Relationships with Audiences: The Influence of Genre on Five Plays’ Approaches to Social Issues


Geoff Peters  

October 22, 2001

English 103 – Rick Coe, Kerry Griffin

            What could a naturalistic “problem play”, a tragedy, a historical drama, a comedy, and a piece of “epic alienation theatre” have in common? Works of drama are created to have some kind of “effect” on an audience, and while the effects each of these plays are markedly different, each play attempts to lead an audience to think or feel a certain way towards a social problem. “A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen, Oedipus The King by Sophocles, Walsh by Sharon Pollock, Edible Woman by Dave Carley (adapted from the novel by Margaret Atwood), and The Good Woman of Setzuan by Bertolt Brecht are plays which contain characters involved in dramatizing social problems. By examining the relationships between the characters and their dramatic audiences, we gain insights into the genres of the plays.


As in many naturalistic plays, the characters in “A Doll’s House” are “round” and worthy of analysis. A characteristic of naturalism is that, “while constrained by a material environment which might be difficult to change, [characters] still [have] the possibility of overcoming their condition” (Bloomsbury 1). Through her actions, the character Christine suggests to the audience that they too can overcome their conditions, by following her example. The particular social problem that Christine illuminates is the problem of acquiring human understanding. Through Christine’s character Ibsen gives evidence to suggest that achieving deeper understandings of the world outside the “doll’s house” is possible. In confiding to Krogstad,  “I have learnt to act prudently. Life, and hard, bitter necessity have taught me that,” Christine is indicating to the audience that knowledge of social situations can be gained by overcoming the hurdles of life’s challenges.


            The way Christine is depicted, as an example to the audience of an independent person who’s social awareness allows her to make tough decisions, well supports the conviction that “A Doll’s House” is a naturalistic “problem play”. Christine’s character indicates how the audience members can resolve social tensions in their own lives, through following her example.


            Contrasting sharply with “A Doll’s House” is the Greek tragedy Oedipus the King. The characters in Oedipus have a much different relationship with their audience than Christine’s, in “A Doll’s House”. Rather than acting as examples of people who use techniques to successfully resolve social tensions, the characters in Oedipus are larger than life and experience misfortune to a high degree to allow the audience to feel an outpouring, or catharsis, of pity and fear. According to Aristotle, “pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves” (Poetics XIII).  Aristotle refers to how the tragic characters are “true to life yet more beautiful” – they are idealized and enobled (Poetics XV). In Oedipus, the character who evokes the most pity is Oedipus himself, whose misfortunes are gigantic. Oedipus recognizes that his own grief is beyond what any member of an audience could ever feel, when he exclaims, “What grief can crown this grief? It’s mine alone, my destiny – I am Oedipus!” (242)


            Unlike the naturalism of “A Doll’s House”, the effect of watching Oedipus is not to indicate a way that change could help resolve social tension, but rather to purge excesses of emotion to allow the audience to live with the existing social tension in their lives. Aristotle describes the impression that the audience should feel as being so powerful, that “even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place. This is the impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus” (Poetics XIV). Thus the misery that the characters in Oedipus experience is so great, that violent spectacle is not needed for the audience to experience extremes of emotion – the simple telling of the tale will suffice. In the play itself, we find evidence of this lack of spectacle. Instead of showing the audience the violent scene where Oedipus blinds himself, Sophocles chooses to relate the events through the reports of a messenger, who begins, “but you are spared the worst, you never had to watch... I saw it all, and with all the memory that’s in me you will learn what that poor woman [Jocasta] suffered” (236). By sparing the audience the violent spectacle of the scene, the messenger allows the audience members to create the scene in their imaginations and then purge the tensions.


In writing about the nature of tragedy, Aristotle asserts that tragedy “is a more philosophical and more serious thing than history; [tragedy] tends to speak of universals, history of particulars” (Poetics IX) Far from being a piece of history, a historical drama attempts to question the particulars of history, and to challenge the historical myths that exist in the minds of an audience. Although the historical drama Walsh manipulates the myths and icons associated with a particular time in Canadian history, like a naturalistic “problem play” it attempts to build solutions to resolve social tensions, such as the problem of achieving individual human understanding.


