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A Visit to Wielopole, Korea

Keywords

Korean theatre Polish theatre Seung-Hoon Chai Tadeusz Kantor Changpa Theatre Company Cricot 2 Doodri, Doodri Wielopole, Wielopole directing memory Korean War Second World War Theatre of Death autobiographical performance trauma

Article

Kee-Yoon Nahm is a DFA candidate in the dramaturgy and dramatic criticism program at the Yale School of Drama. His writings have appeared in Journal of American Drama and Theatre, Theater, Theatre Journal, and the anthologies Performing Objects and Theatrical Things and Modern Western Theater Directors, Vol. 2 (Korean).


Perhaps the most identifiable element of Tadeusz Kantor’s theatre, more distinguishable than any of his formal techniques or theoretical writings, is his unique stage presence during each performance.

The brooding figure of the director dressed neatly in a black suit, meticulously inspecting every object placed onstage and keeping a close eye on each of the actors’ gestures, goes hand-in-hand with the deeply subjective nature of his theatre pieces. From The Dead Class (1975) onwards, Kantor used his childhood memories and elements from his past work as key points of reference in his creative process, shaping the ‘ready-made’ objects of his inner self into striking images. This trait was particularly evident in Wielopole, Wielopole (1980), named after his hometown of Wielopole Skrzyńskie, in which the scenes of domestic life under siege by the squad of mechanistic soldiers is largely based on Kantor’s family history during the long periods of war in twentieth-century Poland.

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The ‘Last Supper’ tableau in Doodri, Doodri. Photograph courtesy of Changpa Theatre Company.

Although Wielopole, Wielopole was the result of a collaborative process involving the Cricot 2 company members, Kantor’s presence imposed a certain biographical authenticity on the production: the events taking place onstage became a recounting of Kantor’s personal childhood memories. As such, a production of the performance text without his appearance seems unimaginable. Yet that is precisely what Changpa Theatre Company, an experimental group led by director Seung-Hoon Chai, attempted in 2007.[1] Kantor’s piece was renamed Doodri, Doodri and set in and around the Korean War. The experiment was a great success; it won awards for Best Production and Best New Female Actor the following year at the Seoul Theatre Festival, and received invitations to festivals in Romania and the Czech Republic. Most reviews praised the production’s unconventional representation of the Korean War through its highly condensed, poetic images, which constituted an entirely new way of looking at Korean history.

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Seung-Hoon Chai (centre, facing camera) onstage during the first version of Doodri, Doodri. Photograph courtesy of Changpa Theatre Company.

Unfortunately, Kantor’s name was mentioned only in passing. As Kantor’s work is relatively unknown in Korea even now, the absence of the man in the black suit and scarf was hardly noticed.[2] The comprehensive transposition of Wielopole into a Korean community was widely successful in connecting with contemporary audiences, but failed to stimulate interest in an important figure in avant-garde theatre history. On the other hand, we might recall that Kantor stressed that his stagings were intended as rehearsals in a continuously open, creative process.[3] If Kantor identified ‘repetition’ as the fundamental principle that drives the endless construction and deconstruction of materialized memory, why should that process come to a halt with his death? What can Doodri, Doodri as an anomalous iteration of Wielopole, Wielopole ‘contaminated’ by an utterly foreign set of cultural icons offer to our understanding of Kantor’s theatre?[4] Given the rarity of a director other than Kantor himself staging his texts or his performance scores [partytury], Doodri, Doodri may be able to shed light on whether Kantor truly realized his wish of achieving an ‘autonomous theatre’ – one that can exist even without its originary figure as the subject that remembers.

