Theoretical Foundations of Psychodrama
by Adam Blatner, M.D.
at the IAGP Conference, London, August, 1998, and with revisions, re-presented
at the annual meeting of the American Society for Group Psychotherapy and
Psychodrama on April 9, 1999.)
The theoretical foundations
of psychodrama have evolved and deepened in the last generation. Today
I'll address several main points:
The proper understanding of
psychodrama must be situated within an expanded concept of psychotherapy
The theoretical foundations
of psychodrama now include a number of sources apart from Moreno's own
Psychodrama also offers a goodly
number of ideas which can inform and deepen the larger fields of psychology
and psychotherapy, and I'll mention a number of them.
One of the most useful of these
ideas is Moreno's approach to role theory, which I've systematized, called
"role dynamics, and want to suggest as a general meta-theoretical framework
within which not only psychodrama may be better appreciated, but also we
can integrate the best insights of most of the various schools of psychological
Psychodrama as Part of Psychology
Psychodrama should be considered
to be a complex of ideas and methods within the larger fields of psychotherapy,
and beyond that, beyond the medical model, that is, the even broader arena
I call "applied psychology." This includes education, business, social
skills training, religion, recreation, community building, and personal
growth-this broader perspective was also the goal of the human potential
I am using psychodrama in
its broadest sense, that is, the general thrust of Morenian ideas, which
has psychodrama as one part of a complex of ideas and other methods involving
sociometry, group psychotherapy, role theory, and a philosophy of creativity
and spontaneity. And this broader sense includes Moreno's vision that his
approach transcended the activity of healing the sick, psychiatry, and
extended to taking on the challenge of healing the society as a whole,
his term being "sociatry."
In the United States, psychotherapy
as a socioeconomic as well as intellectual phenomenon grew rapidly in the
1950s through the 1980s, but this is beginning to be reversed as the economics
of health care delivery have been suffering from overinflation and a reactive
effort at cost-containment. As a result, psychotherapists are getting squeezed
and looking for other venues for their services. Thus, the aforementioned
other areas of application are receiving more attention. This shift also
is aided by a growth of psychological mindedness in the general population.
I feel strongly that people
in general, in schools and later in life in programs of continuing education,
need to acquire more skillfulness in communications, interpersonal problem-solving,
and self-awareness. I consider these three skill areas to be the foundation
of what I call "psychological literacy," and I believe that competence
in such skills is becoming as necessary for adaptation in a rapidly changing
world as becoming basically literate--knowing how to read and write--was
in the last Century. Moreover, these are skills that can only be learned
by active practice, and the natural context of such practices is role playing.
Developments in Theory
To understand the ways in which
psychodrama operates, how it is effective, the reasons offered in the past
may now be supplemented by a wealth of research in related fields:
|New approaches in psychotherapy
|Other "body" therapies
|Other "action" therapies
||Play Therapy, puppetry
|Other Creative Arts Therapies
||Other theories about play
|Drama in Education
||Philosophy (of creativity)
|Ritual & Performance
(References relating to a
number of these approaches are noted in the chapter on theory in my latest
edition of Acting In, published last year.)
New cultural trends add further
to the process. Pam Remer has written about how psychodrama is relatively
more compatible with feminist thought than many other approaches (Worell
& Remer, 1992). Her husband, Rory Remer (1997), in Kentucky, has written
about how new trends in understanding natural phenomena according to what
has been called variously "chaos theory," "non-linear dynamics" or "fractal
theory" may also illuminate aspects of psychodrama. The point here is that
neither psychodrama nor any other approach should feel that it must offer
a self-contained theory; nor should such approaches think of themselves
as self-contained in application.
Indeed, I challenge the very
idea that it's acceptable to have different "schools of thought." Such
an attitude is more fitting with a system of ideologies or religions than
anything in the sciences. Our modern world integrates knowledge from many
sources, so that chemistry, or medicine, takes into itself discoveries
in related--and sometimes not-so-obviously related--disciplines. The idea
that one theory of psychology which applies to all psychological and psychiatric
problems is, I think, absurd, and even more that there is or should be
a single method of treatment. I admit to being a confirmed eclectic, and
that I can justify this viewpoint as rationally founded. Some have accused
eclecticism as simply a hodge-podge of techniques, and admittedly a few
people practice it that way; but anything may be pursued superficially.
