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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. 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.
The critic F. S. Boas adapted the term to characterise certain plays by Shakespeare that he considered to have characteristics similar to Ibsen's 19th-century problem plays. Boas's term caught on, and Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice, Timon of Athens, Troilus and Cressida, and All's Well That Ends Well are still referred to as "Shakespeare's problem plays". As a result, the term is used more broadly and retrospectively to describe pre-19th-century, tragicomic dramas that do not fit easily into the classical generic distinction between comedy and tragedy.
While social debates in drama were nothing new, the problem play of the 19th century was distinguished by its intent to confront the spectator with the dilemmas experienced by the characters. The earliest forms of the problem play are to be found in the work of French writers such as Alexandre Dumas, fils, who dealt with the subject of prostitution in The Lady of the Camellias (1852). Other French playwrights followed suit with dramas about a range of social issues, sometimes approaching the subject in a moralistic, sometimes in a sentimental manner.
The most important exponent of the problem play, however, was the Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen, whose work combined penetrating characterisation with emphasis on topical social issues, usually concentrated on the moral dilemmas of a central character. In a series of plays Ibsen addressed a range of problems, most notably the restriction of women's lives in A Doll's House (1879), sexually-transmitted disease in Ghosts (1882) and provincial greed in An Enemy of the People (1882). Ibsen's dramas proved immensely influential, spawning variants of the problem play in works by George Bernard Shaw and other later dramatists.