Problem Play || Origin, Growth and Development

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      The modern drama, born under the influence of Ibsen and practised by Shaw, Galsworthy, etc. Aims at the impartial and dispassionate presentation of contemporary life and as such its themes are the problems that exercise the minds of thinking people in all matters social, political, religious, ethical, economic etc., but to which no solution has been suggested. Hence it may also be called the drama of ideas. Thus the problem drama "treats the situation that arise in society as problems in the abstract and without any reference to the idiosyncrasies of human nature". Shakespeare in some of his plays Hamlet, The Measure for Measure and the Dark comedies poses some problems, some spiritual crisis, namely, 'To be or not to be' with which the main characters are faced in a particular situation of life. The problems are treated with a good deal of psychological analysis but these are only hinted at and the dramatist offers no solution. It is the individual characters which solve their problems in their own light, according to the idiosyncrasies of their own natures. Nevertheless, these are the eternal problems of human nature and dety solution. Thus the Problem Play dates back to Shakespeare. But the situations and characters of his are extraordinary and far above the level of average humanity. Modern drama, on the other hand, is much closer to real life, which it presents with realism.

the Problem Play dates back to Shakespeare.
Problem Play

      In the history of the 'Problem Play' the Manchester dramatists i.e., dramatists who wrote for the Gaiety Theatre at Manchester established by Miss Horniman in 1907, set a standard for the theatrical by encouraging some trends. Some of the leading playwrights of this school were Stanley Houghton, St. John Hankin, St. John Ervine and Harold Brighouse. Choosing generally the background of the industrial and business world these playwrights dramatised stories which showed rebellious youth striving against repressive parents, the clash of man and master, the stupidity of convention, the needless unhappiness caused by difference of social class and the emergence of bold independent womanhood (Collins). They pose problems but offer no solution. Thus Stanley Houghton's Hindle Wakes raises the question whether a girl should marry her seducer with whom she had enjoyed a weekend excursion, it only for convention's sake and not trom real inner urge.

      Ervine in Jane Clegg shows the woman of the same name, who deserted by her lying gambling, embezzling husband, rises courageously above the sordid circumstances of the life and prefers to live alone with her children. The issue raised here is that of 'divorce', with its implication of the need of equality of tastes and moral natures between the partners in marriage. As the husband in the play asserts: "I ought to have married a woman like myself of a bit worse it does not do a chap much good to be living With a woman who's his superior Thus the dramatists criticise contemporary life and raise broad issues ot civilized living.

      Galsworthy came to use the drama exactly with the same purpose as the Manchester playwrights. But his dramatic genius was of much a higher order. His plays are Problem Plays par excellence. The problem play by its very nature has an inherent weakness. A dramatist who takes up a particular social or economic or ethical problem as the theme ot his play really imposes upon himself a heavy and yet delicate responsibility. A problem play in the hand of inferior dramatists is apt to degenerate into a mere propaganda in which the playwright preaches his own particular point of view. He gives his own solution of the problem and asks the audience to accept it. He invents situations and characters to fit in with this central purpose. The result is that both become motivated and strictly governed by the purpose ; they do not appear natural and inevitable. Characters become mere stage representations of the author's own views, mere puppets pulled by the string of the doctrinaire. Thus the problem play suffers as a work of art.

      Galsworthy (1867-1933) was far too great an artist and saw this inherent weakness of the species. His aim is art and not propaganda. He did not colour his presentation of life and its problem with any clearcut philosophy or view of his own. Without passion or prejudice he puts both sides of the question, holds the scale even and leaves his audience to think out the answer. Thus in 'The Silver Box' and 'The Eldest Son' he exposes with biting irony the different attitudes of the law towards the rich and the poor, though the crime is the same. In the former play the crime of the son of a wealthy Liberal M. P. is hushed up, while Jones, the struggling unemployed youth, is given "a month with hard labour". As Jones cries out critically in the trial - "I've done no more harm than wot he 'as I'm a poor man. I've got no money an no friends - he's a toff - he can do wot I can't". Again Strife deals with the problem of the relation between Capital and Labour, between master and man; Justice deals with the problem of how to treat a criminal as a wicked man to be punished or a patient to be mentally cured. In this way, in all his plays a problem is the theme. Of course, Galsworthy strives generally to maintain an attitude of impartiality and detachment; nevertheless his pity for the underdog, for the victims of social circumstances breaks out unmistakably in all his plays. One result of his balanced moral attitude is that his characters are not vitalized individuals and are too much like labels. They do not move us to feelings like creatures of flesh and blood. His plays, compared with his novels, are cold and formal and near approaches "to reasonable sermons".

       George Bernard Shaw deals with social problems in a comic vein. He treats the problems with fun and humour and stimulates in thinking of the audience by making them laugh. 'Arms and the Man' exposes the hollowness of romance wrapped round love and war. 'Candida' deals with the problem of marriage. In many of his plays, he exposes the sham and hypocrisy of modern institutions like landlordism, democracy, marriage, parental authority. His attitude is clear and evident. But he makes propaganda an art. He shows the clash of ideas in brilliant dialogues, confronts the two sides and explains both the aspects of the problem. Shaw's plays in the first period of the twentieth century include The Devil's Disciple, Three Plays for Puritans (1901) Man and Superman (1903-1905), Pigmalion (1912-13), Heartbreak House (1913). Man and Superman is a philosophical play dealing with his idea of the life force working through human beings toward perfection. All these plays are built on ideas which are developed through scintillating dialogues, contrasts and clashes.

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