Korean Mask Dance Dramas

The Bawdy, Brawling, Boisterous World of Korean Mask Dance Dramas: A Brief Essay to Accompany Photographs

CedarBough Saeji
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Korean mask dance dramas are captivating and entrancing. Comedy, tragedy, and social commentary meld with energetic dance, distinctive masks, and lively music. These dramas are often colloquially and incorrectly referred to as talchum (“mask dance”) in Korean—in fact, talchum is one of the major variants of mask dance drama from Hwanghae Province in present-day North Korea. Performers of other variants have long objected to the broad application of the term (akin to calling all in-line skates “Rollerblades” or all MP3 players “iPods”). Only in the late 1990s did academia catch on, when two highly respected midcareer mask dance drama scholars, Bak Jintae (Daegu University) and Jeon Kyungwook (Korea University), began to use the terminology talnoli (“mask play”) and gamyeon-geuk (“mask drama”) in their publications.

I needed to watch only one performance, in 1997, to fall in love with the mask dance dramas, but at first the many forms of the genre melded together in my mind. It took repeated exposure and study over more than a dozen years for me to see the profound similarities and differences among all of Korea’s mask dance dramas...