When asked what attracted him most to Kantor’s text, Chai unhesitatingly answered that it was the vivid representation of a nation and a people terrorized by the atrocities of modern history; in other words, the dramatic content of Wielopole, Wielopole.[5] Chai’s answer may strike many as peculiar considering Kantor’s reputation as a formalistic theatre artist and avid theoretician. Wielopole, Wielopole was an exercise in how subjective memories, of whatever kind, might be translated theatrically into live bodies and material objects – what Kantor calls ‘reality of the lowest rank’. We could almost say that Kantor’s use of his childhood memories is primarily a matter of convenience rather than an essential aspect of the piece. There is no ‘story’ per se that Kantor tries to communicate; he is merely grasping the raw materials closest to him in his exploration of theatrical form. What, then, is the ‘content’ that compelled Chai to adapt this work?

Similarities in Polish and Korean history during the twentieth century may offer a partial answer. Both countries were geographically located in political hot zones surrounded by superpowers, their national boundaries redrawn by the Capitalist and Communist blocs. Poland and Korea both suffered a long history of invasion and oppression, from which strong cultures of nationalism developed. On another level, Kantor’s interest in the theme of death and spiritual possession – reflected in his dubbing The Dead Class a ‘dramatic séance’ – can be linked to the Korean heritage of shamanism. In Korea, traditional funeral rites called gut are held to summon a spirit to the site of a wake, before sending it off to the next world. Such rituals often culminate in the shaman becoming possessed by the spirit of the deceased, in order to speak with the bereaved family one last time. Kantor writes, in a similar vein, that drama should ‘“enter”, like a demon, as it was believed in the past, the body of a living being and start to speak and act through him/her’.[6] Indeed, Kantor’s essential theatrical model of Odysseus crossing the boundary between the world of the dead and the world of the living points toward a momentary convergence of the spiritual and material realms.[7]

Kantor’s production appealed to Chai on a deeply personal level, moreover. In first reading the text, Chai was instantly surprised at how much his own family history echoed Kantor’s. Chai’s father too was a penniless soldier during the war who eloped with his mother in spite of her family’s disapproval. Just as Kantor was inspired by old photographs in creating many of his striking stage tableaux, Chai draws on his parents’ wedding photo, from which his mother’s family is entirely absent.[8] Several years before first being introduced to Wielopole, Wielopole, Chai conceived and directed a silent performance based on his childhood in the aftermath of the war, entitled A Red Inn Submerged in a Blue Coffin (1998). Chai explains that he was able to transfer certain motifs from this piece, such as death rites and the mechanized movement of dehumanized soldiers, almost directly into Doodri, Doodri. He humbly speculates that ‘Kantor must have been there all along on the path I’m treading’.[9] Considering Kantor’s exhaustive attention to detail in all aspects of his performance-making, Chai’s retrospective comment does not seem too far-fetched.

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The wedding scene in Doodri, Doodri. Photograph courtesy of Changpa Theatre Company.

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The squad of dead soldiers in Korean War-era uniforms in Doodri, Doodri. Photograph courtesy of Changpa Theatre Company.

Chai retained many key scenes and motifs from the original work in adapting Wielopole, Wielopole into a Korean setting. The retrospective theatrical space of the Room of Memory, the cohabitation of the archetypal family and the lifeless soldier-automatons, the prevalence of absurd and repetitive games, a strong sense of the carnivalesque, and the sudden shifts in tone that form a loose, fragmented sequence rather than a dramatic arc – were all transposed effectively into the Korean War context. Feedback received from the initial production run bears this out. Chai writes in the production program for the second run in 2009 that, contrary to his expectations, older audience members who experienced the war firsthand were able to identify more readily with the highly abstracted, non-linear sequence of images than the younger generation, who would generally have had greater exposure to experimental theatre.

