A few years after moving to the United States, Hansol Jung started writing a play about a lonely man in Seoul. The man sends all of his money to his family in America, but he barely knows who they are. For years, he’s been living in a bare room designed for students cramming for exams. The situation is makeshift, but it’s also his only life. When he meets a North Korean defector, his world begins to feel more permanent. He tries to convince her that what they have is love, this chance to escape from their temporary lives.
During the pandemic, Jung returned to this play, Wild Goose Dreams, and started doodling in the margins. It’s difficult for her to let a script rest. Given the chance, she would change just about anything. She’s afraid of people holding her to what she said a year, an hour, even a minute ago. On the pages of Wild Goose Dreams, she scrawled things like, “Was this a good idea?” and “Why did I write this?” When a publisher offered to put the play in a collection, she asked if they would also include her doodles, as a sort of annotation saying: I might not mean any of it.
Though Jung doesn’t normally doodle, her plays have the gleeful energy of something written in a dash. They include everything from a ukulele romance (No More Sad Things) to a puppet tragedy (Wolf Play), a production of which one reviewer described as having “the exuberant restlessness of a crayon drawing tacked to the fridge.” More recently, she attempted to reinvent plot in the style of a good orgasm. The result, Merry Me, will play at New York Theatre Workshop in October.
In the margins of Wild Goose Dreams, Jung flooded the page with bouncy cartoons: a panic button that explodes, a nervous puppy that cries, “Stay!” Together, they formed a loopy chorus to the pain of being alone. On the edge of one sad scene, she drew a giant cactus looming over two fingernail-sized humans. “I wish to give you my love!” cries a scribble-man. “Climb my cactus wall to prove it,” a scribble-woman replies.
The sketch is horrifying in a playful way—a tragedy by doodle. That’s how Jung’s characters talk about their pain. Their saddest thoughts come through in scenes that could also play as sketch comedy. A woman needs to say goodbye to her father and flushes her penguin-hallucination of him down the toilet. A singer shoots himself on camera, and then laughs. “It’s a water gun, just a little performance art,” he says. Each joke is a kind of escape hatch, revocable in an instant depending on how it lands. A lover sends an emoji of a monkey covering its eyes, and it could mean anything: great sadness or fun. That’s the beauty of a casual expression of despair—it’s no more permanent than a rented room.
When the lonely man in Wild Goose Dreams calls his family in America, he tries to tell them about himself through jokes, but they don’t understand his humor. His wife is impatient. His daughter avoids his emojis. In the margin of one failed call, Jung wrote, “Jokes are the most difficult of things to set for a cultural alien. Not getting each other’s jokes any more is the saddest beginnings of an end of relationships.”
When Jung moved from South Korea to the United States as a college student, she had to relearn everything she knew about what made something funny. Humor was about rhythm, and English had its own sounds. Verbs came in the middle of a sentence, rather than at the end. The word “chicken” was humorous just because of how it sounded. “I don’t know how to analyze it, but it’s funny,” she told me.
Her favorite kind of jokes were funny because they were sad. She learned English by watching Gilmore Girls and The Office, shows that built their humor on awkward situations that pushed people to extremes. She watched the characters fumble and laughed at the desperateness of being human. A joke could be funny because you needed it so badly.
She didn’t feel like she belonged in the United States, but South Korea wasn’t her home either. Her family had moved to South Africa when she was six so that her dad could go to seminary. At her Afrikaans school, she didn’t speak the language. For the first six months, she cried. She felt apart from other people because she was foreign and also because she knew she would not stay. Her world became a temporary thing. She imagined that when she returned to Korea, her real life would begin again. But when she moved back as a teenager, she felt out of place. Everything was too small. She knew no one and failed math tests. When she tried to reach back to the person she had been, she found there was nothing left.
In college, she moved to New York for a semester and saw Cabaret on Broadway. For two hours, she didn’t understand what was happening in her brain. It was inconceivable: the explosion of sequins, the raunchy feathers, and also the moment when everything fell away, revealing a sad band playing on a lonely stage. She didn’t understand any of it, but she started teaching a child Korean to make enough money to see the show again and again. Eventually, she got a job as a waitress to fund her habit. While she was working at the restaurant, she wrote her first story. It was half a page about a man who tries to sell his joke to a waitress. The two share a laugh, then he hands her the bill.
After college, Jung began writing about people who drift apart. She wrote her first play about an American soldier who promises to stay with a comfort woman, forced into sexual slavery, then decides he’s only passing through. The woman waits for him, but he never returns. Jung sent the play to Yale and started an MFA.
In graduate school, she wrote stories about temporary people, those who were never really there to begin with: a woman on vacation in Hawaii, a teenager living in Uganda. She observed how they fled places and scenes. By getting on a plane, they could remove themselves in an instant: nothing stuck, everything was impermanent.
She started working on a play about a child passing between families. He feels he shares more with wolves than humans, only speaking through a puppet he carries with him everywhere. Most of his lines go unheard by anyone else on stage. He’s both there and not there, a buried life at the edge of each scene. The situation is so constant in Jung’s work that she has formed a special notation for it. The character who is not really there speaks on the right of the script—they observe and comment, but rarely participate. When they do, it is through a kind of magic that can only happen in a play. Two people separated by miles or dimensions can overhear each other, because, in a theater, the distance between them is only imagined: whatever they believe, they are two people sharing a single stage.
Jung’s most recent play is something different. She began writing it because her friend, Leigh Silverman, wanted to direct a lesbian sex comedy. Jung liked the idea of writing something that had nothing to do with the inside of her head—something that existed for the sole purpose of making her friend laugh about orgasms. She went to the archives and scrounged up a restoration comedy about a womanizer who seduces all of London by saying that he has an STD. In her version, Merry Me, the seducer is a woman named Horne, who is good at giving orgasms but bad at having them. While everyone is waiting for a big war to resume, Horne pretends that she’s undergone a successful round of gay conversion therapy, then goes about a military base ravishing all the soldiers’ wives. It’s amusing in an unwieldy way, loud and bubbly, like a giant doodle plopped in the middle of a stage.
What’s strange is everyone ends up happy. There’s no wistfulness, no distance so great that it cannot be erased. At one point in Merry Me, two soldiers are engaged in important communication, speaking back and forth over their military-issued paper cup phones. Then, the connection breaks. A military wife has crumpled up the cup. In one of Jung’s old plays, this might have been the end of things—the cord snaps, no more talk ever again. But this is a different kind of scene. A moment passes, and the two men realize that they’re not so far away: they’re on the same stage. The conversation begins again.