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.
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