Despite such connections and similarities, Chai’s production departs from Kantor in several interesting ways. A detailed account of these differences between Wielopole, Wielopole and Doodri, Doodri will enable not only an evaluation of Chai’s work on its own terms, but may also call attention to previously overlooked aspects of Kantor’s tendencies and styles as a director and theorist. Chai explains that the name of the fictional village Doodri originates from the sound of water rushing against a levee like the beating of drums; another detail that Chai takes from his own childhood. At the same time, the onomatopoeic name is also a foreboding of mass destruction, reminiscent of the heavy bombing conducted by both sides during the Korean War. Kantor’s earlier production ends in a magnificent citation of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, which signals the possibility of (temporary) relief through transcending the horrific atrocities of history. This instantly recognizable tableau provides solace and reassurance that some things – whether faith, art, or inspirational figures – will endure despite the ongoing destruction. The image is also rendered in Doodri, Doodri; with similar suggestiveness, albeit not necessarily imbued with the same religious significance. However, unlike Kantor, Chai allows the soldiers to rampage across the stage one last time, unleashing terror on an even greater scale. Doodri lies in ruins all over again as the curtain falls; Chai’s final verdict on human history is a dire cycle of endless conflict and devastation.

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The ‘Last Supper’ tableau. Photograph courtesy of Changpa Theatre Company.

Most significantly, the dominant atmosphere of war has a discernable psychological effect on the resurrected figures of the séance. Although the Changpa performers effectively depicted a mannequin-like state through stiff and disjointed movements, which were more stylized and repetitive than their Cricot 2 counterparts, they also seemed more ‘human’ in their emotional reactions to the hostile surroundings. The actors in Wielopole, Wielopole appeared anaesthetized, not responding even when stabbed by bayonets or blasted by machine-gun fire. Conversely, the actors in Chai’s production scream out in terror and tremble at the sight of the attacking soldiers. They flee for their lives, as if forgetting they are already dead. Intense, visceral emotions have been so deeply inscribed in the flesh and bone of these revenants that the mere act of remembering the war appears just as painful as experiencing it in life. Repetition was the central aesthetic principle of the Room of Memory in Kantor’s work; for Chai, it is a symptom of trauma. Razor-sharp sensations of pain, terror, and despair resurface to haunt the scarred psyche again and again.

This trauma is most vividly illustrated in the relationship between the Mother (Mother Helka in Wielopole, Wielopole) and the Son (a composite of Adaś and Kantor himself as narrator/observer of the performance). Her face fixed in a permanent expression of surprise, the Mother becomes the central focus of suffering and humiliation in the piece. The scenes of violence committed against the Priest and the Rabbi in Kantor’s production have been transposed onto this single figure; her frail body is violated, defiled, and desecrated numerous times. The scene from Wielopole, Wielopole in which the helpless Priest is executed by a squad of infantrymen becomes a central set-piece in Chai’s production. Stripped of all humanity, the soldiers stand in line, facing the audience, stabbing and striking the Mother’s face and body with their bayoneted rifles. The Mother silently endures her sentence as she stumbles slowly across the stage, submitting herself from one executioner to the next. To many Koreans, there is something familiar about this image; it mimics the archetype of feminine passivity (sometimes idealized, sometimes pitiable) that appears throughout Korean culture and art.

As if that were not enough, the other family members maliciously tug on the Mother’s limbs and drag her along the floor as if she were an oversized toy. Her body seems to be entirely malleable and devoid of agency; while all of the performers display a stylized vocabulary of mechanical gestures to evoke the world of the dead, the actor playing the Mother is the most puppet-like by far. However, the condition of death does not entail an emancipation. As the Mother demonstrates, even in death, one’s self is subject to the tyranny of signification. The cruel family amuses itself by shaping her body into various images. Thus, she sits on a Golgotha-chair with her legs wide apart, one foot up on the seat, and her head resting on a propped elbow: an image Chai names the ‘sad prostitute’.[10] When the Mother is posthumously put on trial, half the family attests to her purity and kind heart as she awaits her sentence, once more atop the Golgotha-chair. Slowly, her body reassumes the position of the ‘sad prostitute’. No matter how hard the family tries to mould her body into a more ‘respectable’ form, the memories of oppression inscribed in her body refuse to be erased.

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Scene from the ‘sad prostitute’ sequence. Photograph courtesy of Changpa Theatre Company.

