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09/24/2016 HYU News > Academics


How WW2 Victory Affected Postwar American Drama

Professor Lee Hyung-seob (Department of English Language and Literature)


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Lee is a professor at the department of English Language and Literature. He is interested in Irish and modern drama, including early postwar American literature.
▲ Professor Lee Hyung-seob

Professor Lee Hyung-seob of the Department of English Language and Literature is a professor who specializes in Irish and modern drama, with ongoing interest on postwar American literature and film studies. Lee received an award from the American studies association in Korea for best research paper in 2012, and is the vice president of Literature and Film Association of Korea, participating in many domestic and international conferences. His paper, “Ethical Contours of the (Sub)urban Space-Time Relationship in the Early Postwar American Drama”, explains how the spirit of the times can influence the form of literary works, by focusing on the immediate postwar era in America.


The aftermath of WW2 led to an immense change in the societies and economies of its victors and losers. This reality after the war impacted the worldview of each nation’s people. Differences in the perspective of individuals around the world led to the distinctions of each country’s literature as well. Unlike most researchers who focused on the content of literature, Lee believed that there could be certain relationships between the ethicality of literature and its form. As a drama specialist, he explored this on four well-known plays of postwar period of America, which are: Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949), and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and The Glass Menagerie (1944).


Lee observed four major works in the immediate postwar era of America: Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (1944) (top left), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) (top right), and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1947) (bottom left) and Death of a Salesman (1949) (bottom right) Photo courtesy of Lee Hyung-seob
▲Lee observed four major works in the immediate postwar era of America: Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie(1944) (top left), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) (top right), and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1947) (bottom left) and Death of a Salesman (1949) (bottom right)  Photo courtesy of Lee Hyung-seob




According to Lee, contrastingly to Europe, America became the superpower among all nations after WW2. “Postwar America was self-confident. America’s own national identity and consciousness were full of pride and glory. They were not only victors in terms of war, but they were economically rich, and became the greatest power of our civilization,” Lee said. This confidence naturally led Americans to believe that they could fully understand the world. Such pride was the reason why American literature represented a variety of human experiences in every corner. “The victory achieved in WW2 became the spirit of the times, forming the basis of American realism in art and literature. Realism is the faithful representation of the world. The success of WW2 made America reality-oriented in its art and literature.”


However, Lee pointed out that realism in American art and literature made certain limitations in its literary form and ethical considerations. “Realism may offer a very strong or powerful ethical message, but at the same time it limits the form of literature or art itself. The strict adherence to realistic form can also limit ethical potential,” Lee clarified. Modern society, which is depicted by realistic drama, does not allow a variety of ways of living that may raise diverse ethical questions, mainly due to people’s obsession of success. Due to those reasons, this kind of restriction in form or ethical limitation is also shown in postwar American drama. For example, plays by Miller and Williams are specifically on the teleological aspect of dramatic action.


The term “telos” means a goal-oriented action. The action begins and moves forward in time towards a certain objective. In this sense, the whole action seems too linear and planned. The concept of time is not unidirectional; we dream, regret, desire and reminisce. The constant forward movement that the plays depicted limits the potential of showing the vision of human beings, and there comes the limits of ethical questions, such as success-centered lives of the modern times.


Lee is currently writing a thesis that is a sequel to his paper of early postwar American drama. He is to present the paper in the upcoming international conference at the end of September. The paper will be on Edward Albee, a playwright of a generation after Williams and Miller. Lee tries to analyze his plays and find differences in the perception of time-space between him and the immediate postwar American playwrights. According to Lee, Albee is the only American dramatist of the ‘theater of the absurd’, which is focused on the idea of existentialism and quite different from the immediate postwar plays of conservative reality.


Lee said, “Even though I specialize in foreign literature, I don’t want to imitate others’ work, or follow their steps. I want to make my own contribution. I want to be a ‘Korean’ scholar who studies English.” Lee’s single most important goal as a scholar is to somehow broaden and establish the interdisciplinary studies, especially Irish studies. He is interested in Irish literature because he believes there are certain similarities between Korea and Irish history such as, they share a sad history of national division. Lee said, “Perhaps my interest in Ireland is a way of trying to understand myself and the Korean people.”


Lee aspires to be an English professor with a Korean identity.
▲Lee aspires to be an English professor with a Korean identity.



Jang Soo-hyun

Photos by Choi Min-ju

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