Thesis play: Definition, characteristics and Examples

A thesis play is a kind of drama that deals with a specific problem and, very probably, offers a solution. This form appears to have originated in France in the 19th c.

Both Alexandre Dumas (fils) and Eugene Brieux wrote a considerable number between 1860 and 1900. Elsewhere Henric Ibsen was a major influence on the genre, for example, A Doll’s House (1879). In England G.B.Shaw made notable contributions through his plays including Widowers’ Houses (1892), Mrs Warren’s Profession (1902), Major Barbara (1905), and Galsworthy’s famous thesis plays are The Silver Box(1907), Strife (1909), and Justice (1910).

This type of drama is also known as a problem or propaganda play. Arnold Wesker has also written something approximating to thesis plays that include Chicken Soup with Barley (1958), Roots (1959), and I’m Talking About Jerusalem (1960). A sub-species of the problem play is what has been called the ‘discussion play’. This is more like a debate in which characters put forward different points of view. Shaw employed this method of dramatizing issues in Getting Married, The Apple Cart, and in Act III of Man and Superman – perhaps the best-known example.

During the 1960s and from then onwards, some playwrights developed a rather different approach to the problem play about a social issue, very different from the intense but narrow focus achieved by, for instance, Ibsen in An Enemy of the People (1882). They have been concerned with broad political and social issues and have been influenced by the example of agitprop drama, the Living Theater, documentary theatre, and the Living Newspaper and by such dramatists as Bertolt Brecht and Ewan MacColl. The dramatists have addressed themselves (often in a spirit of protest and reform) to such matters as the class system in Britain, racism, sexism, chauvinism, Thatcherism, crime, violence, moral values, poverty, and the condition of the deprived, the press, and political corruption and hypocrisy.

Many of the plays have thus been about ‘the state of Britain’. Outstanding among these playwrights are John McGrath, David Edgar, Howard Brenton, David Hare, Edward Bond, Howard Barker, and Caryl Churchill.

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