Theatre Ph.D. Dissertations

Unmasking Talchum: An Embodied Inquiry into Korea's Masked Dance-Drama

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Scott Magelssen

Second Advisor

Eileen Cherry Chandler (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Bradford Clark (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Sharon S. Subreenduth (Committee Member)


This dissertation is a documentation of my somaesthetic engagement in the Korean culture and subsequent participation in its treasured folk performance of Talchum. By placing my body in such a way as to experience the demands and expectations of the masked performance and the communities that created and sustain it, I was able to access the repertoire of Korean history and performance in ways previously unavailable to foreigners like myself. Using narrative, and ethnographic writing styles, I relay experiences with the form and its practitioners that generated the foundation of my introduction to and understanding of the folk tradition.

These navigations of a largely non-written performance allowed me a perspective of the preservation efforts taking place in Korea that did not track with my experiences within the Talchum community. This disparity between the way in which I was being asked to accept the unbroken lineage of a preserved historical form as a tourist and the conflicting reports of lost masks, confusion over nomenclature, and performances that were given up as lost to history only to be revived to great popular acclaim and financial success led me to question the perceived resistance to the well-established notion of invented traditions.

The efforts marshaled toward the empty repetition of a heritage performance do not credit the ways in which Talchum continues to adapt to the ebb and flow of the culture that created it. Therefore, privileging the heritage performance narrative over that of adaptive performances withholds an important, even critical element of Talchum practice and performance today. It would then be imperative that further inquiries into Talchum go beyond the fragments of English translation regarding the heritage efforts to include, at the very least, an acknowledgement of the adaptive work being done outside the legitimating forces of government approval and financial support. I conclude that, while the current methodology of preservation is beneficial to a point, a narrative that gives voice to the improvisational and participatory nature of Talchum such as that demonstrated by Kangneung Talchum and The Gwangdae adaptive performances might offer stronger criteria by which to evaluate the efficacy of preservation.