[KS] KSR 2000-15: __The Metacultural Theater of Oh T'ae-sOk_

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Sat Nov 11 04:22:43 EST 2000

_The Metacultural Theater of Oh T'ae-sOk: Five Plays from the Korean
Avant-Garde_, translated by Ah-jeong Kim and R.B. Graves.  Honolulu:
University of Hawai'i Press, 1999.  164 pages. ( ISBN 0-824821-58-0 paper;
0-8248-2099-1, hardcover).

Reviewed by Gregory Nicholas Evon
The Australian National University

This review will also appear in the _New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies_ 2.2

In a career that has lasted over thirty years, Oh T'ae-sOk has written
roughly as many plays, and Kim and Graves give us approximately one-sixth
of his lifetime's output.  In addition, they provide photos of the
performances and a short, yet first-rate introduction to the playwright,
his aesthetic background and development, and the plays themselves.   Three
of these--_Bicycle_, _Intimacy between Father and Son_, and _Lifecord_--are
dramatizations of Korean historical events, while the remaining
two--_Ch'un-p'ung's Wife_ and _Why Did Shim Ch'™ng Plunge into the Sea
Twice?_--are based on classical Korean narratives.

The first three are drawn from events dating from the 20th, 18th, and 15th
centuries, respectively, and each deals with a violent episode.  In
_Bicycle_, this is an atrocity with which occurred in Oh's hometown: in
September 1950, 127 anticommunists were arrested by North Korean soldiers
and later burned to death.  The story unfolds in the form of personal
recollections recounted by the main character, Yun, whose own family is
haunted by that massacre.  In it, his uncle and father each played a role,
and taken together, their two roles represent a dreadful balance: his
father, a victim, and his uncle, one of the men who set fire to the
building.  On that night when Yun's own family and other townspeople
conduct rituals for the dead, his uncle conducts a private ritual: cutting
his face with a shard of broken glass.  The consequent facial scarification
represents psychic wounds of unimaginable depths, and in telling this
story, Oh uses flashbacks, apparitions, and a "stream of consciousness"
narrative technique, thus suggesting the difficulty of capturing the
magnitude of the event itself or its aftermath.  Oh also introduces a
subplot involving a man and woman who, infected with leprosy, give their
two daughters to another family.  These two children's fates mirror those
events of the past, and while I first thought this portion to be
ill-fitting, I was no longer certain after a second reading.  It should
suffice to say that a theatrical production has possibilities denied the

_Bicycle_ succeeds in evoking the continued presence of the past, and so do
_Intimacy_ and _Lifecord_, though to a lesser degree for a non-Korean reader.
_Intimacy_ focuses on the events surrounding the murder qua suicide of the
Crown Prince Seja by his father, King Y™ngjo, in 1762.  The two had a
troubled relationship, to put it mildly, and as Seja was bereaved of those
closest to him, he grew progressively more unstable, eventually becoming as
mad as a hatter-not an altogether inappropriate description considering
that one of the signs of his instability was manifested in an inability to
dress properly.  He had been raised to become a Confucian ruler, but
instead turned into a political liability, engaging in wild sexual romps
and committing murders with alarming regularity.  Y™ngjo was thus faced
with a dilemma between political necessity and Confucian ethics: while he
needed to kill his son, he also wanted to avoid the crime of filicide.
Forced suicide was the solution.  At first the son made several attempts at
self-strangulation upon his father's orders; finally, he was ordered to
climb "voluntarily" into a rice chest where he died several days later.

Similarly, _Lifecord_ focuses on the violent events surrounding the
usurpation of King Tanjong's throne by his uncle Sejo in 1456.  Six loyal
scholars attempted to restore the teenage king to the throne; for this they
were executed, as was Tanjong.  Yet the bloodshed did not stop there.  The
scholars' wives, children, and their extended families were all executed,
also, and this historical episode seems to have made an indelible
impression upon Oh.  As a boy he "wondered, why [should I] die for my
relative's crime?" and drew from this episode the alarming and in no way
disprovable idea "that this world grows by eating up its youth" (p. 7).

