The Problem Play Or The Prose Drama of the 20th Century

A problem play or a play of ideas is a drama which treats of a particular social or moral problem. It has a propaganda value and tries to suggest the solution of that problem. Problems are generally related to love, marriage, sex, war and peace, social and economic justice, crime, etc. Problem-drama, on the whole, opposes all forms of insularity and falsehood; and firmly adheres to the principles of equality, freedom and justice.

In tone and temperament it is tragic, real and intellectual. It debates the pros and cons of a problem; there are scintillating arguments, and thought- provoking promptings. It is realistic, witty, materialistic and earthly. Realism and naturalism are its backbones.

Origin of the Problem Play: This type of drama grew and developed in England from 1890 to 1914. Shaw however continued to uphold it because of his longevity and masterly genius. It became a strong and effective medium of social criticism. It was a new experiment in form and technique, and dispensed with the conventional devices and expedients of the theatre. It was nourished and strengthened by Shaw, Granville-Barker, Galsworthy, St. John Hankins, Stanley Houghton and several other playwrights. It was brought to an end by the war which turned the theatres into amusement booths for soldiers on leave. Serious drama was driven out by frivolous audiences and rising rents. There was an extra-ordinary craze for glamour, spectacle, laughter and sex.

Chief Characteristics: The problem play is essentially the drama of disillusion: it has stripped life of false sentiment and revealed the ugliness and squalor masked by the generally accepted beliefs and conventions of contemporary society. The problem playwright exposes cant and hypocrisy, pulls down old idols from their high pedestals and debunks the ruling gods. It is a revolt against the earlier conventions. It is opposed to romanticism. Idealism, and escapism. No doubt it has a didactic purpose; but at the same time it has its artistic value too. It gives equal emphasis to internal and external conflict. It is full of lengthy stage directions. It is wooed by rationalism and has had its era of triumph on the stage.

Problem drama is written in prose. It dispenses with soliloquy and aside, and endeavours to give a truthful or life-like rendering of everyday conversation. It works out its theme in terms of character and action. There are no mighty heroes and downright villains in a problem play: The characters are taken directly from offices, courts, workshops, homes and streets, In it we find a fairly large and interesting group of people who adhere to conventional morality and beliefs. The adherents of tradition confront those who rebel against the prevailing social order or are victimized by it. A subsidiary group consists of sympathetic onlookers. Problem Drama in a Historical Perspective:

1.Jones and Pinero: Two men who prepared the way for the striking change that took place in the ‘nineties’-a change that has not yet reached its fullness of development-are Henry Arthur Jones and Arthur Wing Pinero. Jones showed a lively sense of characterization that helped materially to vitalize the stereotyped figures of the older Victorian play. Pinero did good work in creating a livelier sense of reality. Though they were not true realists, yet they prepared the way for an appreciation of Ibsen’s genius, and accustomed the play-goer to a more faithful and intimate picture of contemporary life than that to which he had been accustomed.

Among the pioneers the name of T. W. Robertson, whose comedy Society (1865) is an important work, should also be mentioned. Jones wrote The Silver King, a melodrama, Saints and Sinners, The Crusades, The Hypocrites, and the Breaking of Butterfly, the problem plays. His best work is Liars (1897) which is modelled on the style of the Comedy of Manners. “Jones’s true value is as an innovator who pointed the way for others greater than himself”.

Pinero wrote The Money Spinner, The Magistrate, The School Mistress, Dandy dick, Sweet Lavender, The Princess and Butterfly, The Weaker Sex and other plays. But his real genius as a dramatist is unfolded in his The Profligate, The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, The Thunderbolt, and The Notorious Mrs. Ebb Smith. He introduced realism, though his realism is tempered by conventional satire and melodrama.