Eclecticism can be grounded at a very deep theoretical level (Blatner,
The main analogy here is
that to medical practice, which involves a view that there are scores,
perhaps even thousands, of different types of causation of illness; there
is a similarly large number of basic physiological dynamics. This approach
recognizes the nature of complexity in human systems.
The Philosophical Basis
Another aspect of theory goes
beyond even meta-theory, and addresses a more general philosophical view.
Moreno was a visionary who dared suggest metaphysical and theological ideas
at a time when spirituality and psychology were generally viewed as separate
domains of endeavor. Science was somewhat removed from religion, and Moreno's
philosophical pronouncements were a bit of an embarrassment. However, these
efforts at compartmentalization may themselves be criticized as the product
of a intellectual sub-culture which had confused science with scientism,
and which was itself in the grip of a secular, materialistic, reductionistic
mythos. This modern view still holds in many circles, but it is now being
cogently critiqued by a number of rigorously intellectual "postmodern"
thinkers. Such critiques re-open the view that psychology in turn rests
on an implicit if not explicit world-view, a philosophy, and that making
this deeper level of assumptions explicit must also be part of a responsible
theory-building (Blatner, 1997b).
Moreno's philosophy lacked
systematization and often surged into the rhapsodic rather than qualified
and measured modes of ordinary academic research. Yet, on reflection, his
ideas have much in common with some pretty solid modern philosophers, such
as Alfred North Whitehead or Charles Hartshorne (Blatner, 1985b). In turn,
such philosophical considerations lead to an expansion of our view of the
psyche, the unconscious--and this kind of expansion in turn demands a corresponding
expansion of theory. It's a challenge that involves far more than just
psychodrama--it addresses our emerging world-view, the place of psychology
and spirituality regarding each other and the general culture. I'm working
on these issues, and I expect others are or will be also.
I believe that psychodrama should
be integrated with the best insights of many approaches to psychology and
psychotherapy. I don't think any single approach has all the answers, and
an eclectic general orientation is most appropriate. However, on studying
the various psycho-therapies and systems of psychology, I find that Moreno's
ideas have added a number of new themes or areas of emphasis that are either
overlooked or noted only in passing in the field. Here are some of those
themes, which I believe to reflect Moreno's essential vision:
Moreno based his psychology
to some extent on a philosophy: (He was a theologian as well as sociologist,
psychologist, and psychiatrist.) Moreno saw God as being above all imbued
with the quality of creativity, and similarly, the major challenge
for humanity was that of living creatively instead of retreating into the
reliance on that which had been created in the past. Such a philosophy
in turn implies that instead of psychotherapy being aimed only at fixing
problems, it should also promote the patient's capacity to be flexible
and adaptive. This is an emphasis on building on health rather than simply
ameliorating sickness. Practically speaking, patients respond well to being
approached as if they were creative people whose situation was a challenge
to that creativity. Late in his career, Otto Rank also used the metaphor
of life as a work of art.
One of Moreno's most original
insights was that creativity was most evoked more in the act of active
improvisation than in planned calculation. He used the term "spontaneity"
to refer to the spirit of opening to the creative possibilities in a situation-the
meaning of the term was far more to him than mere impulsivity. Much of
Moreno's work may be understood as being methods and ideas for promoting
spontaneity in the service of creativity (Blatner, 1988).
Moreno was also very oriented
to groups and the society as a whole. He believed that methods could be
developed in psychology and sociology that could help not just individuals,
but the culture as a whole become more creative, spontaneous, and healing.
His work should always be seen as a including both sociodynamics and
psychodynamics. His role theory was a natural bridge between
the two levels of human organization, and many of his methods addressed
the group context and interpersonal realm as well as intrapsychic phenomena.
Moreno believed that his theories
needed to be implemented through the development of effective methods.
It was not enough to merely theorize and write-although he did write and
publish extensively-deeds were needed. From his teens he was involved in
promoting social programs, refugee "halfway houses," self-help groups for
disadvantaged minorities, etc. Later, he initiated organizations, pioneering
in group psychotherapy as much as in psychodrama-and, indeed, was the prime
mover in founding the International Association for Group Psychotherapy
The idea of spontaneity and
action carried over to his view of how people not only learn, but also
heal. The marshalling of the whole self, in full action, moving
about, talking directly to someone in a dramatic interaction, was far more
compelling a mode of involvement than any degree of talking about a problem.
