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The problem play is a form of drama that emerged during the 19th century as part of the wider movement of realism in the arts, especially following the innovations of Henrik Ibsen. It deals with contentious social issues through debates between the characters on stage, who typically represent conflicting points of view within a realistic social context. Critic Chris Baldick writes that the genre emerged "from the ferment of the 1890s... for the most part inspired by the example of Ibsen's realistic stage representations of serious familial and social conflicts." He summarises it as follows:
Rejecting the frivolity of intricately plotted romantic intrigues in the nineteenth-century French tradition of the 'well-made play', it favoured instead the form of the 'problem play', which would bring to life some contemporary controversy of public importance—women's rights, unemployment, penal reform, class privilege—in a vivid but responsibly accurate presentation.
The critic F. S. Boas adapted the term to characterise certain plays by William Shakespeare that he considered to have characteristics similar to Ibsen's 19th-century problem plays. As a result, the term is also used more broadly and retrospectively to describe any tragicomic dramas that do not fit easily into the classical generic distinction between comedy and tragedy.
While plays in Anicent Greece, Anicent Roman, Mystery plays, and Elizabethan Plays are clearly classified as tragedy, comedy, and Satyr Plays, there are some plays that exhibit the characteristics of problem plays, such as Alcestis.
F. S. Boas used the term to refer to a group of Shakespeare's play, which seem to contain both comic and tragic elements. For Boas the 'problem' plays were Measure for Measure, All's Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida. He wrote that "throughout these plays we move along dim untrodden paths, and at the close our feeling is neither of simple joy nor pain; we are excited, fascinated, perplexed, for the issues raised preclude a completely satisfactory outcome". Later critics have used the term for other plays, including Timon of Athens and The Merchant of Venice.
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