problem play

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A term commonly used to describe a play which examines a specific social or political problem with the aim of igniting public debate. The genre apparently originated in France in the late 19th cent. Notable examples are Ibsen's A Doll's House (1879), questioning the subordination of women in marriage; Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession (1902), examining attitudes towards prostitution; and Galsworthy's Justice (1910), exposing the cruelties of solitary confinement and the legal system. Some plays by later writers such as A. Wesker, J. McGrath, Caryl Churchill, H. Brenton, and D. Hare also raise contemporary issues, often using a wider canvas than their predecessors. In Shakespearean studies, certain of the ‘dark comedies’ are known as problem plays, notably Measure for Measure, All's Well that Ends Well, and Troilus and Cressida. These plays are difficult to classify because their sombre themes and cynical tones contrast oddly with their comedic elements, and the moral issues raised are not satisfactorily resolved. The term was originally applied to these plays by Frederick S. Boas (1862–1957, scholar of early modern drama).

Subjects: Literature.

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