Home Books Papers Cartoons Bio

Theoretical Foundations of Psychodrama

by Adam Blatner, M.D.

(First presentation 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:

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 movement.

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:
Group psychotherapy Communications theory
Health-focused therapy Psychotherapy theory
New approaches in psychotherapy Psychosynthesis
Gestalt Therapy Bioenergetic Analysis
Other "body" therapies Transactional Analysis
Reality Therapy Imagery Therapies
Other "action" therapies Play Therapy, puppetry
Family Therapy Drama Therapy
Other Creative Arts Therapies Other theories about play
Drama in Education Creativity research
Spontaneity ("Flow") Empathy
Role Theory Child Development
Narrative/Constructivist Therapies Philosophy (of creativity)
Organizational Development Social Psychology
Ritual & Performance Studies Cross-Cultural Healing

(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, 1997a).

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.

Psychodrama's Contributions to Psychology

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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 itself.
  5. 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.

  6. 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.
  7. 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 process.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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 promoting creativity and flexibility to ordinary people, in businesses, schools, churches, community building, even politics!
  12. 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.
  13. 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 obligation.
  14. 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.
  15. 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."
  16. 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.
  17. 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 group dynamics.
  18. 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.
  19. 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 roles.
  20. 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..
  21. 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.
  22. 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 about.

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 psyche.

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:


Several speakers at this conference will be presenting other aspects of the theoretical bases of psychodrama. I will restate my main points:
  1. 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 dimensions.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 collaborative process.
In all these ways, the theoretical foundations of psychodrama have been strengthened, and I look forward to further advances in the future.


Blatner, A. (1985a). The dynamics of catharsis. Journal of Group Psychotherapy, Psychodrama, & Sociometry, 37(4), 157-166.

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 York: Springer.

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 on theory.

Blatner, A. (1997b). The psychological implications of postmodernism. Individual Psychology, 36(4), 467-474.

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)

For responses, email me at ablatner@aol.com

Return to top