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 production of ogwangdae drama. The dance, which used to be brisk and lively, has become more slow and languid over time.
The origin of pyŏlsandaeis described in a legend of more than two hundred years ago. According to this legend, the townspeople of Yangju, about fifteen miles northeast of Seoul, began to put on a dance performance by making their own masks after court performers of sandae-gk (which encompasses most forms of Korean court mask-dance drama preserved through oral tradition) did not appear for the scheduled performance. After the unexpected success of this mask-dance drama, the townspeople called it Yangju pyŏlsandae. The word pyŏlsandae means “separate stage performance” because it is derived from sandae-gk. The pyŏlsandae mask-dance drama was performed several times a year for heaven worship and reverence to the gods, notably for autumn harvest, and Buddha’s birthday on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month, with people dancing and singing in these ceremonies. Dance and music are very important in the pyŏlsandae , which uses most of the basic Korean mask-dance forms. The music in this drama derives from folk...
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