THE PROBLEM PLAY:Drama of Social Problems

Towards the end of the Victorian age the drama of social problems came into prominence in England. The problem play was the presentation of a contemporary question through realistic technique. The dramatists writing plays of social criticism made a conscious effort to deal with problems of contemporary society and morality. The drama which was directly inspired by the social ferment of the time could be effective only if it adopted a realistic form or medium, because problem drama required a high level of craftsmanship and dramaturgic skill.

The problem play was a new experiment in form and technique, and dispensed with the conventional devices and expedients of the Victorian era, was closely related to the growth of the realistic movement in the field of English drama. Realism in English drama is as old as the ‘mysteries’ and ‘moralities’ which sometimes introduced realistic situations and characters from humble rustic life. Dekker’s The Honest whore and The shoemakers Holiday are realistic drama. The Elizabethan tradition of realistic drama was revived in the sentimental drama in the 18th century. Racism once again became a revitalizing current in English drama in the second half of Victorian era. It was largely felt that the essence of drama was the faithful presentation of life.

The term “problem play” was coined by Sydney Grundy who used it in a disparaging sense for the intellectual drama of the nineties. Shaw defined it as “The presentation parable of the conflict between man’s will and his movement”. The problem play deals with problems. Eric Bentley finds the justification of the world’ problem’ on the ground that the play ends with a question mark. He says that the dramatist’s business is to state his problem clearly and effectively, and not to present a readymade solution or to suggest a specific remedy. 

The problem play is supposed to have arisen out of the sentimental drama of the 18th century and often been identified with” serious drama”. The problem drama essentially differs from tragedy, even though it deals with serious issues it normally exhibits ideas, situations and feeling that lack tragic dimensious.

Henry Arthur Jones believed that the drama should parade social criticism. He began a light probing at Victorian convention as early as the eighties with Breaking a Butterfly (1885) based on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879). He further produced Saints and sinners (1894), The crusaders (1893) and The case of Rebellious Susan (1894).

George Bernard Shaw had the longest career in the history of English dramaticks. He was a moralist and a propagandist. His first play windower’s Houses (1892) was “an economic tract in dramatic form”, but it failed on the stage. His collection of seven plays – plays pleasant and unpleasant – appeared in 1898 in which he voiced his idea on a many social problem. Arms and the Man (1894) is a satire on the military. It professes to be “an anti – romantic play”. The exposition scene with its surprise, its suspense, its touches of fancy is enough to show the skill of Shaw. Texts admired and also hated it. It seemed to me, he said, “inorganic, logical straightness, and not the crooked path of life”.

Galsworthy occupies a distinctive place in modern English drama. His naturalism reminds us of Ibsen. He is a critic and interpreter of contemporary English life in his dramas. Like shaw, he handles definite problems – these of marriage, of sex relationship, of labour disputes, of the law, of solitary confinement, of caste feeling or class prejudice. His The silver Box (1906) deals with the inequality of justice. We see how the majesty of the law may end in a horrible human mistake. Justice (1910) is a sterm condemnation of the contemporary legal system. It attacks the evil of prison system especially the solitary confinement. It is a powerful plea for sympathetic treatment of law – breakers.

Harley Granville – Barker made a vital contribution to the problem play. He was one of the first of this age to study spiritual aimlessness for its own sake his themes include the marriage conventions, sex, and the position of women. His significant problem plays are the odyssey Inheritance ((1905), waste (1907), and The Madras House (1909). The Madras House is an expounded of suburban and commercial life, both domestic and professional. This plays him also framings the problem of sen relations. 

The problem play remained a theatrical in the 19th century for a number of reasons. The criticism of problem drama has also been generally vitiated by the belief that didacticism and propaganda have no place in the Theatre J.M.Synge said, "Drama, like the symphony, does not teach or prove anything”.

The problem play was neglected in the 19th century, yet it was not an outcast in the early 20th century. It was unquestionably the fruit of a strong dissatisfaction with the existing conditions of life. It directed attention to the facts and problems of social life. Some of the problem plays proved so effective that they imbued men’s minds with a passionate resentment against social injustice mobilized public opinion in favour of prison reform and hastened legislative action. No doubt, the problem plays were produced in large number, but since 1920, its supremacy came to be challenged by the revival of the historical and imaginative drama; and, above all, by the poetic drama and the experimental play. 

Ref: 1. History of English Literature- Albert, 
      2. The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature
      3. Microsoft Students’ Encarta


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