The religious connotations of the prosecuted Priest and Rabbi in Kantor’s text, the image of feminine passivity in traditional Korean symbolism, and the persona of the ‘sad prostitute’ imposed through the family’s pranks are all piled onto this speechless figure. The Mother becomes a kind of ‘cultural emballage’ in which various collective memories and signifiers accumulate without coherence, ultimately cancelling each other out. In his notes for Wielopole, Wielopole, Kantor points out that Uncle Stasio is meant to call to mind ‘martyrological iconography’ and ‘the archetypal hero of [Polish] national lamentation’.[11] However, these cultural associations are dissolved by the actual appearance of the actor playing the role: a panhandler with a broken hurdy-gurdy. Likewise, Korea’s cultural heritage has been ‘annexed’ in the character of the Mother, bereft of the symbolic value conventionally expected from such a maternal figure.

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Uncle Stasio (centre) and the twin uncles. The actor playing ‘I’ is also visible, standing against the back wall. Photograph courtesy of Changpa Theatre Company.

This crude imitation of femininity and motherhood is further complicated by the effigy strapped to the Mother’s back throughout the performance. (This is the only real puppet that appears in Chai’s production.) Hanging limply from the Mother’s back, the puppet seems more like a Siamese twin than a mirror-image. Following Kantor’s example, Chai substitutes the replicated body for the real one in the group rape and crucifixion scenes. At the same time, Chai explores the philosophical implications of placing an actual puppet onstage among actors stylistically depicting mannequins. Chai outlines his reasoning behind creating a double-image out of the central figure as follows:

There is a scene early in the play where the Mother is raped. However, what is humiliated in that scene is the puppet. The real Mother watches from upstage. The audience might simply assume that the scene must imply rape. But from a slightly different perspective, we could note the emptiness that the puppet represents and conclude that ‘nothing has happened’ or that ‘no one has been sacrificed’. Later, the Mother is put on trial by the family and sentenced to death only for her corpse to be chastised again posthumously. What is nailed to the cross is not the Mother but the puppet. The audience can make sense of this in many different ways. Again, one of these can be that ‘nothing has happened’. Aside from the puppet intentionally and crudely stitched together out of cheap materials, everyone in the theatre – from the actors to the audience, the staff and the director – are living human beings. However, through the perspective of the puppet as a symbol of the void, all of our (historical) actions become ‘nothing’. Thus, the puppet can serve as the most appropriate homage to the Crucifixion of Christ.[12]

Chai’s emphasis on ‘nothing’ is most likely informed by Buddhist thought, yet there are significant parallels to be drawn here with Kantor’s theories. For example, in ‘The Theatre of Death’ manifesto, Kantor describes the dead, as represented by mannequins, to be:

irrevocably different
and infinitely foreign
and more: somehow deprived of all meaning,
inconsequential,
without any hope of occupying some position
in our ‘full’ life relationships,
which are only accessible to us, familiar
and comprehensible,
but for them meaningless.[13]

Chai recognizes that a mannequin’s unwavering gaze across the ‘impassable barrier’ can unravel our structures of meaning, a process of elimination and erasure to which Kantor aspires in ‘The Zero Theatre’. Chai’s analogy with Christ is indeed quite accurate; in Kantor’s theatre, the base materiality of death engenders sublimation. From the disinterested perspective of the mannequin, all human life becomes equal, formless, ephemeral.

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The group rape scene from Doodri, Doodri. Photograph courtesy of Changpa Theatre Company.

The double-image of the Mother burdened by the emballage of signifiers and the puppet as the source of ‘nothing’ emanating out to the world of the living is an intricate theatrical construct, a Möbius strip where the two surfaces blend into one another. This methodology of coupling two elements existing on different metaphysical planes was also frequently used by Kantor, as he asserts in his vision for a radical, ‘impossible’ theatre:

ISOLATE [theatrical reality] COMPLETELY FROM THE OTHER REALITES AND
OTHER ARTISTIC ENDEAVORS (that is, A PERFORMANCE),
PREVENT IT FROM OVERLAPPING WITH THEM;
FROM COMPLEMENTING OR EXPLAINING ONE ANOTHER;
INSTALL A DIFFERENT REALITY AND MANIPULATE IT,
ANNEX IT TO THE FIRST REALITY WITHOUT ANY LOGICAL CONNECTIONS,
and CREATE
TENSIONS
between them.[14]

