“The Play’s the Thing”: Problem Plays and Social Critique

There are two posters that I’ve carried with me throughout my Dartmouth Career. I’ve schlepped them from room to room, rolled them up every ten weeks and then unrolled them, flattened them out, and pinned them up. One is my dad’s poster of John Belushi as Senator Blutarsky, and the other is the final stage direction from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

A Doll’s House famously ends with Nora, the protagonist of the play, leaving her husband and children with the door slamming behind her. I adore A Doll’s House, and find the ending deliciously satisfying in a way that I could never find the ending to Measure for Measure.

However, both plays take up similar themes of patriarchy, authority, and gender, and both plays are often designated “problem plays”. I’ve written elsewhere about Shakespeare’s troubling endings, his play with possibility, and his difficulties with posterity. That means that I may really be beating a dead horse when I take a look at Measure for Measure, and its status as a “problem play”, but it’s something that I find very interesting.

The term “problem play” originated with socially realist theatre of the late 19th century, particularly Ibsen. His A Doll’s House or An Enemy of the People are both fine examples of this: realist social-dramas where issues are clearly debated between the characters on stage, and highlight existing social problems. They also normally point towards a clear moral solution to the social problems discussed. A Doll’s House discusses the problems inherent in 19th century marriages, and ends with the woman leaving the marriage. In Shakespearean problem plays, the answers are often much less clear.

Though the original designation of certain Shakespeare plays as “problem plays” was actually based on an Ibsenian model, that is often not the use the way the term is used now. The designation of Shakespearean “Problem Plays” originally given to Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, and All’s Well That End’s Well, and Hamlet by Critic F.S. Boas, who said:

All these dramas introduce us into highly artificial societies, whose civilization is ripe unto rottenness. Amidst such media abnormal conditions of brain and of emotion are generated, and intricate cases of conscience demand a solution by unprecedented methods. Thus 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, even when, as in All’s Well and Measure for Measure, the complications are outwardly adjusted in the fifth act. In Troilus and Cressida and Hamlet no such partial settlement of difficulties takes place, and we are left to interpret their enigmas as best we may. Dramas so singular in theme and temper cannot be strictly called comedies or tragedies. We may therefore borrow a convenient phrase from the theatre of to-day and class them together as Shakespeare’s problem-plays. (Boas 359)

Generally speaking, the context of the “theatre of today” (which in 1900 would definitely mean Ibsen) and the first part of this quote describing the social critique implicit in these plays is ignored in favor of the designation of the plays as not no strictly comedies or tragedies. Because of this, the designation “problem play” is often removed from Hamlet and extended to other plays which are darkly comic. This definition is not the same as an Ibsenian problem play, though they are related.

Three of these Shakespearean “problem plays” are stories of controlled and uncontrolled sexuality, and are very dark. Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well end with extremely forced coupling arranged by the rulers in the plays: the King forces Bertram to remain with Helena and marries off Diana; The Duke marries Angelo and Mariana and offers his hand in marriage to Isabella (a nun). None of these pairings are easy, though they are perhaps “happier” than the ending of the last problem play—Troilus and Cressida—where the titular lovers are definitively split up, and the end of Troy is nigh.

Measure for Measure in particular ends troublingly, with Isabella silent after the Duke proposes to her, with her acquiescence generally assumed: after all what other option does she have? As Boas points out, “the issues raised preclude a totally satisfactory outcome”. After all the work the play does of portraying problems with state-control of sexuality, there can be no true satisfactory resolution. If Isabella were to return to the life of a nun, would that be satisfactory?

I actually believe that it would be, but I’m glad that it doesn’t happen. It would be brilliant if Isabella pulled a Nora and walked away, slamming the door behind her. But the reason that Nora’s exit in A Doll’s House is so powerful is because it is so unexpected. We expect stories to have beginnings, middles, and ends. Measure for Measure begins with a problem of sexuality, explores it, and ends it. Everyone gets married. We expect this as an audience. A Doll’s House provides no resolution. Despite the fact that the door is quite literally closed, the ending is open: we have no idea what will happen to these characters now. Both plays show how silly an audience’s desire for a clear ending and solution can be, but they do so in different ways.

Measure for Measure has a clear ending, but an ambiguous message. Is the ending happy? Is it sad? Much is left open to the actors  and director. A Doll’s House has a clear message but an ambiguous ending. Nora leaves, and she is right to, and a version of the play which actors and directors stage to imply anything else would really be missing the point.

Personally, I love A Doll’s House. I love the ending so much that I have that final stage direction on a 24×36 poster opposite my bed so I see it when I wake up in the morning and I can feel secure in the possibility of escape from a patriarchal society, and all of its adherent confinements. But that doesn’t make the ending of Measure for Measure bad or less powerful. It’s realistic, and that is depressing. Isabella is a fictional character, but the figure of “woman” that she represents would not have much control over her marriage, or her sexuality. That’s the point.

Both plays do really excellent work exploring issues surrounding patriarchy: admirable considering they were both written by men. I really think that both plays also help contribute to a better world, by exploring these issues. What better place than a play to explore problems in our society?

Tony Kushner, the author of Angels in America said of theatre and social change that:

I used to think that only explicitly political theater, which openly addressed political subjects and perhaps only addressed such subjects in formally radical, experimental ways, had any hope of being of use to political progress. I no longer believe that. I certainly don’t think there’s a hierarchy of political efficaciousness according to which one might rank various theatrical aesthetic practices, and no formulae whereby politically useful theater can be created. I enjoy overtly political art, I like to listen to it and watch it, I find the ways it succeeds and the ways it fails fascinating; I always learn something, and frequently the lessons are exhilarating. Work that wears its politics proudly energizes me. Work that speaks clearly, intelligently, with sophistication about a social issue, political problem, or history; work that speaks in a voice I haven’t heard, about things I haven’t experienced; work by an artist who thinks it’s important to point out injustice and oppression–this sort of work teaches me, entertains me, rejoins me with the community I most want to belong to, the part of human society that’s politically progressive and actively engaged in making change. (62)

I really like this quote because it highlights how different pieces of theatre can do different work, but that one kind is not necessarily better than another. Personally, I love the overtly political and moral message of A Doll’s House. I think it’s a beautiful and genius play. I do not have the same overwhelming love for Measure for Measure, but that in no way means that it does not do a good job of exploring similar issues. They are both brilliant problem plays, and they belong to the part of human society that I think we should all want to belong to—the part that actively engages with making change.