2. Galsworthy (1867-1933): His main dramatic works include The Silver Box, The Strife, The Show, The Skin Game, The Forest, The Joy, A Family Man, Justice, The Mob, A Bit of Love, The Elder Son, Loyalties, Foundations, etc. He has written the ‘plays of family relationship’, Joy, A Family Man, ‘Plays of social justice’ (The Silver Box, The Show, The Forest) ‘the tragedy of idealism’ and ‘plays of class and caste feeling’. He is a dramatist of social life. His depiction of social problems is realistic and impartial. His prominent characters are drawn from the middle classes. No less than ten of his dramas are in some way connected with Justice and six of them with a criminal case and pursuit of the law. All his plays are marked with a deep and poignant irony. He is a master of dramatic technique (Coats). Galsworthy writes short, crisp and lively dialogues. They are witty too. He has written both comedies and tragedies, but it is in his tragedies that he is more successful.

3. Granville Barker (1887-1946): An actor, producer and playwright, Barker wrote Prunella, Voysey Inheritance, Waste, etc. He discussed with unyielding realism contemporary problems and showed the influence of Shaw. His other plays are The Madras House, The Secret Life. “His influence on drama and the production of drama has been profound and perhaps lasting, He has shown that the centuries-old gap between literature and drama can be bridged that the theatre has no valid excuse for being unliterary and the dramatic literature requires for its fulfilment stage, actors, scene and audience”.

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4. M. Barrie: Barrie brought to English drama Scottish humour, reserve and sentimentality. He was “assured a place in English theatre at a time when Shaw was regarded as nothing but a perverse eccentric”. He wrote about a dozen plays, but his best known plays are The Wedding Guest, The Admirable Crichton, Dear Brutus and Mary Rose. His plays brought to the commercial theatre a delicacy of texture without precedent and triumphed over material grossness.

5. Shaw (1856-1960): Shaw in quality and quantity is the greatest dramatist of the twentieth century. Shaw was a disciple of Ibsen. Like Ibsen he used the drama as a medium for ventilating his ideas. He rejected the thesis of art for art’s sake. ‘His plays’, says A. C. Ward, ‘art is a continuous record of the long struggle between artist and moralist’. In the words of Prof. Nicoll, ‘Shaw has thought more vigorously, more alertly, and with more penetrating insight about the social problems of our day than any other living author”. His dramas are ‘ceaseless dances of thought’.

Shaw has written nearly fifty plays. Even his most insignificant plays are readable today. His plays have been having frequent shows on the stage and have inspired amateurs and professionals alike. He has held for long the key of commercial theatre. His best-known works are St. Joan, Man and Superman, Arms and the Man, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, The Doctor’s Dilemma, and A Host of Others. He is the master of the spoken word. He has invented the dialogue of disquisition and can make an argument as thrilling as a stand up fight. About his contribution, Gillet says, “He blew away the Victorian cobweb. He modernized the traffic of the theatre. He set men’s mind to work on new lines. Apart from the tendency to wordiness which has been noted, Shaw’s influence on the theatre has been all to the good”.

Wit is the very essence of Shavian comedy. His sense of fun is undying, and there is in his drama an endless stream of exuberant vitality and gaiety of spirit. Sometimes his sense of humour is uncontrolled and the result is disturbing, but generally it can be said that there is a serious purpose underlying his fun. “In a dramatist so intellectual, so persistently witty, so detached from his subjects it is not surprising to find that there is relatively little emotion”. In characterization, in the variety and vividness of his characters, he is next only to Shakespeare. His characters are the products of social forces, and some of them are mere mouthpieces for his theories. Many of his characters are built with Dickensian skill around one idiosyncrasy! And Shaw is an apt caricaturist.

6. Other Dramatists: Among other prose writers who wrote in the vein of realism are Somerset Maugham, Stanley Houghton, Harold Brighouse, Allan Monkhouse, Noel Coward, Lord Dunsay, C. K. Munro, St. John Hankin, Laurence Houseman, J. B. Fagan, and others. But in their hands the prose drama does not remain as distinctly the problem drama as it was in the days and hands of Shaw and Galsworthy.



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