For a non-Korean, these two plays are likely to be read as dramatizations
of bizarre, foreign events; but for Oh, these are "about real people" (p.
11), and while the characters of these plays come alive as distinct,
dramatic personalities, the sense that the past lives within the present,
so sharply drawn in Bicycle, is here harder to grasp.  These two require of
the reader not only an appreciation of Oh's conviction that "in every
respect, Korea is a tragic country" (p. 3) and a general knowledge of the
main themes in Korean history, but more important, an appreciation of how
Koreans tend to look at their own history.  Through these two plays, Oh
shows Koreans as both subjects and actors within their own history: a
history best judged collectively, for in the translators' own words, "the
Korean people have suffered-and ultimately created-their history together"
(p.3).  This deeply held notion of collectivity is, I think, what draws
Bicycle, Intimacy, and Lifecord together, and if one appreciates this
collectivist impulse, then it is not hard to see parallels among those
events from the 15th, 18th, and 20th centuries insofar as each was marked
by intra-familial murder.

The remaining two plays are satirical and each in their own way, hilarious.
_Ch'un-p'ung's Wife_ treats the conflict between a wife and husband, who has
gone off and taken up with a famous female entertainer (kisaeng), finally
becoming her servant when he runs out of funds.  This simple premise leads
to a complex web of misunderstandings that are ludicrous and enabled in no
small part by two "stupid amphibians" (p. 83), T™k-jung and Yi Chi, among
whom the former is by far the stupider.  His literal interpretations of two
metaphorical expressions for death used by the wife-"kicked the bucket" and
"cut a cold fart"-lead him to inquire about the odor of the fart in
question and offer such useful advice as "squeeze your butthole tight so
that the cold fart won't leak out," and in the absence of a bucket, "take
off your shoe instead, and hold it tight" (p. 85).  Such misunderstandings
are indicative of the miscommunications that propel the play towards an
obscenely uproarious conclusion of sexagenarian sex-and a couple of deaths.

The final play is, however, the most provocative, and here we are forced to
laugh in spite of ourselves.  It is loosely based on a classic narrative,
_The Song of Shim Ch'Ong_, in which the young female protagonist leaps into
the sea as a sacrifice to an underwater king, believing that she thus can
cure her father's blindness.  In Oh's hands, this premise is turned into a
comment on the grotesqueness of much in modern Korean society, and through
this play, we truly come to understand the translators' evaluation that
"Oh's admixture of East and West, old and new" is based on the idea that
"cultures be explored as cultures and in relation to other cultures" (p.

What is most grotesque can indeed be found right before us, wherever we
live.  In answering _Why Did Shim Ch'Ong Plunge into the Sea Twice?_, Oh
presents us with a cast of characters simultaneously ludicrous and all too
real.  The most interesting and unsettling is the Dragon King.  In Oh's
play, he becomes a pimp, although he has a moral conscience at the start.
The play is chiefly devoted to tracing his moral devolution, and in one key
instance, he tries to postpone his release from prison because "learning
can take place anywhere" (p. 136), which raises the question, "but what are
you learning?"  The answer is that he is learning how to live in this
world, and the transformation of his ignorance into a cynical pragmatism is
well marked.  Logically, he is initially uncertain about the nature of fire
(p. 127), yet we later find him offering petulant self-justifications to a
firefighter: "Geez, I didn't know turpentine was so combustible" (p. 132).
Finally, this former underwater denizen raises a ruckus because he is
afraid of drowning!  Critically, this happens just before he gleefully
decides to become a seafaring pimp (pp. 142-143), carrying his cargo of
young ladies on the Sea Gull F27, a boat powered by a sturdy German engine
(p. 144).  The make of this engine together with the fact that he had been
traveling on "a little boat called Unification" (p. 142) cannot be
dismissed as accidental, and at the disturbing conclusion of the play, we
see that the Sea Gull F27 might be more aptly named the Sea Anomie.

The script of a play is, by definition, an incomplete project, and neither
success nor failure are due solely to the playwright whose indispensable
role at the outset wanes as more people contribute to making that vision a
reality.  Much the same can be said about literary translation.  It too is
a form of collaboration, but whereas the playwright's words are translated
onto the stage and thus aspire to completeness, the writer's words are
translated into other words that can be satisfying, though, arguably, never
complete.  In the case of translating a play, success would seem even more
elusive.  Yet judging by Kim's and Graves' book translations, they have
been most successful, and this satisfying work reflects well upon Oh as an
artist and themselves as able mediums of his artistry.

Evon, Gregory Nicholas 2000
Review of Oh T'ae-SOk, _The Metacultural Theater of Oh T'ae-sOk: Five Plays
from the Korean Avant-Garde_, translated by Ah-jeong Kim and R.B. Graves,
_Korean Studies Review_ 2000, no. 15
Electronic file: http://www.iic.edu/thelist/review/ksr00-15.htm

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