Two Visits to the Daejeon Theater (Korea)

Two Visits to the Daejeon Theater
Richard Wiley (Korea 1967-69)

In 1968, when I was living in Daejeon, Korea, the movie My Fair Lady had a one-week run in at the Daejeon Theater, and I, being a sometimes-homesick Peace Corps volunteer, went to see it.

I had seen My Fair Lady in 1964, when it came out.  Like half of the other nineteen-year-old boys in America, I loved Audrey Hepburn, whose matchless face launched a lot more than 1000 ships, I’m sure.   Helen of Troy had nothing on Audrey.

I also remember wondering, in 1964, how Rex Harrison, debonaire though he was, got away with not singing, but talking his way through all those songs.  I mean, he made, “I’ve grown accustomed to the tune, That she whistles night and noon, Her smiles, her frowns, Her ups, her downs…” sound like the musings of a lone old man going up and down by in an elevator.  He was smooth, though, I had to give him that, and Audrey didn’t sing her songs anyway, Marni Nixon did that.

Another thing I remember about My Fair Lady, is that it was two hours and fifty-five minutes, complete with an intermission!  So, on the day I went to see it in Korea I made sure to choose a Sunday.  Two hours and fifty-five minutes of escaping my clumsy efforts with the Korean language in favor of Eliza Doolittle’s clumsy efforts with standard British English.  Woo hoo!  I could forget myself for a while, right?

Ah, but no such luck, for during the not-so-halcyon 1960s in Korea there were government panels (or maybe just a guy in a room somewhere, I don’t know) who monitored and censored movies for acceptable content.  And for the My Fair Lady censors, at least, singing and dancing was out.  So instead of spending a happy two hours and fifty-five minutes singing along, I was out on the street again in about an hour.  That’s what happens when you cut all the songs from My Fair Lady. Or all but “Get Me to the Church on Time” and that one about the Ascot races.  Not much chance that things might lead to sex in those, I suppose.

Ha ha, right?  Maybe so now, but I went home pretty glum.

No hard feelings toward the theater, though, for a couple of weeks later I was right back in it, this time for Daejeon College’s English language production of Hamlet, a play far superior to My Fair Lady in many ways, not the least of which was that its three hours and fifteen minutes running time outdid My Fair Lady by twenty minutes, even with the songs.

Daejeon college’s version of the play was likely to run longer, however, since none of the actors were fluent in English and most of the play’s language was beyond them.  I know this because I was asked by one of the college teachers to lend a hand by encouraging the kid who would play Hamlet to say lines like, “Alas, Poor Yorick, I knew him Horatio,” without confusing ‘R’ with ‘L’ – in other words, no ‘Yolicks’ or ‘Holatios.’  It was an uphill battle but he was cheerful and willing, so I was in the audience that day, right down front, rooting for him all the way.

He did pretty well, too, everyone did, until, at the conclusion of Act Three, the curtain came down and the manager of the theater bowed his way onstage to say that, much to his chagrin, the theater had been double booked that day, so we would stop now, that is, take a two-hour break from Hamlet in order to present….  Ta Da! The regional finals of the Miss Korea competition!

“Think about it.  The winner will go to Seoul for the finals.  Therefore, you might be seeing Miss Korea today, and also Miss Universe next year!” he said.

We did as we were told, and thought about it.

Until the curtains rose again to an unchanged set – still 15th century Denmark – but with thirty Miss Korea contestants standing in a line and in traditional dress and singing, not, I wish I could say, “I Could Have Danced All Night,” but Arirang, Korea’s quasi-national anthem.

After Arirang they disappeared backstage, then returned in groups of one or two or three to juggle or sing or throw hula hoops around, before coming out all tighter again, dressed in demure one- piece bathing suits.  And when I saw ‘demure’ I mean probably even the My Fair Lady censors wouldn’t have made them change clothes.

I’m not making fun here.  The contest meant a lot to those young women.  And when the winner was announced and came to center stage in tears to receive our applause and significant numbers of bouquets, I gave her a standing ovation, along with everyone else.

But what about the poor Hamleteers?

Not only had they been cooling their heecls for two hours, but most of the audience had come to see the Miss Korea competition, and left before the play commenced.

Okay, I admit, I wanted to leave, too, for it seemed I’d been there for about three days by then.

But the “Alas, poor Yorick” speech was in Scene One of Act Five, so how could I go?  Hamlet knew where I was sitting and might look in my direction as soon as it was done to see how he did with those pesky ‘r’s.

The answer is, I could not leave.  Not until around 11 p.m. when the cast got a standing ovation, too, and bowed and bowed and bowed.

I can’t help wondering if the Daejeon Theater is still there.

Richard Wiley (Korea 1967-69)

Richard Wiley (Korea 1967-69) is the author of ten works of fiction. His first novel, Soldiers in Hiding, won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1987. He has also won The Maria Thomas Award, and the Washington State Governor’s Award. His most recent novel is The Grievers’ Group. He is an emeritus professor of English at UNLV and currently resides in Los Angeles.



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  • So familiar! My wife and I were K50s in Hong Cheong, Kangwan Do and spent the occasional Sunday afternoon trying to watch classic American films. Usually chaos reigned: rats running across our feet, the film melting down, people having conversations at full volume…

    Korea was and is a wonderful country. Every day was a new day in those days, unpredictable and always amusing.

  • Richard Wiley is a dream of a writer. This account certifies that. And I think on the basis is it a phenomenal teacher. I wonder about the trajectory of his life and how the Peace Corps might have shaped it.

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