In Doodri, Doodri, the character of the Son constitutes another case of complex theatrical doubling. As we might expect, it was finding a correlate for Kantor’s presence in the original production that posed the greatest challenge to Chai. In the initial production run, Chai himself stood in for the director figure, orchestrating the performance from the stage. However, he found this approach unsatisfactory; there was an organic relationship between Kantor and Wielopole, Wielopole that could not be recreated in an adaptation. Chai notes that in a purely functional sense, Kantor’s presence entails strict directorial command over the actors. The oppressive atmosphere of terror, the exaggerated mechanical movement of the performers, and perhaps even the distanced gaze of the solitary marionette are among Chai’s alternative strategies of portraying the desubjectivized state of the characters.

In 2008, Chai replaced himself with a new character: I/the Son. The images that are brought to life in the Room of Memory come from this proxy-figure that takes Kantor’s place. However, this is a purely fictional ‘I’, as opposed to the ‘Real “I”’ that was central to Kantor’s endeavours.[15] The character is later absorbed into the world of the dead and forced to play the role of the Son, largely based on the figure of Adaś in Wielopole, Wielopole. In the aforementioned group execution scene, he is the last soldier in line to stab the Mother. Rifle in hand, the Son timidly looks down at the body of his mother, hesitant to carry out his orders. The other soldiers let out inhuman shrieks, demanding cold-blooded matricide. This is a significant amendment to Kantor’s score. Although technically not a civil war, the Korean War is tagged with the grim epithet, ‘tragedy of fratricide’. By turning the innocent Adaś into an aggressor against his own blood, this jarring scene illuminates the specific historical conditions surrounding the Korean War.

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The ‘sad prostitute’ in Doodri, Doodri (2007), with ‘I/the son’ sitting alongside. Photograph courtesy of Changpa Theatre Company.

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Scene from the 2009 version of Doodri, Doodri. The figure of ‘I/the son’ has been replaced by a fictional character based on Adaś from Kantor’s Wielopole, Wielopole (1980). Photograph courtesy of Changpa Theatre Company.

The shift from the first-person ‘I’ to the third-person ‘Son’ calls attention to the traumatic liabilities of remembering. The subject is unable to maintain distance from the original traumatic event once repressed memories begin to emerge. The distance between what Michal Kobialka terms the Self and the Other was a critical problem for Kantor in his later work, most notably in I Shall Never Return (1988). When Kantor wrote, ‘When I wanted to die, someone else was dying for me’, he was disclosing a fundamental divide between his ontological self and the alienated representation of that self onstage.[16] I Shall Never Return was an attempt to find a crossing point between fictionalized memory and base reality, a space where the two could meet face-to-face. Chai differs from Kantor in that the subject that remembers does not consciously walk into the realm of memory, but is rather engulfed and consumed by it. In the Last Supper scene, the actor playing I/the Son lies on the ground in front of the tableau as it takes shape. He tries to crawl toward it, only to be kicked away by the two uncles. He loses control over images born from his own memory; the reconciliation that Kantor sought cannot take place in Chai’s theatrical space of trauma: ‘Those that have already died will die again onstage. However, “I” am not able to leave that space. His consciousness is eternally frozen. Frozen consciousness, oblivion – these mark the beginning of an endless tragic cycle that no one can overcome’.[17]

