The problem play (also called “thesis play,” “discussion play,” and “the comedy of ideas”) is a comparatively recent form of drama. It originated in nineteenth-century France but was effectively practised and popularized by the Norwegian playwright Ibsen. It was introduced into England by Henry Arthur Jones and A. W. Pinero towards the end of the nineteenth century. G. B. Shaw and Galsworthy took the problem play to its height in the twentieth century. H. Granvi lie-Barker was the last notable practitioner of this dramatic type. Thus the problem play flourished in England in the period between the last years of the nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth.
What Is a Problem Play?
As its very name indicates, a problem play is a drama built around a specific problem. The problem is generally of a sociological nature: for example, prostitution, inadequate housing, unemployment, labour unrest, and so on. At times, however, a problem play may rise above the immediate context of a problem to grapple with larger ideological or even metaphysical and universal issues. If in Mrs. Warren’s Profession Shaw takes on the “profession” of prostitution and its economics in a laissez faire society, in Man and Superman his chief concern is not with a contemporary sociological problem but with the concept of “Life Force”. Acceptance of this concept and working in accordance with.it are the Shavian panacea for all sociological ills and problems.
The Element of Propaganda:
The problem play is sometimes called “the propaganda play,” for the obvious reason that its intent is overtly didactic and propagandist. The writer of the problem play is not a pure aesthete, a dispassionate creator of beautiful artifacts for their own sake. He is not like Henry James’s “God of creation” who remains out of His creation indifferently “paring his finger nails.”‘ Ibsen, Shaw, and Galsworthy have written such plays to direct public attention to social evils and wrong attitudes. And, what is more, a problem play is not something merely diagnostic but also something therapeutic; in other words, it not only spells out the ills but also prescribes uie-fernedy. Shaw scoffed at the slogan “art for art’s sake.” He said that for the sake of art he would not undertake the labour of writing even one sentence, not to speak of a whole play.
Technique : the Prominence of Discussion:
Abrams observes: “One subtype of the problem play is the discussion play, in which the social issue is not incorporate into a plot, but expounded in the dramatic give and take of a sustained debate among the characters.” For example, in Shaw’s Getting Married‘the story is reduced to the m inimum. Act 111 of Man and Superman shows no action, only a long debate. Debates, however lively and witty, cannot take the place of action in drama (The very word “drama” is from the Greek root “dran” which means “action.”) Shaw was brilliant debater and public speaker and most of the dialogues in his plays—both for and against the issue in hand—are witty and often very absorbing, but they do not constitute real dramatic action. Ifor Evans observes: “The brilliance of his dialogue sometimes leads him beyond the bounds of dramatic propriety so that the stage becomes a hustings.” In the plays of a lesser artist like Galsworthy this defect is all the more serious because his debates and lengthy dialogues are without any sparkle or engaging vitality.
The Beginners—Jones and Pinero:
The problem play was introduced into England towards the end of the nineteenth century by Henry Arthur Jones (1851-1929) and Sir A. W. Pinero (1855-1934). These playwrights were influenced by Ibsen but in dramatic talent were not even a patch on him. Ifor Evans justly remarks : ‘The descent from Ibsen to Henry Arthur Jones and Sir A. \V. Pinero is a steep one.”
Jones’s problem plays like Saints and Sinners and Mrs Dane’s Defence are, in Evans’ words, “the work of a cobbler who has never mastered his tools.” Pinero’s most popular play is The Second Mrs Tanqueray which deals with the marriage of “a woman with a past.” A. C. Ward observes: “Pinero did something towards transporting to the English stage the husk of Ibsen; but the substance of Ibsen’s message provoked in England an outburst of rage that only a Bernard Shaw could face with self-possession.”
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950):
And indeed Shaw had courage and self-possession almost in the same measure as intellectual incisiveness and wit. With all his amazing originality he was highly indebted to Ibsen. In fact his adulatory book on Ibsen The Quintessence oflbsenism (1891) was published a year before the appearance of his own first play Widowers’ Houses the first of the long series of problem plays written by him over the length of more than forty years.
