The Problem Play


The problem play, as the very name indicates, deals with a problem or problems, may be in individual life or in social. Such a play treats a matter of contemporary social life and brings to the surface some problem or problems, confronting individual beings or society at large. These problems are presented as affecting and arresting individual happiness and social harmony. The imitation or representation of such problems and their bearing on individual and social life is the purpose of a problem play.

In the modern theatre, there is perceived a shift from divine malignancy and individual hamartia to social anomalies and contradictions. The steering motive-force is society and social forces, shaping human destiny. A conscientious dramatist of modern times is found interested in the social life to which he belongs and effectively treats different social problems and anomalies and contradictions in his play, tragedy, comedy, or tragi-comedies. He has the avowed objective to bring out the role of society in and the impact of social forces upon human relationship, happiness and harmony.

Of the English authors of modern problem play John Galsworthy is a distinct name, with his well celebrated plays, like Loyalties, Strife, Justice and many more. Of course, Ibsen, the great master, is the pioneering dramatist in the sphere. A.W. Pinero, H. A. Jones and Granville Barker are some other noted names here. Of course, George Bernard Shaw’s classic comedies are concerned with some arresting social problems. The modern trend to dramatise growing problems in restive modern society is found continued in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party.


The Naturalistic Play


Naturalism in dramatic literature implies an extremely realistic, detached representation or imitation of life, as this is, in drama. It is concerned with what is absolutely true to existence. In Emile Zola’s view, this is complete objectivity, the depiction of the real, with almost photographic exactitude.

Naturalism made its advent in the European theatre in the later decades of the nineteenth century and became a potent and positive force in the British dramatic world in the beginning of the twentieth century.

in this sort of play a genuine fidelity to the natural existence in the prevalent time. This play is often denoted as a ‘replica of actual life, the life of the man of the street, with his natural problems and predicaments—supported by the necessary stage accessories, true to his life. The dramatist is here a scientific observer, who seems to follow the methods of science by studying men and women in their normal living and function dispassionately

. The characters are here set against the background of their natural environment so as to make them ‘not play, but rather live before the audience.’

The predominance of naturalism in the theatre is specifically marked in Galsworthy, whose plays like Justice, The Silver Box and Strife, present, without any straining of situations or exaggeration of effects, some basic social problems. These problems, however serious they may seem to be, are treated in a severely natural manner. Characters, involved in such problems, are all ordinary, common-place men and women who may be seen in any street or lane, and they are shown in their daily, rather humdrum course of living. A fine instance of such a naturalistic drama is John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956), where situations and characters are thoroughly true to their time.


The History/Chronicle Play


The history play refers to the play that is based on historical facts and characters. This may well be taken as a dramatised account of an age, person and event, actually historical. Such historical plays are often known as chronicle plays, as they are found related to the historical materials in the English Chronicles by Raphael Holinshed and others. Marlowe’s Edward II is the first successful, well compact Historical or Chronicle play. Shakespeare’s series of chronicle plays—Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV (Parts I and II) and Henry V and many others—need be mentioned here.

Of such historical or chronicle plays, it must be borne in mind that absolute fidelity to historical events and characters is not possible always. Omissions, deviations, condensations and even innovations are found undertaken here and there to suit the dramatic necessity or serve dramaticeffectiveness.


Roman Plays


Roman plays denote the plays related to Roman history during the grand supremacy of the Roman power. Such plays present the mighty rule of some great Roman leaders and generals, including their success and failure, triumph and tragedy. They are essentially political in character and somewhat elaborate in representation. Of such Roman plays, mention may be made of Shakespeare’s two great plays— Julius Cæsar and Antony and Cleopatra. They are related to the important political events of Roman history. The former play deals with ihr conspiracy of the Republican leaders against mighty Julius Cæsar who wa: assassinated by them. The other play represents the passionate love of Antony and Cleopatra that proved unwise and disastrous for them.

Bernard Shaw’s Cæsar and Cleopatra is also based on the Roman history of the amorous relation between Cæsar and the Egyption beauty, Cleopatra.


The Epic Theatre


The term originated from the German dramatist Brecht who tried to come out of the conventional auditorium as well as stage and set the action on a larger scale. ‘Epic means “dimension and the ‘epic theatre’ implies a theatre of dimension. The implication here is an ambitious form of drama that attempts to treat modern life, with all its accompanying problems on a larger scale. It is a kind of socio-political dramatic representation that highlights vast and chaotic reality and turns out the traditional and established forms sweepingly. Brecht’s Mother Courage is a standard specimen in this respect.