Chai’s Room of Trauma, where tragedies of a national and historical scope are staged, departs radically from Kantor’s more introspective Room of Memory. Many of Kantor’s theatrical experiments take place in relatively enclosed spaces: the classroom of The Dead Class, the room of Wielopole, Wielopole, the storeroom of Let the Artists Die (1985), the inn of I Shall Never Return. He focuses his attention on the imaginary enclaves he carves out from reality, spaces where he can take full control over every aspect of the creative process. As Kantor comments, ‘The condition of the artist is circumscribed. His confinement is fundamental to his existence, it exerts a powerful fascination while at the same time cutting him off from every kind of unambiguous, simple, superficial approach to the world. It may well be that this limitation, this constriction, is a major criterion of truth’.[18] These constructed spaces serve as artistic sanctuaries where Kantor can pursue his ever-morphing formalistic interests – Informel Art, Zero Theatre, Impossible Theatre, Theatre of Death, and so on – without becoming excessively entangled in the political and moral obligations of ‘accurately’ representing a certain socio-historical milieu. He favours the ‘S m a l l,  P o o r,  D e f e n c e l e s s, but magnificent history of  i n d i v i d u a l  h u m a n  l i f e’  over ‘“general” and  o f f i c i a l  History’.[19] Characters in Wielopole, Wielopole are raped and tortured, executed and crucified, yet they show no signs of pain or fear. The outside world beyond the wooden double doors, where ‘a storm and an inferno rage, and the waters of the flood rise’, is kept at bay, disclosing itself to the audience only in measured fragments.[20] The architecture of Chai’s Room of Trauma seems flimsy compared to Kantor’s sturdy ramparts; for Chai, the ‘storm and inferno’ of the real world pound on the walls, seep in through the cracks, and blast the doors apart.

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Scene from Doodri, Doodri, showing the terror of war intruding into the domestic space. Photograph courtesy of Changpa Theatre Company.

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Scene of military destruction in Doodri, Doodri. Photograph courtesy of Changpa Theatre Company.

Kobialka discusses how the rules governing the anomalous space of the Room of Memory differ, subvert, and ultimately complement our conventional notions of space and time. He cites Michel Foucault’s term ‘heterotopia’ to describe the subversive potential of a theatrical space in which reality is displaced and intertwines with the metaphysical world of the dead.[21] In such a way, The Room of Memory becomes an autonomous space in which the possibility of a paradoxical cohabitation between the eternal and the ephemeral can be fully pursued. Whereas Kantor created a formalistic heterotopia that redefines the ontology of space, Chai creates a historical heterotopia, an indefinable, nonexistent space that is nevertheless inextricably bound to the collective experience of the Korean War. Unlike Kantor’s Polish hometown of Wielopole Skrzyńskie, the name Doodri does not appear on any map. Leaving Doodri’s geographical location open not only allows the audience to project their own hometowns and childhood memories into the vast, blank spaces of the stage, it also allows the piece to be set anywhere above or below the 38th parallel north. As a result, the lives and history of the archetypal family and their struggles during the war deflect ideological identification from either side.

Double-images such as the ‘suffering Mother/indifferent puppet’ and ‘“I” as the subject of memory/Son subjected to memory’ are able to pose critical questions concerning how the Korean War has been represented and fictionalized in the past. All are able to become oppressors and victims in Chai’s indeterminate, fragmented world of images. The unconventional representation of history in Doodri, Doodri deters the audience from making generalizations in light of a certain political agenda, and serves as a commentary on the arbitrariness of what is regarded to this day in South Korea as ‘the truth’ of the Korean War. According to Chai, the only truth of which we may speak is the unfathomable suffering endured by the masses.

Perhaps Chai’s appeal for pathos may come across to some as sentimental. Chai himself is self-conscious regarding the compromises he made with traditional dramaturgy in his adaptation and direction, which often run counter to the radical formalism and aversion to Aristotelian forms of representation that Kantor evinced throughout his career. The harshness of ready-made reality, characteristic of Kantor’s theatre, is somewhat softened through use of conventional theatre techniques, such as emotionally suggestive lighting effects (as seen in certain of the photographs accompanying this text) and characters endowed with psychological traits. Chai’s production is also more evenly and dramatically structured than Kantor’s, allowing fewer opportunities for the audience to appreciate the creative tension arising from seemingly discrete elements clashing against one another. Ultimately, Chai presents modern Korean history as a single traumatic event returning to haunt the remembering subject again and again, rather than the ‘pulsating rhythm’ of repetition, the slow grind into nothingness that Kantor envisioned.[22]

