A night at the theater in Daehangno – Last Friday evening, HJ and I went to the Daehangno area to see a play called “Susanghan Heungshinso #3.” Translated literally, this means something like “The Shady Detective Agency #3,” but this has nothing to do with what the play is about—I suspect that the original play might have been about a detective agency, and subsequent plays kept the title due to brand recognition. Anyway, a single-sentence synopsis would run something like this: Irang, a young girl whose mother died at birth—a loss that causes her father to become distant from her—travels back in time to prevent her parents from marrying.
If you have any familiarity with time travel literature or films, you’ll know that this is a perfect example of the grandfather paradox. The original paradox poses the question of what would happen if you went back in time and killed your grandfather (who, to make you somewhat less of a psycho, let’s say was an evil despot). You would then never be born, and thus never be able to travel back in time to kill your grandfather in the first place.
(I would like to take this opportunity to assure you that the bulk of today’s entry is not actually going to be about time travel. I did, however, want to at least address the matter. So if this is not the sort of thing you like thinking about, it would probably be best to travel into the future and skip the next three paragraphs.)
There are generally two ways that fiction gets around this paradox, and they are exemplified by the television show Lost and the Back to the Future films. (I suppose it should go without saying that the following discussion is going to contain some Lost and Back to the Future spoilers—and yet I’ve gone and said it anyway) In Lost, causality is fixed. Characters travel into the past and attempt to tinker with time so that things will happen differently in the future, but they only end up ensuring that those things happen in the first place. So maybe they shouldn’t have tried to tamper with the timeline in the first place? Well, in that case, things would have just happened that way anyway. To put it simply, whatever happened happened, and nothing can be done to change that. In terms of the grandfather paradox, you may go back in time and shoot your grandfather, but something will happen to ensure that events unfold as they did. Maybe the bullet is deflected and your grandfather lives. Or maybe you shoot him, but he survives, and the experience is what turns him into an evil despot in the first place. Or perhaps the man you shot is a twin brother you never knew your grandfather had, and this loss causes him to go mad with grief.
Back to the Future takes a different tack. In the films, it is in fact possible to go back and change the events of the past, but the moment you do so you create an alternate timeline. The timeline that you came from ceases to exist, and time continues along this new course. At least, this is the best I can do when it comes to explaining BTTF time travel theory. In truth, I still think we have the grandfather paradox here, as seen in the first film, when Marty starts to disappear as the possibility of his parents getting together grows slimmer and slimmer. That makes sense according to the film’s logic, I suppose, but what happens when Marty ceases to exist completely? His parents never get together, so he is never born. You can say that this is an alternate timeline, but if this is now the “standard” timeline, where did Marty come from in the first place?
I’ve actually thought about this a lot over the past few days, and here is my best guess: Alternate timeline theory is a formulation of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. In the many-worlds interpretation, all possible histories exist as separate worlds or universes. I reconcile alternate timeline theory with the many-worlds interpretation by assuming that causality is fixed in each of the many worlds. Thus when Marty travels back in time, he also travels to a different world in which the events that he ultimately brings about are predestined. If Marty succeeds, he will exist in this new timeline, and if he fails he will not. I will admit that there are still some kinks in this theory: Namely, that entities traveling between worlds should be independent, and thus the existence of a “doppelganger” in the alternate world/timeline should have no effect on the time traveler, and vice versa. The failings here may simply be in my inability to wrap my head around the issues, though; if a solution to the grandfather paradox exists, it is probably to be found in quantum mechanics. (My theory here is sort of based on my best understanding of that article... which admittedly is probably not that good of an understanding.) Then again, I suppose there is no shame in agreeing with the likes of Stephen Hawking and saying that these paradoxes are in fact unsolvable, and that time travel into the past is thus impossible.
Irang’s Adventures in Time (not the actual title, as you know, but that’s what I’m going to call it because it makes more sense to me) does not delve into any of these issues, nor does it offer any explanation for how the world has managed to change so much in such a short period of time (Irang travels back from 17 years in the future, although it feels more like 170 years). The reason for this is simple: None of this is actually the point of the play. That is, Irang’s Adventures in Time is not a play about time travel; time travel is just a conceit to allow the work to explore certain themes: love, loss, and sacrifice, for example.
Of the two time travel theories I discussed above, Irang’s Adventures in Time seems to come down on the side of fixed causality. Toward the end of the play, all her efforts to destroy her parents relationship frustrated, she cries out to her mother—to Inyeong, the young woman who will eventually die giving birth to her—“I can’t change anything!” And Inyeong, unaware of what she means, replies, “That’s right, you can’t change what has already happened.” This is the crux of the story, I think. Although the play presents us a seemingly unreal fantasy, what it is actually doing is confronting the impassive, unrelenting reality that we face every day: Time flows in one direction, and no matter how much we may hurt, our only option is to choose how we are going to live with that pain.
Memory is both a blessing and a curse. It allows us to retain in the present pieces of the past, whether we like it or not. A happy memory can be a comfort, as when we remember a time of joy and happiness. But even that can become a knife in the heart, such as the cruel memory of a loving relationship when that love has since gone cold. We remember loved ones who are no longer with us, but the memory of their loss is inseparable from the memory of their lives, and so we bear the one that we might not lose the other.