An associated idea which
he never clearly articulated, but obviously intuitively knew, was the power
of nonverbal communications. These are highlighted in the dramatic
context, and the important point I like to add is that gestures, expressions,
stances, and the many other variables not only communicate with others,
but also reinforce or cue internal attitudes and feelings! Their analysis
in turn can be most revealing-in part this is related to the growing interest
in body work.
Learning and therapy, using
the principles of spontaneity, require a freedom from the consequences
of experimentation-that is, a playful context. Play not only liberates
spontaneity, but it also invites the exploration of surprising and seemingly
extreme alternatives, some of which may well contain the seeds of a set-breaking
insight. Play also carries some of the vitality and freshness of the childlike
parts of the psyche, which also adds energy to the learning or healing
The natural laboratory for sociological
experimentation was that of drama, modified so that it would be
spontaneous, improvised, and used for the development of the persons involved
rather than for the amusement of a detached audience. Drama is a natural
medium, an outgrowth of children's imaginative "pretend" play and religious
and social ritual. Our culture has relegated it to a specialized area of
entertainment, but plays and skits have been part of every culture's heritage,
representing the profane and comic as well as the sacred and tragic. Drama
further is holistic, integrating action, imagination, and the compelling
power of a direct encounter.
Moreno went further than simply
using drama, he recognized that the activity of improvised personal drama
could serve as a kind of "liminal field" in which people could experience
psychological, social, and even spiritual elements of transformation. This
realm in which people could talk to Gods and the unborn, reconcile with
the dead or replay an unfortunate event with a happier ending, Moreno thought
it deserved to be recognized as having a kind of phenomen-ological status,
what he called "surplus reality." This granted a kind of extra respect
to this exploration of the subjective realms.
Moreno envisioned the process
of role playing as a vehicle for the development of a capacity for improvisation,
role expansion, and role flexibility. In other words, this method was also
a kind of basic training for greater health and adaptation.
As such, these approaches transcended
the boundaries of psychotherapy per se, that is, treatment of those who
identified themselves as "sick" or "dysfunctional," and extended then to
creativity and flexibility to ordinary people, in businesses, schools,
churches, community building, even politics!
A related method, now widely
accepted, was still innovative when Moreno promoted it: Work with groups
and let the group members be in significant healing roles, so the group
leader presume to be the only "therapist." Since then, all the values of
interactive groups have been significantly researched.
The technique of role taking
is a powerful way to develop the capacity for understanding, and its related
technique of "role reversal" is also a very important one for conflict
resolution. Moreno implied that because role reversal is the operational
method for building the capacity for imagination and empathy, therefore
he felt that the activity of extending oneself empathically was an ethical
Another value of drama was that
of self-expression, and this offers an important channel for the
natural capacity for what the psychoanalysts called "sublimation." Moreno
saw spontaneity development to be an important component for the other
arts as well, drawing, making music, dance, poetry, etc. His work has been
one of the common influences in the emergence of the creative arts therapies.
A related theme is that of catharsis,
which has a number of associated psychological functions (Blatner, 1985a).
Moreno found that psychodrama had a powerful potential for evoking catharsis
and that this was in general therapeutic. His approach kept the theme of
catharsis in many people's thought even during the time when almost all
self-expression was viewed as a potential loss of control, a type of "acting-out."
Drama also was one of the first
ways of utilizing the natural inclination to story, a theme that has become
currently re-popularized under the term "narrative." It's therapeutic
to shift from experiencing one's life as a series of events to finding
meaningful threads and trends which may be interpreted as a process of
learning and growing.
Sociometry has been a
useful method which Moreno invented to to highlight the importance of the
theme of rapport or lack thereof- a dynamic he called "tele"-in
interpersonal and group relations. The issues raised in this complex of
ideas and techniques add a number of dimensions to our understanding of
Representation, metaphor, concretization,
all reflect the idea that people engage more consciously in their natural
tendencies to think symbolically. Some of the more subtle aspects of relationships
can be represented by using diagrams such as the social atom or social
network, specific objects such as hand puppets, chess pieces, or even refrigerator
magnets (as Tony Williams does), action methods such as family sculpture,
or sand tray materials.
