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A problem play, a genre begun in the 19th century but also applied backward to Shakespeare's tragicomedies, is a play in which the characters' dialogue addresses a pressing social issue of the day that is the theme of the play. The first to write a problem was Andre Dumas. He was followed by Henrik Ibsen and later by George Bernard Shaw. Among the pressing social themes that Shaw addresses in Pygmalion is the idea of an individual's place in society as dictated by externals of speech and manners. The other social problems Shaw tackles are sex, gender roles, wealth, poverty, language, meaning of language, appearances and beauty, reality, transformation, human dignity and human responsibility. This will be enough to guide to find details representative of these thematic problem points.
As stated above, a "problem play" is a drama revolving around the theme of one specific social problem or a group of related social problems. Pygmalion, like many of Shaw's plays, addresses the problem of the changing roles of middle class women. Aristocratic or upper class women would be supported by their families or husbands. There were many jobs available for lower class women, ranging from domestic service to factory positions. When Eliza is catapulted into the middle classes via accent reform, she can no longer return to her old life as a flower girl, but she lacks the financial grounds for entry into the upper classes and sees sponging off Pickering and Higgins as morally problematic. Instead, what Shaw suggests is that for women to live lives of moral integrity, they must have freedom to develop careers in the same way as men do. Eliza's choice to open a high-end flower shop is a typically Shavian solution. In many ways, Pygmalion, as well as being a highly entertaining drama, functions as a logical argument concerning how the "new woman" can live a life that engages her mental faculties and potential as a human being.
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