Considering Moreno's Contributions

Adam Blatner

Revised December 26, 2006

Photographs of J. L. Moreno

Other Papers on Psychodrama

I began to edit this anthology, Interactive & Improvisational Drama, because I thought that applied theatre carried forward the ideals of preventive mental health that are an extension of my interests in psychodrama and psychiatry. Although that was part of my previous career as a psychiatrist, I’ve become aware that psychodrama involves a complex of methods and ideas that goes way beyond just psychotherapy for people with psychiatric problems. These are great tools for many applications, and they offer ways of psychological and social interaction and exploration that can enhance the skills of self-awareness, interpersonal communications, and problem-solving in many areas of life. J. L. Moreno, the psychiatrist who invented psychodrama, also felt this way about his work, writing in one of his major books, Who Shall Survive?, that “a truly therapeutic procedure should have as its objective nothing less than the whole of mankind.” This means that really useful tools have a wide range of applications. (More about Moreno and psychodrama may be found in my books about psychodrama and also the books by a number of others in the field.)

Moreno also coined the term “sociatry,” as a play off the word, “psychiatry.” (Although the word root “-iatros” refers to the medical profession, he was speaking of the general idea of healing. At that time, there were few other healing professionals. Only since the mid-20th century has psycho-social healing become dominated not by psychiatrists, but rather by other psychotherapists coming from fields such as clinical psychology, clinical social work, clinical nursing, marriage and family counseling, alcohol and substance abuse counseling, pastoral counseling, educational psychology, and so forth. In Moreno’s time, in the early-mid 20th century, most therapy was written about and performed by psychiatrists.)

For Moreno, sociatry was a general effort to bring the best insights of psychology, psychiatry, and sociology to the general population, to heal social problems, race relations, educational challenges, and so forth. Moreno was a great visionary: In addition to developing psychodrama as a form of psychotherapy in the mid-1930s, he did the following.

Moreno was an advocate of a kind of group therapy and group work in which the authority of the doctor or group leader was lessened while a greater emphasis was given to the power of each person to be a facilitator of the healing or learning of the others. He felt that learning to work effectively in groups would make for a psychiatric revolution. At present, our culture still doesn’t know how to do this, and “meetings” are more often frustrating than really productive. Yet collaborative work, team work, becomes more obviously a frontier that needs to be addressed. To do so, a new infrastructure of concepts and skills is needed, including the ones noted by Moreno–i.e., valuing creativity, improvisation (spontaneity), encounter (involving genuine empathy and the ability to imagine oneself in the role of the other), and some other principles to be noted below.

Moreno was also a pioneer of another social psychological tool that achieved a modest popularity in the mid-20th century: He called it “sociometry,” and it involved some assessment of the nature of the various dynamics of rapport, how people felt attracted to or repelled by one another in group settings. The point here is that these dynamics influence the outcomes of group activities, but for the most part are unremarked on, and more, they don’t even enter explicit awareness. Often these dynamics are actually overridden, and people behave as if rapport is of no account in how groups and tasks are arranged or assigned. (See my paper on Tele: The Dynamics of Interpersonal Preference and other papers on sociometry elsewhere on my website.)

Moreno was a pioneer of improvisational social theatre, founding one of the first troupes, in Vienna, around 1921. Peter Lorre was one of the young actors in this “Stegreiftheater” (Translation: Theater of Spontaneity), along with several actors who became more famous in the 1930s on the European stage. This group carried on for a few years with modest success, but since Europe had begun to plunge into a post-Great War-economic depression, it was not able to be sustained. Indeed, Moreno emigrated from Vienna to the USA in 1925 and re-started his career as a physician, along with his avocational interest in impromptu theatre.

Moreno was a pioneer of one of the main the theoretical foundations of modern social psychology and sociology, “role theory.” Weaving together his other interests, he realized that many situations could be best understood by identifying the roles being played and analyzing their role components, underlying expectations and attitudes, and similar variables. Unlike psychoanalysis, role theory included also not only intra-psychic influences, but also interpersonal dynamics, family and group dynamics, sub-cultural and cultural role definitions and expectations, and so forth. This multi-level analysis was more holistic and systems-oriented before those terms became fashionable.

From a relatively early age, Moreno was especially interested in the dynamics of creativity. He felt that this activity had been relatively neglected–and in his time, there was some truth to it. Blind obedience was still a major virtue, as was a rather unthinking acceptance of traditional social norms. The need to re-think such elements in our culture was slightly revolutionary, though since the later 1960s these values have become more mainstream. Still, there are many other related ideas that haven’t been known by the major population, and one might argue that the mainstream of education is still 50-100 years behind in that they teach not the skills needed for creativity, but rather still rely on rote memorization.

Moreno had a special insight that improvisation, getting involved and experimenting, was the best way to promote creativity, and applied this to the field of social and personal psychology. Creativity isn’t just for artists and scientists. Associated ideas emerged, too, such as the need for a bit of play to foster the capacity for spontaneity; the need for group cohesion and trust; the reduction of threat, intimidation or anxiety-producing behaviors. Creative thinking can’t emerge if the mind is on the defensive. This has significant implications for education, parenting, management, etc.

Moreno recognized that the context and devices of theatre served as natural vehicles for psycho-social explorations, experiments, and learning. Others have adapted some of these principles in more muted forms, calling them “simulations.” The high-tech stuff of astronaut and pilot training obscures the reality that the technology simply offers a bit of virtual reality to what is actually role playing.

In addition, Moreno recognized the value of the other creative arts–singing, dancing, body movement, poetry, art, and so forth, and encouraged pioneers in those creative arts therapies to write articles in the professional journals that he himself published.

Finally, now that spirituality is becoming once again somewhat respectable in academic and healing contexts–for much of the mid-late 20th century, such considerations were marginalized, viewed as anti-intellectual, not entirely professionally respectable–it may be of interest to note that Moreno’s underlying vision for all of the above was in part a view of the Cosmos and God also as emphasizing the creative function–not just at the outset, but through the creativity of every being in the present moment. Other notable philosophers have had similar insights–Alfred North Whitehead, Henri Bergson, and so forth–so this is not entirely eccentric. It was a significant shift away from the more child-like worship of a patriarchal type divinity and more in keeping with an embodied opening to inspiration and personal co-responsibility with God that is more in keeping with the writings of many modern theologians. Though not affiliated with any particular religion, it was in a general sense religious, offering philosophical support for the moral imperative to engage and struggle with creativity and improvisation. For him, improv was no mere frivolity or entertainment, but the way to more vitally adapt in a changing world.

The point here is not simply to extol the man–he had his faults, too– but rather to note that there exists a complex of rich ideas that deserve to be integrated, revised, amplified, researched. The techniques and concepts mentioned above can and should be selectively integrated into the mainstream of thinking in a variety of ways.

One of the more significant fields of application is now that of applied theatre. It is a complex of elements derived from the use of theatre arts elements in therapy, education, business, and so forth. We should recognize that this field is carrying forward Moreno’s ideal of sociatry. We need to recognize that education, organizational development, group work of many kinds, all are vehicles for promoting creativity, more explicit and critical consciousness, and other contemporary ideals. It mixes the exhortation to wake up with the invitation to get involved, to dare to experiment, take risks, make mistakes, and a host of techniques and concepts that offer an infrastructure, make it a little easier to take all this on.

I write much more about Moreno in my books--especially my Foundations of Psychodrama (2000). I think many of the ideas and principles in this book can be well utilized and adapted by people in a wide range of fields, including education, applied theatre, business management, and so forth.