Sublimation is needed
for channelling needs and affects that cannot be managed simply by verbal
insight--such as profound grief. Painting, poetry, song, dance, and drama
often serve as vehicles for transcending the limitations of ordinary life
The dynamics of excitement,
activation, warming-up, all need to be investigated as healing in
themselves, as a mildly altered state of consciousness in which a different
kind of learning occurs..
Directness of encounter
in the moment arouses a kind of spontaneity-insight, the situation draws
forward aspects of the repressed. Adding role reversal begins to promote
both authenticity and empathy, the healthier elements of relationship.
Moreno's approach to role
theory is an especially rich contribution, indeed, so rich that its
implications will be discussed in somewhat greater detail in this fourth
and last aspect of theoretical foundations of psychodrama.
Advantages of Applied Role Theory
One of the more obvious theoretical
foundations of psychodrama is Moreno's way of approaching role theory.
He was one of the pioneers of role theory, and his approach implied the
presence of two levels-the playing of the roles, and the somewhat more
distanced capacity to observe and modify how the roles are played. This
second level allows for greater self-reflection, and the cultivation of
this "meta-role" function is a great part of what psychotherapy is really
Role is a concept that derives
from the theatre, but has become a word that has evolved to refer to any
function within a complex system. Its dramatic origins are still important,
because the word suggests an actor and a theatrical play, and this metaphor
suggests itself as a way of more concretely understanding how a person
can become more psychologically minded-i.e., think of oneself as an actor
in a play, one who has a life apart from the role played, and one who can
take direction in how to improve the playing of the role. Applied to psychotherapy,
the direction comes from the reflective functions within the person's own
Also, while role theory was
used by a number of sociologists to describe social interactions, Moreno,
with his aforementioned sense that ideas needed to be implemented by methods,
modified the theory as I've described so that the playing of roles can
be re-evaluated, and more, re-negotiated in the social sphere. In other
words, we can change the way we look at and play our roles, and much of
actual adaptation involves the making of appropriate changes.
Moreno's own role theory
is scattered through his writings and, in my opinion, have needed to be
refined and systematized. I've been doing this, at first calling the resulting
system "role dynamics,"-but then, in order to not add further new terms,
I think the term "applied role theory" will do. I've found this theoretical
framework has great applicability and many advantages, whether or not it
is used in conjunction with action methods.
This approach only has two
disadvantages that I know of: First, in spite of its practical value, applied
role theory has limited academic value, because the role concept
is somewhat elusive and difficult to describe precisely. However, I don't
agree with the requirement for precision of definition-it's more important
that a given approach works. Furthermore, this academic weakness of role
theory in other respects is actually a strength, because what makes the
role concept elusive is that it can be applied to many different dimensions
of experience, different frames of reference, and at different levels of
organization-the intrapsychic, interpersonal , group, cultural, etc.
Here are some of the other
advantages of applied role theory:
As just mentioned, it can include
many levels of organization. It is a social psychology as well as an individual
psychology and in so bridging the behavioral sciences it performs a powerful
Includes all dimensions of existence,
spiritual, play, economic, intellectual, etc.
This diversity encourages eclecticism,
cultivating a multicultural viewpoint, breadth of vision.
Understandable, familiar, insofar
as people see actors in movies, plays, etc. The language is easy to use,
it is "user-friendly."
Almost all (if not all) dynamic
themes can be expressed in a simpler language and thus translated for people
beyond the jargon of the intellectually-practiced psychological elite.
Suggests role distance.Ultimately,
this involves not only psychological mindedness, but an increased level
of reflectivity and dis-identification which is also an important component
of spiritual practice.
Vivid and evocative, a metaphor
which calls to mind images which are relatively more concrete rather than
Suggests creativity, acting
as a creative art, and by association, living as a creative challenge.
Suggests a pluralistic model
of the mind, the self as being composed of many parts. These may be worked
with through inner dialogue.
