A problem play is a type, form, or genre of drama that emerged during the mid-19th century forming the beginnings of modern drama with its serious subject matter presenting significant social issues of the modern world.
What is a Problem Play?
A Problem play is a type of drama that has a contemporary social problem at its center, often faced by the protagonist. The play usually offers a solution to the issue that opposes the dominant societal opinion. It often uses a character who represents the author’s voice and provides the solution as the plot progresses. The issues or problems raised in the plays can be related to any relevant contemporary and pressing social, political, or moral subject matter.
A sub-type of Problem play is called discussion play; discussion play does not necessarily incorporates the social issue in the plot but explores the issue through characters’ debates as characters argue and put forth distinct point of view on the problem the play aims to raise. Notably, Problem play is also known as Thesis Play as it discusses, presents, and often offers a solution to the discussed issue.
In specialized usage, the term Problem Play is applied to some plays by William Shakespeare and other tragicomedy dramas as the critic F.S. Boas appropriated the term in his book ‘Shakespeare and his Predecessor.’ Boas found the term conducive to understanding some of the challenging plays of Shakespeare.
Key Characteristics of Problem Play
The key characteristics of Problem play include:
- Problem plays bear a serious subject matter of social and moral importance. They are designed to raise serious issues often considered contentious amidst dominant contemporaneous society.
- The plot of such plays revolves around the problem raised as it plays a pivotal role in the characters’ lives, highlighting the issue’s significance in contemporary society.
- They often offer a radical resolution or answer to the issue raised, usually with the author’s voice evident in the protagonist’s character.
- Problem plays are thought-provoking and confrontational as the characters discuss and debate contentious and uncomfortable social and moral issues forcing the viewers or readers to think.
- Problem plays emerged from the 19th-century realist movement and are operated in a realist setting, aiming to show the real struggle and the state of society to stir people.
Origins and Development of Problem Play
The Problem Play emerged as a facet of the 19th-century realism movement in arts which challenged idealization, exaggeration, and otherworldly subject matter of romanticism in favor of realist settings, focusing on everyday struggles while exploring societies’ contemporary social issues and moral dilemmas. Realism flourished in literature, especially with the novels of Emile Zola, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, etc.
The earliest emergence of such plays can be traced back to mid-19th century France with the plays of Alexandre Dumas and Eugéne Brieux. Dumas and Brieux chose significant social issues as subject matter for then-popular, well-made plays, i.e., French plays focused on romantic melodramas.
The genre peaked with the plays of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen often known as the ‘father of realism.’ Ibsen’s plays raised controversial and uncomfortable social and moral issues, which created an uproar throughout Europe, often leading to screening censorship. For instance, Ibsen had to wait for a year to get his play ‘Ghosts’ staged, and for ‘A Doll’s House’ he was forced to write an alternate ending for the German premiere as the original ending was considered too radical and scandalous.
Ibsen’s plays explore the inner surface of conventional Victorian bourgeois morality exposing its hollowness and falsity. In his significant plays, he shines a critical light on Victorian ideals of Christianity, bourgeois morality, marriage, and women’s status by taking up typical taboos like free love outside marriage, incest, subordination of women, venereal disease and euthanasia; while exposing the hypocritical lives of high class. One remarkable element in Ibsen’s plays is the creation of some potent women characters. Major Problem plays by Ibsen include ‘A Doll’s House’ (1879), ‘The Pillars of Society’ (1877), ‘Ghosts’ (1881), ‘An Enemy of the People’ (1882), and ‘Hedda Gabler’ (1890).
In England, George Bernard Shaw is considered an essential contributor to this genre. His major Problem plays include ‘The Philanderer’ (1893), ‘Widower’s House’ (1892), ‘Candida’ (1895), ‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession’ (1902), ‘Major Barbara’ (1905), ‘The Doctor’s Dilemma’ (1906), ‘Man and Superman’ (1905), etc. Shaw is known to employ the discussion method best; his plays ‘Mrs. Warren’s Profession’, ‘Getting Married’ (1908), ‘The Apple Cart’ (1929), and Act 3rd of ‘Man and Superman’ (1903) are considered excellent discussion plays. Significantly, Shaw wrote a book on Ibsen’s plays called ‘The Quintessence of Ibsenism.’
During the 1960s onwards, with the influence of agitprop drama, documentary theatre, and Brecht’s Epic Theatre, some playwrights widened the narrow scope of the subject matter of Problem play by incorporating broader social and political issues such as racism, class system, sexism, poverty, political corruption, crime, violence, etc. Many of such plays are thus known as the ‘State of Britain’ plays. Notable contributors to such problem plays include John McGrath, David Edgar, Howard Brenton, David Hare, Edward Bond, Howard Barker, Caryl Churchill, and Arnold Wesker.
