Masks and mask dances developed in Korea as early as the Prehistoric age. The masks can be placed into two categories: religious masks and artistic masks. Some masks were enshrined in shaman shrines and revered with periodical offering rites. Other religious masks were used to expel evil spirits, like Bangsangsi, which until recently, were seen at the forefront of a funeral procession to ward off evil spirits. Artistic masks were mostly used in dance and drama. However, these also had religious functions to some extent.
Most Korean tal (masks) are solid but some have movable parts like the eyeballs of the Bangsangsi mask, the mouth of the lion mask and the winking eyes of some masks in dance-drama. Of special note are the masks featured in a mask dance-drama developed in the Hahoe region. They are made out of two pieces, with the chin as a separate piece and attached to the upper part with strings.
Tal are not only characterized by their respective roles but also reflect the expressions and bone structures of Korean faces. Their shapes are grotesque and greatly exaggerated, and their colors are deep and bright. This is because talchum, the mask dance-drama, was usually performed at night in the light from wood fires. Masks less powerful in expression and color would have failed to deliver the themes of the drama. Religious masks and masks for daytime performances were much less vivid.
Mask dance-dramas are basically a folk art naturally developed among the common people of Joseon society (1392-1910). They vary slighty according to region and performer but they all share fundamental characteristics. They are based on a sense of rebellion felt by the common people toward the reality of their lives. Their basic themes are exorcism rites, ritual dances or biting satire and parody of human weaknesses, social evils and privileged class. Like the folk literature of the time, it appeals to its audiences by ridiculing apostate Buddhist monks, decadent noblemen, and shamans. The conflict between an ugly wife and a seductive concubine is another popular theme.
The mask dance-drama consists of several acts, but they are quite different from the act in modern plays. They are a loose presentation of several different episodes in an omnibus style. Because the lines of the actors have been passed on in oral tradition, they are quite flexible and subject to improvisation. The dance part also can be lengthened or shortened freely, so that the entire performance can take anywhere between three or four hours to the whole night until daybreak. The most remarkable feature of Korean mask dance-drama is the enthusiastic participation of the audience. Toward the end of a performance there is little distinction between the actors and the audience as they join together in robust dance and bring it to a finale. In Korean mask dance-drama, the common people could vent their frustrations through comic dramatization and enliven their lives with a collective dramatic experience.
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