to be traditional. Drawing from Korean- and English-language sources, Killick provides a brief analysis of Korean theater arts and compares ch’anggŭk with other Asian theater forms. He suggests this genre corresponds to “hybrid-popular theatres” that mixed local and colonial Western influences rather than traditional theatres with a longer history such as jingju or kabuki (p. 46). In addition, ch’anggŭk conforms to a pattern found in theatrical forms created under conditions of colonization (p. 34). In opposition to previous scholarship, Killick argues that Japanese imperialism was productive to Korean aspirations toward progress and contends that ch’anggŭk is a “hybrid-popular theater,” an art form that arose out of the colonial encounter with a postcolonial consciousness (p. 69). Employing Hanne de Bruin’s definition of “hybrid-popular theatres” as genres that arose through “direct and indirect contacts between indigenous expressive genres and Western, melodramatic performance conventions and proscenium stage techniques, which were imported into Asia during colonial times” (p. 47), Killick argues the staff members of the Tongyang Theater, where the art developed, were often trained in Japan during the colonial period, and after seeing Meiji era developments helped rework the storytelling tradition, which was an “indigenous expressive genre” (p’ansori), into ch’anggŭk as a theatrical art form (p. 102). Although Killick recognizes that ch’anggŭk’s colonial heritage may cause difficulties in using it in the present postcolonial search for Korean traditional opera, he contends that it is because of the colonial origins outlined in chapters 2 and 3 that the postcolonial history of ch’anggŭk has centered...