Suggests that in relations with
others, role reversal is possible. This makes others less "foreign and
inscrutable." Knowing that a skill is possible also makes its acquisition
and practice more morally imperative--that is, it becomes an ethical obligation
to seek to be empathic. Or, Jesus' admonition to "love one another" is
not just a suggestion of some way to feel but rather something to
The realm of drama is a more
refined context for the natural inclination to play, which in turn represents
an innate tendency towards imagination and pretending. Moreno gave a name
to this dimension of "psychological truth": "surplus reality." The point
here is that there is a natural context for exploration and experimentation
regarding psychosocial issues.
Role is an idea which has become
a familiar term, represents functions within complex systems, some not
even involving persons. This gives it a certain amount of general currency
Role also evokes images, which
thus balances its abstractness with a degree of concreteness so that discourse
using applied role theory can be more effective. The "for examples" are
Roles are always in the process
of being defined more explicitly, negotiated, clarified. How shall it be
played? What would be a behavior that would go beyond the boundaries of
Often these elements can be
clarified through actual dialogue, and applied role theory's connection
with drama invites this process, rather than mere theoretical exposition.
Themes such as refining a role,
balancing various roles, breaking down a role into sub-role-components,
bringing creativity to the way a role may be played, etc., all are useful
operations which make the concept particularly powerful.
The language is relatively "neutral,"
insofar as role descriptions may be framed so that they don't imply pathology,
that someone is necessarily sick, perverse, mean, etc. This makes it easier
for people to maintain their self-esteem even as they consider that part
of their role repertoire may be in need of revision.
Several speakers at this conference
will be presenting other aspects of the theoretical bases of psychodrama.
I will restate my main points:
In all these ways, the theoretical
foundations of psychodrama have been strengthened, and I look forward to
further advances in the future.
Psychodrama should be understood
as a rich complex of methods which can and should be integrated into a
holistic and integrative practice of multimodal psychotherapy. Its rationale
is simply that it operationalizes many of the goals and theoretical strategies
of psychotherapy as articulated also by the hundreds of innovators throughout
the field of psychotherapy. These approaches are further appreciated as
being a part of an even broader theoretical matrix of ideas relating to
the nature of psychology, including social, cultural, and somato-psychic
The foundations of the use of
psychodrama are further appreciated by a number of developments in closely
related fields, not just the writings within its own sphere. Dramatherapy,
drama in education, the theoretical foundations of the other creative arts
therapies, and other ideas in other types of especially action-oriented
therapy, all have relevance, and research and writings in these fields
in the last few decades are significant.
On the other hand, the complex
of ideas associated with psychodrama, not necessarily directly requiring
psychodrama itself, but addressing the more general problems of human nature
and human growth and interaction, offer valuable contributions to the larger
field of psychology, and some examples of these were offered.
As a particularly heuristic
idea, applied role theory- a more systematic elaboration of Moreno's creative
approach to social role theory, may be a lively candidate for a cascade
of practical applications within the general field of psychotherapy, even
if no actual action methods are utilized. More, this approach offers a
meta-context for interdisciplinary discourse within the field, and a user-friendly
language for engaging patients and the general populace in a more actively
Blatner, A. (1985a). The dynamics
of catharsis. Journal of Group Psychotherapy, Psychodrama, & Sociometry,
Blatner, A. (1985b). Moreno's
"process philosophy." Journal of Group Psychotherapy, Psychodrama &
Sociometry, 38(3), 133-136.
Blatner, A. (1988). Spontaneity.
In Foundations of Psychodrama: History, Theory & Practice. New
Blatner, A. (1997a). Acting-In:
Practical Applications of Psychodramatic Methods (3rd ed.). London:
Free Association Books. (Also published in 1996 in New York: Springer Publishing
Co.) This book has many updated references, especially in a revised chapter
Blatner, A. (1997b). The
psychological implications of postmodernism. Individual Psychology,
Blatner, A. (1997c). Psychodrama:
The state of the Art. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 24(1). 23-30.
Remer, R. (1997). Chaos theory
and the Hollander psychodrama curve. International Journal of Action
Methods, 50(2), 51-70.
Worell, J. & Remer, P.
(1992). Feminist perspectives in therapy. New York: Wiley.
(Revised slightly June 21, 2002)
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