My Problem with Problem Plays
January 27, 2019: The problem play is a form of realistic drama that developed during the 19th century. It deals with a contemporary social controversy. Its major proponent was the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen; A Doll’s House and An Enemy of the People quickly come to mind. But there’s also Alexandre Dumas, whose The Lady of the Camellias deals with prostitution, and George Bernard Shaw, who wrote about prostitution too, as well as religion, feminism and poverty.
Of course, there are also many lesser known problem plays. If it weren’t for Mint Theater, who would remember Hazel Ellis’s workplace drama Women Without Men, or Miles Malleson’s “intimate peak behind the closed doors of an open marriage,” Your Unfaithfully, or George Aiken’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was, by the way, one of many successful adaptations of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel?
The truth is, what may be an important issue in one decade can be forgotten or resolved in the next. And certain opinions promoted in a play may become suspect, falling under the shadow of more enlightened reasoning.
The best problem plays do more than just address a current issue. They find the basic human conflict from which the problem arises. Seen in this light, racism and misogyny are both unequal struggles for power. And many of our issues with non-conforming sexuality are really about accepting our common humanity.
Too many of the problem plays we see today do not rise above this standard. It’s easy to see them in the wastebasket of forgotten plays a few years down the line. What’s more, once an issue has been clearly defined and discussed to death on talk shows and social media, playwrights seem to be in a frenzied rush to see who can get their play out first. The result is a lot of plays with faulty (or no) plots, shallow characterization and fuzzy development.
If the playwright has some standing, the situation is even worse.
Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet recreates a Sarah Bernhardt that has little to do with the actual woman and puts the legendary actress in an imaginary situation with an artificial conflict for the sole purpose of allowing the writer to take a stand on feminism and the arts. Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy has something to say about homophobia in the black community, but the protagonist is so obnoxious and the plot so frail it’s hard to figure out if his schoolmates are reacting to his sexual orientation or his personality.
Theater companies that want to be on the cutting edge end up giving these playwright’s and their half-finished plays a free pass. Critics review them based on what they think the playwright meant rather than what they see onstage. And the theatergoers either convince themselves they’ve just seen a work of groundbreaking importance or wonder why they’ve once again wasted their money.