Ibsen’s influence operated on Shaw in the following two ways :
First, it made him determined to use unhesitatingly his dramatic art in the service of his society in particular and mankind in general. He was fond of comparing himself to Moliere, the seventeenth-century French dramatist with a keen talent for satire. What Swift said about his own technique can as well be said about Shaw’s:
my method of reforming
Is uy laughter, not by storming
Is uy laughter, not by storming
Shaw’s problem plays amply show his consuming moral intensity. He has been well called by Ward “the Knight of the Burning Pencil, a crusader whose appointed lifework was the endeavour to restore colour and light and joy to England’s once green and pleasant land.”
Secondly, Shaw learned to question the customary beliefs of society and the accepted bases .of public institutions. He tries to analyse and subvert such time-honoured concepts as patriotism, the supposed romance of war and chivalry, the self-assumed wisdom and realism of John Bull as against the alleged volatility and sentimentality of the irish, and so on. His campaign is for rebuilding social institutions and creating a new climate of ideas on the basis of rationality and unsentimental realism. Witness his own words: “Progress is not achieved by panicstricken rushes back and forward between one folly and another, but by sifting all movements and adding what survives the sifting to the fabric of our morality.
In his problem plays. Shaw does this kind of sifting to separate the husk from the grain. Almost in every such play his intention seems to be to stand popular beliefs upside down. Truth is generally ugly or inconvenient and therefore Shaw’s wit and raillery have the function of making it acceptable.
Shaw’s first play—a problem play—was, in the words of A. C. Ward, “adramatic essay in ‘social realism’ long before the term had been coined in Russia or elsewhere. Built around the theme of slum-landlordism, Widowers ‘Houses represents the cruel oppression of the poor slum-dwellers by big financier-landlords. Mrs Warren’s Profession is about the evil of prostitution. Because of its theme—which was at that time considered outrageous—it was banned by the censor of the plays and was denounced by the public. The play is about the economics of prostitution as a profession in a free society. Its other aspects are ironically made subsidiary. Mrs Warren is far from being a romantic courtesan. She is an ordinary, successful harlot. The Apple Carl is yet another thought-provoking comedy. Shaw defends the institution of monarchy which is represented in the play by King Magnus whose sagacious tactics upset the “apple cart” of democratic leaders. But the real villian in the play is neither monarcy nor democracy but capitalism (humorously represented by Breakages and Company) which obstructs all social and economic progress. Arms and the Man is a brilliant satire on the popular notions about love and war. Bluntschli, the Shavian spokesman in the play, is an unforgettable, no-nonsense mercenary who is fired not by any notions of chivalry and patriotism, but by a matter-of-fact love of money and good living. He is not a coward, only a down-to-earth realist who carries more chocolate than ammunition to the battle-field. His function in the play is to cure the beautiful Raina of her romantic ideas and make her see Sergius, her dream soldier and fiance, in his true colours as a pompous humbug and worthless philanderer.
There is a group of Shaw’s plays (such as Man and Superman, Heartbreak House, and Back to Methusaleh) which treat his favourite concept of “Life Force'” and being so are not strictly problem plays but plays of ideas. By Life Force he means, in Ward’s words, “a power continually seeking to work in the hearts of men and endeavouring to impel them towards a better and fuller life.” Shaw wavers between the mystic and the Christian in defining Life Force. He describes it alternatively as “the Holy Ghost denuded of personality” and “the will of God.”
Shaw’s best play Saint Joan is not really a problem play though it addresses the problem of definiing the real character and significance of “The Maid”
John Galsworthy (1867-1933)
Galsworthy as a writer of problem plays is hugely inferior to Slum. ! fe lacks his wit, humour, and intellectual sharpness. Il is said that Shaw’s plays are deficient in emotion. Galsworthy’s are .not, but emotion in his works is hardly different from cheap and mushy sentiment. His best-known play Strife represents the conflict between striking workers and factory-owners, neither of them ready to surrender to the other. Ultimately it is the death of the wife of the leader of the strikers which brings about a reconciliation. The Skin Game dramatizes the struggle between old aristocrats and the newly rich industrialists. Justice and The Silver Box represent the evils of law, which treats some as more equal than others, as also the irrationality of consigning people to solitary imprisonment.
Harley Granville-Barker (1877-1946):
Granville-Barker was the last notable practitioner of the problem play. His plays include The Manying of Ann Leete, Waste (which was censored), The Madras House, and The Voysey Inheritance. The last named, to quote Ward, “was his finest achievements, and one of the best and richest plays of modern times.”