Here we might recall Kantor’s famous rope-line demarcating the space in The Dead Class. This rope created a distance between audience and performance, rendering any attempt to grasp the theatrical event in its totality impossible. Chai has cleared away this dividing boundary, in its place seeking a middle-ground in which the audience is invited to discover both the familiar within the unconventional and vice versa. It seems that Chai does not agree with Kantor’s statement that:

The more tragic this reality is,
the stronger is the ‘inner’ dictate to
provide an answer,
to create
a ‘different’ reality that is
f r e e,  autonomous,
able to win a moral victory over
the other one
and bring
spiritual dignity back into our time.[23]

Instead, Chai calls our attention to the burdens and obligations we unavoidably inherit from our tragic history. He tells us that we are not free to choose our own spaces; a ‘moral victory’ can only result from engaging in dialogue with our social surroundings.

Most studies on Kantor to date have focused on positioning him within the European lineage of avant-garde theatre. Kantor himself, claiming to be a true successor to the Dadaists, Constructivists, and Surrealists, was deeply troubled by the appropriation of avant-garde aesthetics after the Second World War and he disassociated himself from the political theatre of his day. Recently, however, Kobialka has attempted to uncover in Kantor’s work a new and more potent kind of artistic engagement with politics, one that can speak effectively to our ‘postmodern world’. Certain performance events, including Kantor’s theatre, have demonstrated that to refuse all political discourse that limits itself to a particular ideology or grand narrative does not necessarily mean indulging in inert cynicism. This new political theatre:

compels us to envision a new mode of being that brings to the fore that something which escapes the limits of present intelligibility, political authoritarianism, or instrumental culture – thus, of that which is thinkable or performable right now. This event cannot be grasped or understood within the confines of the ordinary Realpolitik and Machtpolitik, because, in the most concrete form molded by their intelligibility, this event shows nothing.
Moving beyond the ordinary realm, it becomes apparent that this event engenders that ‘nothing’. It names the void. It activates it. By so doing, it ruptures and betrays the desired ‘look’, ‘the image’, or ‘the appearance’ whose essential form is never critical of the conditions that legitimate their existence.[24]

A contemporary evaluation of Kantor’s work necessitates a reengagement with the political reality of our times, albeit through a new and radical relationship. As we can observe in Kantor’s need to reiterate the basic tenets of his theatre across numerous manifestos, the void (i.e. the zero zone, the impossible, the state of death, etc.) is the most difficult thing to achieve. It is something that must constantly be ‘engendered’ and ‘activated’ throughout a lifetime of effort, if we wish to dismantle the given reality. Doodri, Doodri can serve as an illustration of this new political theatre within the context of Korean culture. South Korea is only now, over half a century since the armistice, beginning to address the more delicate and difficult issues in historicizing the war. In the past, especially during the Cold War military dictatorship, the events of the Korean War had often seemed clear and indisputable; it is now becoming apparent that very little has yet been said. Doodri, Doodri contributes to this fertile rewriting of modern Korean history by rejecting the conventional aesthetics and narratives that have tended to paint an ideologically driven, ‘official’ picture of the war.

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The dead family (left) and the infantry squad (right) in a scene from the 2009 version of Doodri, Doodri. Photograph courtesy of Changpa Theatre Company.