The Feminist Theatre


This refers to the theatre that permits the pre-dominance of feminist dramatists. It originated with the American dramatist Megan Terry in the sixties of the twentieth century. With the remarkable increase in the number of the feminist dramatists and the formation of the theatre groups for the women in the matters of acting and production. The Feminist theatre has a distinct and acknowledged position in the theatrical world of today.  The important names in this context include Caryl Churchill, Pam Gems and Michelene Wander.


Theatre of the Absurd


The term refers to the kind of dramatic production, out of harmony with the conventional drama, tragedy or comedy. The term “absurd’ is used in the sense ‘awkward, rather “queer’.

A play, belonging to the absurd theatre, appears somewhat absurd in its conception of the dramatic theme as well as dramatic technique. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a successful absurd drama. In Waiting for Godot two tramps wait near a bare tree for Godot, who never comes. While they wait, they talk, but the dialogue never gets anywhere. Their existence is absurd and meaningless. A new sense of reality in modern life is found to convey in Beckett’s play where words without causes, hopes, convictions, or beliefs are uttered.


The Well-made Play


The well-made play refers to a finely shaped, over all structure in which the plot advances smoothly to the inevitable consequence and men and women are all normal social beings with natural, aims and ways of living. Such a play has a conventional beginning, in a regular setting, and advances to a well-destined conclusion. This is a sort of neat, mechanical play. Both Ibsen and Shaw used the formula of well-made play with its melodramatic plot, but react against its trite moralising by shifting the emphasis on to contemporary social or moral questions.


Dramatic Structure


One important convention relates to the structure of the plot of the drama. Aristotle has formulated the convention that the drama has a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning sets the situation and starts the action which is complicated and developed in the middle. The catastrophe in the tragedy and the conclusion in the comedy come at the end. The Greek plays have no sub-division into different Acts and scenes, but they have the choric Odes, introduced in a planned way, to serve to divide the action into different parts and to maintain the structural symmetry of the plot.

This convention is found expanded in romantic and subsequent plays. These plays have the plot-structure of five Acts, with different scenes in each Act. The convention of the Five-Act play is based on the structural division of the plot into five parts—exposition or initial incidents, development or rising action, crisis, climax or turning point, falling action, resolution, or denouement and catastrophe or conclusion.

In the modern theatre, however, the five-Act convention is no more followed. There are now plays with three or four Acts. Galsworthy’s Strife and Loyalties and Shaw’s Arms and the Man, for instance, are of three Acts, while the former’s Justice has four Acts. Ibsen’s celebrated plays A Doll’s House and The Ghosts and Osborne’s Look Back in Anger are also of three Acts. Two celebrated plays of the present century Shaw’s Man and Superman and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot-do not also follow the Five-Act pattern.

Moreover, there are also now a good many plays, tragedies as well as comedies, of only one act. Synge’s Riders to the Sea, a celebrated tragedy, Jacob’s The Monkey’s Paw, another appealing tragedy. Stanley Houghton’s The Dear Departed, a pleasant comedy, and Lady Gregory’s patriotic play The Rising of the Moon may be mentioned here only as a very few instances of the successful modern one-act play.

The convention of the five-Act drama is, of course, not altogether discarded. Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People and Shaw’s Cæsar and Cleopatra are two conspicuous modern plays to continue the convention. What actually matters here is the flexibility of the dramatic artistry to suit the dramatist’s materials and objectives best.



This is a dramatic work which not only ignores the traditional convention but actively distorts this. There is no remarkable plot and there is the little development of characters. Dialogue is often inconsequential or totally disconnected. The playwrights of the theatre of the Absurd have used anti-play techniques, though sometimes they have been found very successful indeed.




The term was devised sometime in the 1950. It serves to denote any form of drama which is not naturalistic, traditional, conventional. Thus, this is the theatre which disobeys or actively goes against the accepted laws and rules of dramatic artistry.


Closet Drama


A drama, often written in verse, that is meant to be read rather than performed, even though it includes Acts, Scenes, dialogue, and sometimes even stage directions, is known as the closet drama. Many closet dramas have been written in imitation of dramatic works and styles of some earlier literary epochs or periods.

It does not, however, indicate that a closet drama is not suitable for the stage. Such dramas are found performed on the stage. Still these plays make for better reading than for acting in the theatre because of the staging problems they may often cause in their settings or subjects. The best examples of the closet drama are Milton’s Samson Agonistes, Byron’s Manfred, Shelley’s The Cenci, and W.H. Auden’s The Ascent of F6.

