What is a problem play? That’s a great question. Scholars, actors and directors alike have debated and theorised for centuries over the exact definition of what a problem play is, and which works fit the bill. Traditionally, they are neither comedy nor tragedy—they sit somewhere in between making us laugh at one moment and despair the next. William Shakespeare is one of the most famous writers of ‘problem plays’, even though the term itself is some three hundred years younger than himself. And are they still written today? Another great question. We’ll get to that as well.
Updated 13th September, 2022.
A problem play is a play centred around the exploration and debate of a pressing, real-world issue. It developed as a dramatic form in the 19th century, as a result of increased interest in realism in theatre. While modern use of the term was coined in response to the work of playwright Henrik Ibsen, the notion of the ‘problem play’ has been applied to the work of many dramatists both alive today and in the past—perhaps most famously to William Shakespeare and his collection of ‘problem plays’.
The Origin of the Problem Play
Problem plays have been around as long as theatre itself. In Ancient Greek drama, there are numerous examples of plays that examine serious themes and ideas—even if they fit more neatly into categories of Classical tragedy and comedy. Shakespeare, who we mentioned above and will expand upon below, is known to have written a handful of problem plays that fit none of the other neat categories of his canon (history, comedy, tragedy, etc.)
The term itself can be traced back to the 1890s, where it was used to describe the realist style of playwright Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen eschewed the farcical plots and characters popular in European theatre at the time—the formulaic, Mills-and-Boon-like dross of the ‘well-made play’—and focused on the creation of real characters whose concerns could be shared by that of the general public that comprised his audience.
As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, dramatic realism took the world by storm. Stanislavski and Chekhov were tearing up Russia with their own takes, which would eventually infect America after a visit to the States from the former and his Moscow Art Theatre. The problem play, ever popular, continued to influence the dramatic canon, and writers like Odets, Miller, Williams and O’Neill.
Evolution of the Problem Play
So why don’t we hear this term more often? Why is it no longer used? If it took the world by storm and changed the history of theatre and writing forever, where are the problem plays today? The answer to that is: look around you. 20th century drama has evolved with realism as its default mode of delivery: 90% of the shows programmed by major theatre companies around the world could be classified as ‘problem plays’—especially when playwrights such as Ibsen still get as much (or more) stage time than fresher, emerging voices.
For this reason, the term is often used in a semi-pejorative way: a ‘problem play’ wears its central issue on its sleeve and forces an agenda down the audience’s throats. A great example of this sentiment was the emergence of the very special episode in 1980s television. It was the ‘event’ episode of a tv show in which a (usually) sitcom format gave way to a serious topic. Bullying, drug addiction, sex … which was still resolved a neat half-hour programming block.
Today, ‘problem play’ exists as a term from an era when theatre as we know it was shiny, new, challenging and shocking. These days, the term is best thought of not as a genre, or even a style of drama. It’s a lens: a means of examining what a playwright is trying to say with a particular work, and how its meaning is conveyed to an audience.
Shakespearean Problem Play
You might bet wondering where Shakespeare fits into all this. After all, the Bard is the writer most connected with the term these days. The concept of the Shakespearean problem play can be traced to an 1896 book called Shakespeare and his Predecessors, written by Frederick Samuel Boas. Boas examined Shakespeare’s work with the then-contemporary lens of the problem play, in order to interrogate the ways in which some of his plays defied straight categorisation into the canons of “comedy”, “tragedy” and “history”.
Boas’ definition of Shakespearean problem plays centred around the themes and ideas explored within them—partially because Shakespeare’s plays are difficult to give clear definition to at the best of times. More contemporary readings argue that Shakespeare’s problem plays can be defined by the controversy of their plots, such as The Merchant of Venice, or Measure for Measure. Others posit plays that illustrate the divide between human law and natural order, or even the presence of a difficult ethical dilemma (Venice, again, stands in in this case).
All controversy aside, there are a few plays that most scholars agree fit into the problem play category, even if the criteria for each play’s inclusion is contested. These plays are:
- All’s Well That Ends Well
- Measure for Measure
- The Merchant of Venice
- Timon of Athens
- Troilus and Cressida
- The Winter’s Tale
Depending on your level of knowledge and experience, you may know some or even all of these plays—or at least have an awareness of their existence. If not, don’t worry: the Shakespearean problem plays don’t generally get performed as much as the others in his canon. That being said, they are very much worth your time! Problem plays often hide some underrated gems in terms of characters and monologues: ripe for actors to mine for material.