“Bicycle” by Oh Tae-Seok, the current leading and most innovative playwright in Korea, is a play about Korea, its tragic history, the suffering of its people and its relations with other Asian countries. In his work, produced in 2007, Oh Tae-Seok incorporates visual imagery, historical themes, mysterious plot and vivid narration. The scenes seem to interchange from slow motion to fast forward and back. The whole play is meant to be seen for better perception, and not read, since it demonstrates traditional Korean clothes, decorations and other cultural attributes that represent Asia and Korea in particular. This paper describes Oh Tae-Seok work in terms of its Asian heritage and gives an analysis of the elements of literature used by Oh Tae-Seok in “Bicycle”.
“Bicycle” by Tae-Seok can be considered the representation of Asia, especially Korea. When watching the play, the audience as if travels in time with the main character and sees various aspects of Korean history. The work emphasizes the struggle between the northern and southern parts of Korea, when Koreans were forced to kill their own people due to the differences in ideology. Throughout the play, it also becomes evident that the Korean culture borrowed much from other Asian countries due to various relations with them, which makes it an inalienable part of the Asian community.
Tae-Seok’s plays are avant-garde in nature. They combine traditional Korean ethics and values such as shamanic rituals with Western drama elements. In particular, Kim (1999) says that Oh Tae-Seok uses hybrid theatre to explore and describe Korean history to the world, which is extremely evident in “Bicycle”. As a result, Oh Tae-Seok is seen as the modern replica of Shakespeare on stage. The uniqueness of his plays has made the playwright gain worldwide credit in the world of theatre arts.
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“Bicycle”, originally written by Chajongo in 1983, describes an event that occurred in a Korean village called Soch-on during the war that took place in the 1950s. In September 1950, the troops belonging to the North Korea People’s Liberation Army captured and arrested over a hundred citizens suspected of being anti-communists. The troops placed the detainees in the town registry building, locked its doors, and mercilessly burnt them alive.
Oh Tae-Seok was born in the village of Soch-on. However, rather than create a play that directly dramatized the incident, Tae-Seok’s “Bicycle” introduces ghosts who use bicycles to move between the past and present while on stage. Hence, the play is not meant to be read literally; it has to be acted so that the audience sees and understands the different times and places being described.
The story of “Bicycle” revolves around a character called Yu Chin, a town clerk who has not appeared to work for over four weeks but is still unable to give an account of where he has been. The year is 1980, thirty years after the massacre in Soch-on. The mystery behind Chin’s absence functions to strengthen the plot by keeping the audience focused on details that might give away where Chin has been. The mystery also adds suspense to “Bicycle”, which subsequently keeps the play interesting.
Yun Chin narrates to Ku, a co-worker and friend, his journey. Chin talks about seeing a ghost of one of his relatives, his uncle, who was part of the troops that burnt the people locked in the registry building. As Chin narrates the story, the audience is able to learn that Yun’s father was part of the people killed in the fire. Chin continues to describe how they lived in fear, starvation, and illiteracy during the war period.
Hence, instead of the story only telling the audience about Chin’s previous whereabouts, the play also reveals shocking secrets regarding the country’s past and a saddening scenario of the present situation in Chin’s country, Korea. What the audience learns are the tribulations and sufferings that Koreans went through when the country was at war with the North. In other words, Oh Tae-Seok successfully manages to change the direction of the viewers’ perceptions from Chin’s absence to focus on Korea’s past as the main point of the play. An example is where the play presents an encounter with a family that suffered from a legacy of leprosy, an inescapable situation that made them live in mandatory exile and isolation from the rest of the society since there were no vaccines for the disease at that time.
Oh Tae-Seok also uses imagery to make the audience visualize the hardships that innocent Koreans experienced during the anti-communists war. For instance, some actors scream and shout violently while others look frightened and bewildered as ghosts of the past remind them of the massacre. These actions also serve to intensify the original calm atmosphere by the audience and readers. Using actors of different genders and ages, as well as dressing the actors in traditional Korean costumes and hairstyles, further strengthens the imagination of the audience, and also makes them feel as if they were part of the story. Charlotte (2007) indicates that such attributes allow the audience who may not have any knowledge about Korea or its history understand the play. For example, the audience is able to realize that the Korean culture, despite being unique and distinctive, seems to borrow heavily from China and Japan. In simpler terms, Oh Tae-Seok uses visual imagery as a way of expressing the emotions and meanings portrayed in “Bicycle”.
Research proves that the Korean culture indeed has been greatly influenced by the culture of other Asian nations such as the Japanese and Chinese throughout history. In the late 1800s, the land was called Choson, a unified kingdom that was originally made up of Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese inhabitants. However, after the Sino-Japanese war in 1895, the Chinese gave up their stake and retreated to their current borders. After this triumph, Japan colonized Korea in 1910 and ruled till 1945 after being defeated in World War II by the Soviet Union and America who occupied the Northern and Southern parts of Korea respectively. After this, the Southern region became the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea whereas the Northern region became the Republic of Korea. In 1950, the Korean War commenced when the Northern region invaded the South, until a ceasefire three years later. The South then suffered a military dictatorship from 1961 to 1993 when the current democratic civilian rule became established. According to Kim (1999), this shows that oppression, tragedy, and sufferings manifested themselves in the Korean culture a long time ago. In the present, such manifestations are evident within the works of famous Korean playwrights such as Oh Tae-Seok.
Oh Tae-Seok’s “Bicycle” also seems to tell multiple stories within the same story. For instance, Yun Chin’s narrations not only tell the audience the reason behind his absence from work, but they also describe the history of Korea, give an account of the people’s sufferings, and serve as a way of promoting peace among other countries in the world by addressing the viewers
Evidently, “Bicycle” is a complex and challenging play. It includes mysterious occurrences, time travel, and retelling of historical events. The play is symbolic and philosophical. It shows Korean mentality and the tragic turn of history when the Korean nation divided and former friends and relatives became enemies. In general, “Bicycle” carries a vivid representation of Asia and its peculiar features. Oh Tae-Seok manages to create a smooth and comprehendible outcome out of the twisted plot.