Other notable contributors to the genre include John Galsworthy, Henry Granville-Barker, T.W. Robertson, Oscar Wilde, Arthur Wing Pinero, and Henry Arthur Jones.
Shakespearean Problem Play
In 1896, critic F.S. Boas used the term Problem plays in his book ‘Shakespeare and his Predecessor’ to define certain plays of Shakespeare – ‘Troilus and Cressida,’ ‘Measure for Measure,’ and ‘All’s Well That Ends Well.’ He also applied the term to ‘Hamlet,’ often considered a tragedy. In his application, Boas found the then-popular modern genre of drama- Problem play, instrumental for understanding Shakespeare’s plays that were hard to categorize in the traditional distinctions of tragedy and comedy.
Eventually, the term was adapted into Shakespearean studies, and various scholars extended the list of Shakespearean Problem plays with their distinct theories, understanding, and analysis. Significant approaches for Shakespearean Problem plays include the destabilization and resolution of social order, various social issues from power to gender roles, and rhetorical devices in plays. Most importantly, certain Shakespearean plays, known as “bitter comedies,” oscillate between tragedy and comedy while contemplating moral and social dilemmas. Such plays seem problematic to some readers as, for them, the plays end without any resolution to the raised ethical and social issues. Broadly the term covered Shakespeare’s Drama which explores the dark side of human nature, leaving the dilemmas and issues unresolved. Some other plays often considered Problem plays include ‘Merchant of Venice,’ ‘The Winter’s Tale,’ and ‘Timon of Athens.’
Extensively, the term is sometimes applied to any peculiar and dark tragicomedy play that cannot be classified into comedy or tragedy. However, it is essential to note that the categorization of various Shakespeare’s plays as Problem plays is debatable as many critics of Shakespeare’s studies still do not accept the term; moreover, the category is not well structured as different studies concerning Shakespeare’s Problem plays comprise of a varying list of plays with distinct explanations and theories.
The significant issues explored in problem plays include women’s issues, prostitution, bourgeois decadence, racial and ethnic relations in America, exploitation of the poor, sexually transmitted diseases, political corruption, violence, crime, class system, the press, hypocrisy of dominant classes, etc.
In the mid-19th century trend toward realistic drama began with the plays of T.W. Robertson during the 1860s. T.W. Robertson was the first playwright to bring the idea of a realist stage setting having real properties and real ceilings. Such emphasis on realism led to his plays being called ‘Cup and Saucer’ dramas. His focus on realist details on stage anticipates the highly influential ‘kitchen sink drama’ of the mid-20th century.
Like novelists, social ills and moral issues became central for dramatists during the mid-19th century. T.W. Robertoson’s plays are known to have set the trend; even the names of his plays indicate their themes. For instance, his major plays include ‘Society’ (1865), ‘Ours’ (1866), ‘Caste’ (1867), ‘Play’ (1868), and ‘School’ (1869).
Henry Granville-Barker was a well-known theatre director and directed many of John Galsworthy’s Problem plays, making the theatre a forum for debate on social and moral issues. He also wrote significant political plays that raised social problems related to class and the double standards of society. His major plays include ‘The Madras House’ (1910), ‘The Voysey Inheritance’ (1905), and ‘Waste’ (1907).
Best known as a novelist, John Galsworthy wrote significant Problem plays during the 20th century. Influenced by Ibsen, Galsworthy often exposed the inequalities in British society. His major plays include ‘The Silver Box’ (1907), ‘Strife’ (1909), ‘Justice’ (1910), ‘Loyalties’ (1922), and ‘The Roof’ (1929).
- Hornby, Richard. “The Social Problem Play.” The Hudson Review, vol. 51, no. 4, 1999, pp. 751–58. JSTOR
- Cardullo, Bert. “Play Doctor, Doctor Death: Shaw, Ibsen, and Modern Tragedy.” Comparative Drama, vol. 45 no. 3, 2011, p. 271-288. Project MUSE.
- HYLAND, PETER. Early Theatre, vol. 4, 2001, pp. 152–54. JSTOR.
- Rossiter, A.P. “The Problem Plays.” Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. Dean, Leonard F, New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.
- Harmon, A. G. Eternal Bonds, True Contracts: Law and Nature in Shakespeare’s Problem Plays. State University of New York Press, 2004.