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Problem Play And Well-Made Play

  The name ‘problem’ play is generally given to plays which are about social issues, for example, those of such 19th-century European writers as Dumas (fils), Ibsen and Shaw, and (in our own century) such authors as Galsworthy, Hellman, Miller and the myriad writers of ‘concerned’ films and television dramas. Often, though not always, problem plays use the conventions of naturalism, depicting ordinary people in everyday clothes and settings, using ordinary speech. Many problem plays also conform to the conventions of the ‘well-made’ play, devised in 19th-century France. In this, the drama begins with an exposition which sets the scene and gradually reveals the problem or secret at the heart of the plot. There follows a series of alarms, excursions and developments, often involving the revelation of some crucial secret which has so far not been known to one of the central characters. The moment of disclosure of this secret, the turning-point beyond which no lives will be the same again—often the ‘problem’ is resolved by the destruction or exaltation of the leading character—is a main climax. It is followed by an unwinding of the action, recapitulating and revisiting what has gone before in the light of what the characters (and we) now know, and there is often a further surprise at the moment of curtain-fall. The structure is (consciously) analogous to sonata-form in classical music. It can engender comedy or tragedy: Ibsen\'s A Doll\'s House and Wilde\'s The Importance of Being Earnest are outstanding examples of the well-made play. The coincidence of the two structures, problem plays and well-made plays, led to some of the finest European drama between 1850 and 1950, as well as to some of the worst, and it is still regarded by some bourgeois audiences as the ultimate theatrical experience: a play about ordinary people with a convincing, and clearly comprehensible, emotional and intellectual structure.

(There is a secondary meaning of ‘problem play’. Academics uses the phrase to refer to plays which are ‘problematical’ because they fail to fit into standard critical categories. Examples are the ‘problem plays’ of Shakespeare.) TRG KMcL SS



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