Problem Play | Definition, Elements, Examples in Literature

Problem Play | Definition, Elements, Examples in Literature

Problem Play

Problem Play Definition

The term ‘problem play’ is applied to plays that treat some social or moral problem and the end of these plays compel the readers to think intelligently on the issue. The term was coined by Sydney. Grundy used it in a disparaging sense for the intellectual drama of the nineties.

This is the popular form of drama emerged during nineteenth century and its popularity is increasing rapidly because of the growing complexity in life and great change in the view points. This is a kind of play that directly appeals to thoughtful minds and contributes largely to human progress but for creating dramatic effects, it over-simplifies problems and becomes over-melodramatic. Wrong and injustice inflicted by the society are the chief elements of problem play. The problem playwrights focus on needless torture and suffering imposed by the law of the particular land and firmly adhered to the dictums of justice and equality to all. The major problems tackled in these plays are rampant in the society of that time i.e. crime, injustice, conservatism, economic slavery of women, domestic life and relationship, poverty and revolt of youths.

Disintegration in the life of middle class families and values originated the problem play in England. Problem play turned into a powerful medium of social criticism and vindicated the right of the individual unfettered by bias and conventions of the society.

Major Problem Playwrights

The bold treatment of real life and society in these plays bigoted a powerful criticism of society, law and life in the works of T. W Roberston, Henry Arthur Jones, Henrik Ibsen, Granville Backer, St John Hankin, John Galsworthy, George Bernard Shaw, etc.

Origin of Problem Plays

Previously, problem plays were in the form of realistic plays and when romantic and historical themes turned their way to family themes, they gave way to problem plays. T. W. Roberston’s (1829 71) works are considerable from this point. Later, H. A. Jones and Pinero under the influence of T. W. Roberston, prepared themselves to write new drama of ideas and social purpose. In nineties Ibsen gave great impetus to realistic movement and then Shaw, Galsworthy, Graville- Barker and St. John Hankin carried this serious drama to domestic, social and personal themes.

Now, natural dialogue, new psychological investigations and distinct plot reinforced the interest of the readers and audience and the problem play’ was established as the drama of early twentieth century.

Elements of Problem Play

Problem plays are a powerful and effective medium of serious thoughts. They give any propaganda a fair thought and impartial representation of conflicting tendencies of the world. They require a high level of dramaturgic skill to maintain the vitality and effectiveness of the problem plays. Some essential requisites of Problem plays are as follows:

  1. High Technical Skill

Problem play needs high technical skill and ability. Being a new experiment in dramaturgy, it totally discarded the traditional craftsmanship. The problem playwright do not set aside the plot construction, but attempt to unfold social, political and family problems. The problem playwright also observes the unities of time, place and action to maintain economy and structural compactness to enforce his theme.

  1. Theme through Action and Dialogue

Although, problem playwrights express the themes through action and dialogue, they do not adopt the conventional devices and transformed them to a great extent. They give a new meaning and an entirely new significance to their themes.

  1. Tackling with Ordinary Human Problems

These plays deal with ordinary humdrum of life. The problem playwright regards life as unheroic and avoids romantic extravagance and coveys the effect of these common incidents by pause, gestures, trivial actions and glance.

  1. Thought and Action

Overpowering thought and action are often regarded more effective than physical action. The problem playwright concentrate chiefly on psychological conflict resulted from the problems of social life. In Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the action is psychological than physical.

  1. Presentation of Interesting Man and Woman

Problem play portrays interesting individual and complex specimen of humanity. His characters are from courts, offices, homes and workshops who have serious concerns about the society in which they live but unfortunately either they are opposed or victimized by society


Problem play also envelops characters and theme equally like other plays but they cannot treat it in abstract without giving account of concrete situation and living man and woman. The characters of these plays are-

  1. natural,
  2. complex,
  3. immortal and
  4. realistic

Ibsen’s characters are not ’embodied humours’ but seriously they are natural and complex personalities and ideas are treated as abstract characters. Most of the characters are gifted with extraordinary vitality and almost alive in the world in which they live.

Although the major characters of G.B. Shaw like Candida, Broadbent, Undershaft, Ann Tanner, and Father Keegan are gallery of immortals’, they are round and distinct personalities. Besides, Falder, Clare, Ferrand, Anthony and Roberts are creatures of flash and blood.

Granville Barker’s characters consist of specific individuals like Philip, Alice, Trebell, Edward and Ann who are complex personalities. H. A. Jones had incorrigible tendency towards melodramatic extravagance and he created credible and natural characters like Michael and Audric Lasden. Along with that, mighty heroes and downright villains are included to represent stigmas on the face of society. In the absence of these qualities in the characters, problem play would turn into a mere treatise without convincing and lifelike characters.

Artistic Devices

Problem play never discards artistic devices. In fact they used these devices to give deep impact on the minds of readers on religious, political and social issues. These plays are regarded as propaganda plays as Shaw himself believed that all great art or literature is propaganda’. In order to present his view point before readers, problem playwright introduce a raisonneur (a character in a play or novel, or the like who voices the central theme, philosophy, or point of view of the work) who become a philosophic spectator for the whole play and are considered as the recognized representative of the playwright.

The dialogues of the raisonneur have the superior wisdom and his statements have peculiar authority to penetrate the minds of readers with wisdom. Like Greek chorus, he assesses the problem given by playwright and clears the playwright’s opinion for readers or audience. It gives an impartial representation of conflict in the society and cannot be called a treatise for propagating the principles of life.

Problem Play Examples

Below are some Problem plays that had profound concern of social, family and political issues:

Problem Playwrights Problem Plays
T. W. Roberston Society,




Henry Arthur Jones The Tempter,

The Liars

Henrik Ibsen The Doll’s House,

An Enemy of the People,


Granville Backer The Voysey Inheritance,


St. John Hankin The Burglar Who Failed,

The Return of the Prodigal

George Bernard Shaw




Apple Cart,

The Widower’s House

John Galsworthy


The Silver Box,

The Skin Game,





Problem play was Cinderella of the dramatic art’ (W.R. Goodman), so it cannot be regarded as inferior art form as it answered the various critical problems of the time and besides its didactic purpose it also fulfilled the requirement of high level of craftsmanship and dramatic art.


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