Korean Drama Analysis

Folk Theater

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The history of traditional Korean theater dates back more than two thousand years, but its exact origin is unknown. Historians and scholars have theorized that its origin may be traced back to ancient religious rites, folk observances, shamanistic rituals, court performances, and general amusement both for the elite at court and for the commoners. Korean mask-dance drama is usually grouped into two types of drama: village-festival or ceremony plays known as purakje and court theatrical plays or performances known as sandae-gk . Purakjeincludes village drama in the genre of pyŏlsin-gut among various genres of village plays. Sandae-gk includes court drama with several variations driven by region or locale: ogwangdae, pyŏlsandae, t’alch’um, and yaryu.

People of all social classes were greatly entertained by the many forms of mask-dance drama and puppet theater in Korean society and culture until the beginning of the twentieth century. At this point, however, folk dramas were becoming obsolete because modern audiences found them antiquated and not relevant to contemporary issues. Moreover, in the first decade of the twentieth century, folk drama was censored and prohibited by the occupying Japanese colonial administration, which wanted to eliminate Korean cultural heritage and force a Japanese acculturation; therefore, it banned mask-dance drama and puppet plays from 1930 to 1945. Between 1910 and 1930, Korean intellectuals and other dramatists were still able to produce modern plays that focused on Korean suffering at the hands of the Japanese occupation. However, these plays did not elicit the approval of the Japanese officials, and in turn, from 1930 to 1945, the Japanese eliminated the presentation of all Korean cultural heritage, which included theatrical productions. However, folk theater re-emerged during the 1970’s, with a return to Korean roots via government and academic intervention and renewed interest from contemporary audiences.

Ogwangdaemask-dance drama was performed according to the lunar calendar on New Year’s Eve, and unique to Pamm ri, a town situated on the bank of Naktong-kang River, Kyongsang-namdo Province, South Korea. Although its origin is unclear, one story suggests that the villagers found a casket floating along the bank near Pamm ri. They finally opened the basket to find the masks and instructions for enacting a mask-dance drama. The purposes of ogwangdae were to exorcise demons and evil spirits of the past year and to ensure prosperity for the next year, a good harvest, and an abundance of fish for the villagers. Ogwangdae means “five-clown play.” The plays in this mask-dance drama usually consist of five scenes. No original masks, made of paulownia wood, from Pamm ri have survived because of a great fire in1909. Dance, music, and witty dialogue are fundamental elements of the...

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Korean Drama Puppet Drama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The word kkoktu means “puppet,” and generally puppet drama is called kkoktu kaksi Scholars have suggested that Korean puppetry may have come from China or Asia Minor because of its linguistic roots. This puppet drama was highly popular among the commoners in Korean culture and society because of its subject matter and thematic relevance to the oppression of the lower classes. Kkoktu kaksi was performed for numerous purposes: religious worship, shamanistic rites, ancestral worship, ceremonial and military functions, and general amusement. For general entertainment, puppets of stock characters, such as corrupted officials, lustful monks, and other domestic characters, were greatly satirized, thereby serving popular amusement for the commoners. Historically, few attempts have been made to preserve kkoktu kaksi; scanty evidence implies that puppet plays were not considered to have literary or aesthetic value in ancient times. However, attempts by modern scholars and historians to restore this heritage began in the mid-twentieth century and continue in the contemporary period.

The construction of the puppets involves carved wood and papier-mâché with wooden frames. A puppet theater company is usually made up of six or seven performers, three or four puppeteers, and three musicians.

Korean Drama Modern Theater

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

When the popularity of folk drama began to decline at the beginning of the twentieth century, modern forms of drama began to emerge. This modern drama dealt with contemporary social issues that were deemed more relevant to Korean people than folk drama.

Shinp’arefers to a genre of modern drama, a popular commercial theater form emerging during the 1930’s and influenced by Japanese modern theater and Western literary sources. Shinp’a is made up of three types of plays: domestic, military, and detective plays. Among these types, the domestic plays were most popular because they were melodramatic, dealing with love, and family separation and bankruptcy, evidenced notably in Pak Sung-hi’s play Arirang-goge (pr. 1926; Arirang Pass). These themes likely arose in response to Japanese occupation and exploitation. In South Korea, the production of contemporary American plays by such playwrights as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and William Inge was predominant in the shinp’a during the 1950’s. The 1960’s saw European authors such as Jean Anouilh, Max Frisch, and Samuel Beckett being introduced in the shinp’a. In the shinp’a genre of the early twenty-first century, surrealism and experimental techniques have been introduced, embraced by modern Korean audiences.

In 1948, Korea was divided into the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea...

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Korean Drama Bibliography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Brandon, James R., and Martin Banham, eds. The Cambridge Guide to Asian Theatre. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997. The book has entries on individual Asian countries and their respective theatrical developments and history, with comprehensive listings of the most important aspects of each country’s dramatic genres and styles.

Cho, Oh-kon. Korean Puppet Theatre: Kkoktu Kaksi. East Lansing: Michigan State University, 1979. Focuses on the whole history and development of Korean puppet theater, with details on the linguistics and origins of the puppet plays.

Cho, Oh-kon. Traditional Korean Theatre. Berkeley, Calif.: Asian Humanities Press, 1988. Provides a comprehensive and detailed history of the development, importance, influence, and aesthetics of each genre of mask-dance drama and puppet plays in Korean folk theater. Scholarly and expert information details the similarities and distinctions among the genres of mask-dance plays.

Kardos, John. An Outline History of Korean Drama. New York: Long Island University Press, 1966. Offers basic information on the historical importance of Korean drama and its development and cultural heritage up to the time of publication.

Schechner, Richard, and Willa Appel, eds. By Means of Performance: Intercultural Studies of Theatre and Ritual. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Discusses the importance and influences of Korean shamanistic rites and ceremonies and how this shamanistic tradition is portrayed in Korean folk drama.