Pantomime or Dumb Show


Pantomime is acting without any speech, using only a posture, gesture, or bodily movement, any exaggerated, facial expression to mime (“mimic”) a character’s action and to express a character’s feeling. Elaborate pantomimes, half-way between drama and dance, were put on in ancient Greece and Rome . The form was revived, usually for comic purposes, in Renaissance Europe.

Mimic dramas enjoyed a popularity in eighteenth century England. It was found developed in the twentieth century in the silent movies . It was proved triumphant in the superlative pantomimest in Charlie Chaplin. The tradition is found continued here and there in America and England.

Background Music and Sound


A technical device in the modern theatre is the employment of backgound music as also background sound. The implication, of course, is that the music or sound concerned is coming from background, that is to say the source of the same is not apparent on the stage. The background music is used in stage plays to heighten dramatic effects . It also reflects the emotional tones (of joys or sorrows) of the scene presented. The background sound is employed on the other hand to indicate the sound that serves to produce a realistic setting necessary to have the appropriate dramatic effect.



This is a sort of dramatic performance, without any dialogue or verbal expression. It actually a dance-drama in which a story is illustrated by a group of dancers. This dance is accompanied with musical tunes.

There is also the water ballet in which the dance-drama is enacted on the surface of some lakes or rivers or artificial water reservoir.


One-Act Play


A drama that has a single Act is called the one-Act play.

This is a sort of dramatic equivalent to the short story. The one-Act play, like the short story, is a necessity of the present time of hurry and business. Of course, this has the usual requisites of a full-length playplot, characters, setting, dialogue and impression. The performances is to be given within a short time—half an hour to one.

In the modern theatre, this is a popular form of drama and includes all types—tragedy, comedy and tragedi-comedy. Singe’s Riders to the Sea is an important tragedy in a single Act.




Opera is, no doubt, a kind of drama, but a musical one.

The dramatic action here is set to music, entirely or partially. But in all cases, the musical part forms an essential, and not incidental, of the play. Thecontent may be subjective or narrative.


Open Stage Play


This refers to the play that is performed on the stage totally open to the audience. Such a play is not performed inside a theatre-house, but rather in the open air, under the wide sky and in the direct contact with the audience. All kinds of performance may he given on the open-air stage.



The interlude is a brief play, quite popular in England in the sixteenth century. It is so called because it is to be presented in the interval between dinner and retirement to bed or between a dramatic performance and some other form of entertainment. This is mostly farcical, with the flashes of wit and fun. Haywood is a popular name as the author of interludes.


Liturgical Play


The play that is related to the church worship is called the liturgical play. The mystery and the miracle play had a religious origin and belonged to the liturgical play. Such a play marked the beginning of drama in all civilized lands.

Mystery Play


The mystery play was a liturgical play in medieval England. It was based on the scripture. Dramatic materials were here adopted from scriptural stories. It was originally played inside the church, but subsequently performed in the market place and eventually on the moveable stages.

Miracle Play

The miracle play was a part of the liturgical drama and popular in medieval England. It was a sister play of the mystery, with the only difference . That is theme was the life of saints, instead of scriptural stories. It had, as its staple, divine miracles and Christian messages for the spiritual uplift of the masses.

Morality Play


After the mystery and the miracle came a new form of drama in the fifteenth century. This is known as the morality or moral play, because of its moralizing or didactic tendency. It does not treat either scriptural stories or the lives of saints. It is found rather concerned with abstractions—the abstract human qualities. The materials are the moral aspects of human life—man in his evil temptation and in his moral triumph.

Characters are either personified abstractions or allegorical personalities. The objective, as noted, is here didactic—to bring about ethical and spiritual elevation of the audience. Though presented in the verse form, like the mystery and the miracle, it is much longer with a structural division, in the form of Acts and Scenes even in some plays.




‘Romances’ particularly refer to Shakespeare’s last plays, no doubt comedies, somewhat different from his earlier plays. These are not his serious, realistic plays, whether tragedy, comedy or tragi-comedy, -firmly planted on the real, known world—Denmark or Belmont. These are rather stylistic plays, set in a far removed, rather magical world of imagination all compact. The realistic human or social interest of his earlier plays is no more and replaced by some magic story on an unknown setting. The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest are specifically such leading romances from Shakespeare.





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