For his part, Kantor insisted that the reality of the lowest rank should exist in a space as far away as possible from the fiction it is representing. In that regard, it is fitting that Doodri is vastly distant from Wielopole, both culturally and artistically. These two dissonant spaces may overlap or push each other away; in either case, something new and meaningful is created in-between. And just as Kantor’s troupe of vagrants produced something entirely new in its fumbled attempts to retell the childhood stories of the silent man watching from the wings, the only way we can approach what was once ‘Tadeusz Kantor’ is by repetition, at the same time taking heed of our own inclinations and surrounding circumstances: ‘A dead greatness can only be perceived through live reality which is commonplace and of the lower rank. Death can only be perceived through the misery of everyday routine; fiction (of drama) through a real place of the lowest rank’.[25]

Notes

  1. ^ Debuting as a director with Peter Handke’s The Ride Across Lake Constance (1981), Chai has directed Korean premieres of plays by Antonin Artaud, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Athol Fugard, Reza de Wet, and Heiner Müller (whose Hamletmachine he staged in 2000 to great critical acclaim). He is also a professor in the Department of Theatre and Film at Suwon University.
  2. ^ In 2007, the same year as the first production of Doodri, Doodri, a series of seminars and screenings on Kantor’s theatre was given as part of the 7th Seoul Performing Arts Festival’s program. Interestingly, the theatre where the film recording of Kantor’s original Wielopole, Wielopole production was screened happens to be the same venue where Changpa staged their adaptation seven months later for the 2008 Seoul Theatre Festival.
  3. ^ Tadeusz Kantor, Wielopole, Wielopole, trans. by Mariusz Tchorek and G. M. Hyde (New York: Marion Boyars, 1990), p. 142.
  4. ^ See Michal Kobialka, Further On, Nothing: Tadeusz Kantor’s Theatre (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), p. 350.
  5. ^ Author’s interview with Seung-Hoon Chai, 13 July 2010.
  6. ^ Kobialka, Further On, Nothing, p. 344.
  7. ^ One of Kantor’s earliest theatre pieces was an avant-garde version of Stanisław Wyspiański’s The Return of Odysseus (1944). In this production, Odysseus’s homecoming from the Trojan War was merged with the image of an enervated German soldier. The image of Odysseus entering an obliterated room served as an inspirational image in Kantor’s later work; for example, in his ruminations on ‘Theatrical Place’ during the creation of Wielopole, Wielopole (see Kantor, ‘Theatrical Place (1970s-1980s)’, in Further On, Nothing, pp. 329-67).
  8. ^ Interview with Seung-Hoon Chai.
  9. ^ Ibid.
  10. ^ Doodri, Doodri’ (unpublished rehearsal script), p. 11.
  11. ^ Kantor, Wielopole, Wielopole, p. 124.
  12. ^ Seung-Hoon Chai, ‘Searching for a Trace of the Avant-Garde: Director’s Notes for Doodri, Doodri’, Performance and Theory, 33 (2009), 211-22 (p. 217).
  13. ^ Kantor, ‘The Theatre of Death’, in Further On, Nothing, pp. 230-39 (p. 238).
  14. ^ Kantor, ‘The Impossible Theatre’, in Further On, Nothing, pp. 174-92 (p. 183).
  15. ^ See Kantor, ‘The Real “I”’, in Further On, Nothing, pp. 394-98.
  16. ^ Ibid., p. 395.
  17. ^ Doodri, Doodri production program.
  18. ^ Kantor, Wielopole, Wielopole, p. 140.
  19. ^ Kantor, ‘To Save from Oblivion’, in Further On, Nothing, pp. 389-93 (p. 390).
  20. ^ Kantor, ‘The Room: Maybe a New Phase’, in Further On, Nothing, pp. 368-70 (p. 369).
  21. ^ Kobialka, ‘The Quest for the Other’ in Kantor, A Journey Through Other Spaces: Essays and Manifestos, 1944-1990, ed. and trans. by Michal Kobialka (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), pp. 311-64 (p. 334).
  22. ^ Kantor, ‘Theatrical Place’, in Further On, Nothing, pp. 329-67 (p. 367).
  23. ^ Kantor, ‘From the Beginning My Credo Was…’, in Further On, Nothing, pp. 497-502 (p. 497).
  24. ^ Kobialka, ‘Tadeusz Kantor and Hamed Taheri: Of Political Theatre/Performance’, TDR: The Drama Review, 53.4 (2009), 78-91 (p. 80).
  25. ^ Kantor, ‘Theatrical Place’, p. 350.