Puppet Theatre at Anseong and a Factory

I had an invitation from an acquaintance, a Mrs Lee (are there other names in Korea?) to see puppet theatre at Anseong, a town due north of Eumseong, due north of Daeso where I was staying.

Anseong has much greenery, vineyards and orchards, and seems to have many places dedicated to the arts, especially the Namsadang Baudeogi Pungmul, a development that includes a smallish amphitheatre, galleries, an eatery, a rather beautiful restaurant and an informal garden.  This place promotes the puppet theatre and mask theatre that come from the 14th century (Joseon dynasty). It started as an itinerant all-male group, which reminds me of the European Commedia d’ell arte, and flourished until the mid-20th century when politicians decided that war was more important.


The compere

The performance was a little over an hour, made to an audience of about 250 people, families with children.  Five musicians in costumes of white, indigo, green, wearing a turban-like headdress, entered with two drums, a fife (it’s a small “wry-nosed” trumpet) and cymbals.  They sat in a row below the black velvet puppet stage.  Four of them were young men and the young woman was the mistress of ceremonies.


Puppet and musicians

I didn’t understand a word throughout, but was engrossed.  Her performance was superb:  she engaged the crowd, elicited responses and singing, introduced the puppets, haggled them, laughing off their accusations of her, and crying when she was insulted. The story as I heard afterward from Mrs Lee was of two wives in a traditional family who can’t stop fighting with each other.  [Apparently the Chinese pictogram of discontent shows two women under one roof! This is an old, old story…]      The acting was appropriately over-the-top and marvellously done – from the old patriarch of the family, the languid dragon-cum-crocodile to the rather dark-skinned guy who enters with no clothes and a semi erection.  How this last character fitted into the story, amongst the rest of the troupe, will remain a mystery to me.  Suddenly he turns his member on the audience and wees copiously!  The audience roared with laughter. The technology of that puppet feat would be interesting to know. Maybe it’s another one of Samsung’s achievements – they’re a versatile company.


Anseong puppets

The dialogue was spoken, spoken-sung and sung, and it was punctuated with snippets of music and singing from the quintet below the stage, in true Eastern theatre fashion. The music is structured by a powerful drum beat, syncopated by a cymbal, all seamed together by the thin sound of the little trumpet.


The musicians perform

After the performance I suggested that we have a bite to eat at the Korean eating tressles.  Tufu, pork, green-purple lettuce leaves, bean paste, gimchi, meat-and-veg soup, savoury rice – ah, how can I descibe what a mere R14 can buy?  Only one who has lived in this country will grasp this.

On the way back I spotted a granite carving and engraving factory and asked Mrs Lee to stop.  Here I saw the most wonderful juxtapositions:  in the hangar-like building was a three-metre high Buddha prosperously presiding next to a Christ-the-Redeemer figure, almost back to back!  Both were really well wrought.


The busy workman

A man was busy carving out the face of a Christ figure perhaps two metres tall, as it lay on his work bench.  Outside amongst the pagodas and some Western garden kitsch, was a giant two-metre granite penis.  Unmistakable.  It’s probably part of the tradition of phallicism which is much more veiled in Western culture. In Korea it is probably vaguely associated with shamanism. Three faiths in one ambit –  can this happen in the country of my birth?

Will van der Walt ©

May, 2008


 Image Sources: Photographs by Will


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