Bernard Shaw's play Arms and the Man is known as a problem play. What problems are referred to in this play?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the term "problem play" was used to refer to a drama that tackled important social or political issues. The genre was often associated with Henrik Johan Ibsen (20 March 1828 – 23 May 1906), a Norwegian playwright, who wrote about such issues as the position of women, the scourge of hereditary syphilis, and the hypocrisy of bourgeois life. Shaw, who wrote an important 1891 essay called "Quintessence of Ibsenism," arguing that British drama should be inspired by the seriousness and interest of Ibsen's work, claimed that many of his own works were strongly influenced by Ibsen, although Shaw tackles important social issues more in a satiric and humorous manner and Ibsen in a more serious manner.

Shaw himself was a pacifist, opposed to war, and wrote Arms and the Man as a serious argument about how misperceptions about the glamour of war lead to the needless sacrifice of lives. The particular "problem" addressed in the play is the literary and journalistic glorification of war as a form of noble heroism rather than a brutal waste of lives. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

'Problem play" is a term used to describe a kind of modernist play (late 19-early 20th century) that not only deals with a realistic mise-en-scene but with a real social problem, the "sides" of which are dramatized in the characters and plot.  One example often cited as a pure "problem play" is Henrik Ibsen's "Enemy of the People," a play which dramatizes the dilemma of industrial growth vs. public health.  Shaw's play tackles the problem of false heroism and the romanticizing of war, a particularly difficult problem as Great Britain went into its colonializing 19th-century ventures, which coincided with the increasing indusitrializing and impersonalizing war machinery.  By setting his play in a distant country and an outdated time, Shaw could draw attention to the illogical madness of treating war as a noble effort, a problem of urban English audiences who were too distanced from the real tragedies of war.


Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial