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Modern Drama

Western drama was first staged in Korea in 1908 at the newly opened Won-gaksa Theater in Seoul. The advent of "new drama," as it was known, was perhaps inevitable at a time when the powerful influence of Western culture and civilization entered Korea

The pioneer of the "new drama" movement was Yi In-jik, who had returned from studying in Japan. It was Yi who made the Won-gaksa a success. He not only wrote the plays for Korea's first proper theater, but managed, supervised and directed them. He was followed in 1911 by Im Song-gu whose works were greeted with standing support from the beginning. Im, however, turned to less-serious drama later, catering to popular romantic sentiments in what became known as "new-school plays." In 1912, another modernist, Yi Ki-se, appeared with two more troupes, and the world of theater became crowded. By then, a considerable number of professional actors, actresses, stage directors and playwrights were available to put the "new drama" on a solid footing.

A more serious group, calling itself the Drama Arts Society, was organized in 1921, mostly by students who had returned from Japan. A significant contribution to this Western-inspired movement was the formation of the T'owolhoe (Earth-Moon Society) in 1923 by a group of students then studying in Japan. Such figures as Pak Sung-hui and Kim P'albong, who later became an eminent writer, came home during school vacations to play major roles in "realistic" plays.

Though its members were amateurs, the T'owolhoe surpassed any other professional group with its high artistic standards and the introduction of "realistic" themes. The society's repertoire consisted mostly of original works written by its own members, but it also included translations and adaptations of world masterpieces. Popular approval was so great that in its 10-year existence it presented a total of 180 performances/a record-breaking feat for that time. Its influence has been felt ever since in Korean dramatic circles.

Besides the T'owolhoe, a professional group called Ch'wisongjwa turned out a substantial number of good actors and actresses throughout the 1920s.

The most significant landmark in the next decade of development was the formation of the Society for the Study of Dramatic Arts in 1931. Organized by the elite of Korea's theatrical and literary circles, this society presented numerous world masterpieces as well as original works by its members. Unfortunately, the Japanese Governor-General forced it to disband soon after its establishment because of its nationalistic tendencies, but its individual members carried on by organizing another body, the Drama Study Troupe. Under this name, it lasted until the end of the decade when the Japanese again forced its dissolution. The 1930s brought a period of socialistic thought that was reflected in the theatrical world by the Modern Theater, New Construction, and several other groups, all sympathetic to the leftist cause.

The early 1940s was a period of concentrated Pacific War efforts, and the theater came to a standstill under intensified Japanese pressure.

The tragic post-liberation division of the land and the ensuing political cleavage brought chaos to Korean dramatic circles. Numerous groups, each with its own political color, sprouted one after another and folded as quickly as they came. With the establishment of the Republic of Korea Government in 1948 and the laying down of a definite political ideology, confusion ended, and in 1950, a National Theater was formed.

Following the Korean War, the New Drama Society, an organ of the National Theater, revived interest chiefly in Shakespeare and Yu Ch'i-jin, one of the foremost Korean dramatists. The boom of motion pictures and TV, however, deprived the stage of both talent and an audience, and decline set in.

Nevertheless, several groups courageously carried on, creating what is known as the "small theater" movement. They emphasized artistic presentations as opposed to the professional endeavors that sought large theaters and better financial returns for the producer. The more serious-minded supporters of Korean theater organized the Korean National Center of International Theater Institute in 1958, and engaged in international cultural exchanges. A number of other theater groups that where active and serious in purpose included the Minjung (Populace), Yoin (Woman), Shilhom (Experimental), Chayu (Freedom), Kagyo (Bridge) and Kwangjang (Plaza) theater groups.

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Information provided by the Korean Embassy

 


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