I won’t go into detail about the plot or about how the play ends, although what I’ve said above is probably already a spoiler. I should mention, though, that although there were definitely times when everyone in the audience suspiciously seemed to get runny noses at the same time, there were also a lot of laughs. At the very beginning of the play, the actor who played the role labeled “Multi-man” ran out onto the stage and talked with us briefly about the play. He gave out some tickets to “Susanghan Heungshinso #2,” asked us to turn off our mobile phones, and then told us that the play was a romantic comedy, so we should feel free to laugh.
There were definitely romantic elements, but I don’t think I would classify the play as a romantic comedy. In fact, when I thought about it later, it struck me as more similar to a Shakespearean tragedy than a romantic comedy. I say this not to mean that everyone died at the end or that the performance mimicked any of the other elements that characterize the Bard’s tragedies, except for one: the comic relief. That is, while there was comedy woven into the main plotline—most memorably on occasions where Irang attempts to apply 2032 knowledge and logic to 2015—most of the comedy came in the form of comic relief interludes. In addition, most of the comedy came not from the three main characters, but from the “Multi-man” and “Multi-girl” characters, who (as you might have already guessed) played multiple roles.
Like Shakespeare, these comic relief scenes felt very organic. For example, a humorous couple visit the convenience store where Irang’s father works and make quite a hilarious scene. But they just so happen to come from the same city in the provinces where Irang claims to come from (she explains her sudden appearance by claiming that she is a long-lost cousin of her father’s who ran away from home because she was being beaten), and this introduces some dramatic tension into the scene. In another extended scene, Irang visits a matchmaking service in an attempt to find her father another girlfriend. The matchmaker is played by Multi-man, while the various candidates—all barely functional bundles of neuroses—are played by Multi-girl. Both Multi-man and Multi-girl play quite a few roles in the play (basically any role not played by the actors playing the three main characters, who only play themselves), and they are always comic figures.
There was another important element in the play, an element that tends to be very prominent in small Daehangno theater productions (particularly comedic ones). The “small” here, by the way, mainly modifies not “production,” but “theater.” I think there might have been over a hundred seats, but definitely not more than two hundred. As it happened, HJ and I were in the front row, stage right, which meant that the stage—really just a platform maybe 10 cm or so high—also functioned as a footrest. This immediately made HJ nervous, as people in the front row of plays like this often become part of the play themselves.
The audience as a whole was indeed part of the play at various points, redefining the idea of a “fourth wall.” For most of the scenes, we watched the action taking place on stage, but in certain scenes the “stage” extended out into the seats. During a flashback to a university MT (a social function where students in a given department travel somewhere and bond as a community, generally with the aid of copious amounts of alcohol), we became the assembled students watching our “seniors” up on stage. Well, I guess most of us were students, at least. At one point, as a distraction, Irang yelled, “Look, Professor’s coming!” At this, the other characters turned straight to me, bowed, and shouted, “Hello, Professor!” I was taken aback at first (especially since the fictional department was the Korean Language & Literature department), but then I realized that I just happened to be sitting in the “professor’s” seat. (HJ assured me later that no one would mistake me for an actual professor. Um, thanks?)
We were also the audience in a cinema visited by Irang’s father and the convenience store employee on a date—the characters had been sold tickets for seats that were (of course) already occupied, and Multi-girl made quite a scene, threatening to beat the poor girl who was sitting in “her” seat. (Not really, of course. It was all quite hysterical... but I am nonetheless glad that I was not sitting in that seat.) Just as I was thinking that I had gotten off easy with the professor bit, though, we also became animals in a zoo that Irang visited with her parents-to-be. A number of audience members were pointed out as various animals, although the only one I remember is one poor soul who ended up being a monkey. Just as I thought I was going to get off scot free, though, Irang ran up to me googly-eyed and asked the guide, “Wow, this is a funny-looking animal! What is it?” The guide (Multi-man, of course), replied, “That’s an anteater!” Then he looked down at the stage and shouted, “Oh, look, an ant!” He picked up the imaginary ant and held it out in his hand, right in front of me. I played along and did my best anteater impression, miming licking up the ant. That got some laughs and a thumbs up from Multi-man. All in all, seeing as I was the only foreigner in the audience, I think I got off pretty light.
After the play was over, there was an opportunity to go up on stage and have your photo taken with the cast. Why not, we figured, and got in the relatively short line.
From left to right that’s Multi-man, Multi-Girl, Irang (who really did look like she might be in high school, although I’m guessing she was older), Irang’s mother, and Irang’s father. As we were waiting our turn, we watched the other audience members having their photos taken, and I noticed that they all did the V-sign with their fingers. I whispered to HJ that I was not going to do the V-sign; I didn’t realize until after I saw the photo that most of the cast mimicked HJ’s thumbs up.
I have yet to see a play in Daehangno and be anything but pleased with the decision. It doesn’t happen often, of course, but every time it does I am glad I went. This play was no exception. If you’re into theater, live in Seoul, and are fluent in Korean (at least in listening), I would recommend it. Just be aware that if you end up in the front row, you may become part of the performance yourself!