In Walsh, Louis’ understanding of the world is effectively a bridge between two cultures, which gives him a fuller-encompassing worldview. But his cross-cultural background is not what gives him his entire worldly perspective – he is imbued with an intense practical and spiritual knowledge of the world’s local social concerns, and this is evident in the way he attempts to teach Clarence about the art of “knowing something”:

You wanna learn, you study inside here. . .  He taps his head. . . .and here. . . He taps his chest. . . .and how it is wit’ you and me. . . He indicates the two of them. . . .and how it is wit’ you and all. . . . He indicates the surroundings. Travel ‘round da Medicine Wheel. Den you know somethin’. (30)


Pollock may be saying to the audience through Louis that world knowledge should come from a profound understanding of the self, of others, and of nature. Louis displays his social aptitude through his appreciative attitude towards food, which shows that his understandings range from a broader spiritual perception of the world (as earlier mentioned) to a basic sense of self and the necessity of enjoying food to survive culturally and physically. In the stage directions to Walsh, Pollock writes, “All three of them begin to eat. Louis eats with relish; McCutcheon eats simply; Clarence sloshes his bowl around peering into it with apprehension. He is reassured by Louis’ appreciation of the content” (49). Louis recognizes the significance of enjoying food not only for the purpose of “complimenting the chefs” but also for the purpose of sharing in the community-building rituals of group consumption.


            The idea that consumption is necessary for survival is also a key theme in the play Edible Woman. However, the way the characters in Edible Woman dramatize this theme to the audience is sharply different from Walsh. Marion often addresses the audience directly, sometimes even speaking about herself in the third person. In the last scene, when Marion is baking a cake in the shape of a woman, she speaks to the audience about how this cake represents herself. The cake is a “substitution” for herself created so that Peter can consume the cake instead of her. The fact that when she eats part of this cake she exclaims that she has “returned to reality” suggests that in order to survive she must be a willing member of the consumer society in which she lives.


            The relationship that Marion has with the audience, as a kind of confidant, reveals much about the particular genre of Edible Woman. David Simpson writes that essentially, a comedy “is a story of the rise in fortune of a sympathetic central character” (1). Through confiding to the audience, a sense of intimacy develops between the audience and Marion, and this intimacy allows the audience to better sympathize with her as she eventually frees herself of the constraints of marriage. Like “A Doll’s House” and Walsh, Edible Woman can be seen as a “problem play” because it attempts to provoke discussion of issues such as marriage and consumption. Unlike Oedipus, whose characters are elevated and idealized, Edible Woman focuses on the concerns and exploits of ordinary “types” of people, often poking fun at our everyday lives.


            One effect that Marion’s monologues have is that they remind the audience that it is watching a play. In Bertolt Brecht’s “epic theatre of alienation”, the genre of The Good Woman of Setzuan, devices such as choral interludes and this technique of addressing the audience directly are used and also have this effect. In the “theatre of alienation” however, although these devices remind the audience members that they are watching a play, they also serve to reduce the amount of emotional involvement that the audience has with the characters, rather than building up sympathy as in Edible Woman.


            Unlike Marion’s often long and speech-like monologues, Shen Te’s words directed towards the audience are often in the form of short poetry. The poetry is characterized by a succinctness that does not give the audience time to sympathize with her. For example, when Shen Te declares that she wants to be with the man she loves, even though he is neither rich nor kind, she speaks a short repetitive piece of poetry to the audience, “I want to go with the man I love/I don’t want to count the cost/I don’t want to consider if it’s wise/I don’t want to know if he loves me/I want to go with the man I love” (61).  By repeating the simple phrases “I want to” and “I don’t’ want to” rather than expressing her love using more complex or varied words, she is emphasizing her belief, and not inviting the audience to share in her emotions. Brecht writes about this detachment of emotion between the audience and characters in his “theatre”, arguing that when learning about the sufferings of a character, the epic theatre’s spectator should not likewise feel pain, but rather should say, “that’s not the way — that’s extraordinary, hardly believable — It’s got to stop — The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are unnecessary” (Brecht on Theatre 71).


            Brecht’s emotion-lacking theatre contrasts with a tragedy such as Oedipus, in which the audience should “thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place” (Aristotle, Poetics XIV). Brecht’s intended effect on the audience is an increased desire to take action, a desire that is more intellectual than emotional. This effect on the audience aligns Brecht’s theatre of alienation more with Ibsen’s, Pollock’s and Carley’s “problem plays” than with Aristotle’s tragedy, for it encourages the spectators to be proponents for change, rather than emotionally drained individuals satisfied with the status quo.


Thus, through this analysis of the audience’s relationship with characters in each play, it is apparent that the way the plays each approach social problems varies along with their genres. In today’s world, in which social problem are ever so urgent, plays such as these are clearly becoming increasingly relevant.





Works Cited



Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. S. H. Butcher. Rpt. The Internet Classics Archive (1994). 19 Nov 2001 <>.


Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theatre. Ed. and trans. John Willett. New York: Hill and Wang, 1992.


Brecht, Bertolt.The Good Woman of Setzuan. Trans. Eric Bentley. MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1947.


Ibsen, Henrik. Four Great Plays by Henrik Ibsen. Bantam Classic edition. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1981.


Pollock, Sharon. Walsh. Revised edition. Burnaby, BC: Talonbooks, 1998.

Simpson, David L. Comedy and Tragedy (1998). 18 Nov 2001 <>.


This work Copyright 2001 by Geoff Peters, Simon Fraser University.