Jockeying for Tradition: The Checkered History of Korean Ch'angguk Opera

By Killick, Andrew P. | Asian Theatre Journal, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Jockeying for Tradition: The Checkered History of Korean Ch'angguk Opera


Killick, Andrew P., Asian Theatre Journal


The perception that Korea does not have a traditional theatre form comparable to those of other Asian countries has been widely accepted by Koreans as well as international observers. The last hundred years have seen a sustained effort to Jill this gap with a genre called ch'angguk--a type of opera using the singing style, and often the actual repertoire, of the older musical storytelling form p'ansori. But admission to the hallowed ranks of the traditional has not come easily, and ch'angguk still awaits the marks of institutional recognition bestowed on p'ansori and other designated "cultural assets." This article traces the complex and unfinished history of ch'anggisk's efforts to position its elf relative to the "traditional" against the backdrop of Korea's turbulent transition from Confucian dynastic rule through colonization, partition, and nation building. In the process, we see how a genre that seeks to associate itself with tradition has had to address issues of historical truth, modernity, nationalis m, gender, and the colonial encounter.

Andrew Killick is lecturer in ethnomusicology at the University of Sheffield, UK., and past president of the Association for Korean Music Research. He received his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from the University of Washington in 1998 and served as associate editor and contributing author to the East Asia volume of the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music (2002). His research interest in musical theatre extends from Korean opera to Broadway and Hollywood.

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Given the enormous amount of attention, scholarly and otherwise, that the theatrical traditions of Asia have attracted both at home and abroad, one might not expect to find a whole country whose main form of indigenous professional indoor theatre remains virtually unknown outside its borders and largely neglected even within them. Yet such a country is Korea, long regarded as a "land without theatre" by domestic and international observers alike. William Elliott Griffis's remark that "the theatre, proper, does not seem to exist in Corea" (Griffis 1907, 291) was echoed almost a century later in a program note by director Yi Chinsun: "Our country originally had no theatre and no stage. As a result, it could not have its own dramatic form....It is this that we are now trying to create for the first time." (1) From the frequency with which such statements are encountered, one might be forgiven for supposing that theatre was unknown to Korea before the Western influences of the twentieth century--and that a distin ctively Korean style of theatre was left for modern directors like Yi Chinsun to create, having no basis in traditional performing arts. But in fact the effort to develop such a style within the setting of the modern theatre has been marked throughout its hundred-year history by constant maneuvering for an advantageous position relative to the traditional--by, if you will, jockeying for tradition.

Moreover, we must be careful to distinguish "theatre" from "the theatre" or "theatres." While it is true that the commercial indoor theatre with separate stage and auditorium (Griffis's "theatre proper") came to the peninsula only with the dawn of the twentieth century, Korea, like the rest of the world, had always had performing arts that were "theatrical" or "dramatic" insofar as they involved acting and the depiction of fictional characters and events. Ever since these traditional art forms were brought into the type of performance space that the world calls a "theatre," Koreans have been striving to create an indigenous, "traditional" theatre form to show the world as a home-grown equivalent of China's jingju ("Peking opera") or Japan's kabuki.

The most likely candidate to fill this role is ch'angguk, a type of opera that began to develop when the musical storytelling tradition of p'ansori was brought into the new public theatres in the early 1900s. Borrowing a phrase from Hobsbawm and Ranger's much-cited book (1983), I have elsewhere described this process as the "invention of traditional Korean opera" Killick 1998a). …

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