Another Example of a Historical Distortion of Psychodrama
Adam Blatner, M.D.

September 26, 2002

A column, "Reel Life," which reviews current movies, written by Alan A. Stone, M.D., an eminent psychiatrist, recently considered the movie, "Secrets and Lies," directed and written by the English writer Mike Leigh. This column is a regular feature in the Clinical Psychiatry News, September, 2002, pg 38.  My response relates to one aspect of this review–his alluding to the movie as a psychodrama, and some comments about Moreno and psychodrama that I think deserve some corrections:

First, I'm Adam Blatner, M.D., and I'm also a psychiatrist, a life fellow of the APA, and one of the internationally-recognized authorities on the subject of psychodrama, about which I've written two of the most widely used textbooks, plus many chapters in books. So here are my comments, following some brief quotes or paraphrasing of quotes in the column.: (S means Dr. Stone, B means the statement is by Blatner)

  S: ..Leigh received his first critical recognition for his much acclaimed "Secrets & Lies," a psychodrama that marked the director's transition from brutal character-sketcher to synthesizing dramatist.
  B: As I comment on in a paper on historical distortions about psychodrama on my website (, the term really shouldn't be applied to a psychologically-rich drama. Rather it refers to most specifically that kind of enactment done for the express purpose of helping a real person explore his or her actual life situation in all its richness, and the key is the further exploration of alternative scenes, possibilities, dealing what was felt but not said, or how else the person exploring the scene, the protagonist, could perhaps have reacted in the past or the future. The key is the moving out of what happens to consider alternatives, and the crucial element is the transformation and expansion of consciousness as the protagonist discovers more creative possibilities. So this kind of definition is far richer than anything any playwright can develop.

  S. (later in the column) .. Leigh's characters have hope and, as one critic wrote, a "new philosophy of positive emotion." For this philosophy and for other aspects of his directorial technique, Leigh is indebted to J. L. Moreno, the self-proclaimed founder of psychodrama–who theorized that people and families can be healed if they will just give up their secrets and lies. The idea enabled Leigh to go beyond his striking vignettes of character to create final scenes of hopeful resolution.
  B. It is not clear whether Leigh has any knowledge of Moreno per se, though, and later in the article, Dr. Stone suggests that Leigh might not welcome the comparison. There is another dimension that the director has in common with Moreno, you see:

  S: "To achieve this level of realism with a special intensity, Leigh co-opts the method of a psychological guru, coaching his actors to improvise their characters. .. Leigh's actors get neither script nor role; he gives them a premise and asks them to invent the characters and speak lines taken from their own emotional life."

   B: Moreno also worked with pure improvisation, but these were based on real situations, even if they were partially fantasized–e.g., a desire to have one more encounter with a relative who had in fact died. But to improvise and create a character in a fictional family comes closer to a drama therapy technique that allows for greater distance between the client and the role. It isn't psychodrama, though.

   S. Moreno's story is an interesting one. He had the look of a mountebank, but anyone who witnessed his performances saw a touch of genius. He began as a director of the "living theater"–nightly improvisations based on the latest headlines in the Vienna newspapers. An actor performing in a recurring play about a Jack the Ripper-type rapist and serial killer told Moreno that playing the role was seriously affecting his personal and sexual life.

   B.  The man was somewhat dramatic in behavior, true; but "mountebank" is a semantically loaded term, suggesting that his method was intrinsically fraudulent. Similarly, the term earlier on, "self-proclaimed founder of psychodrama" implies a kind of nonprofessional behavior, that of proclaiming oneself a founder. But hundreds of people have developed alternative approaches in psychotherapy, from Carl Rogers' Client Centered Therapy to Alfred Adler's Individual Psychology. Are they called "self-proclaimed founders"?

    Moreno indeed evolved psychodrama from an avocational interest in a fresh form of theater, and did open a Theater of Spontaneity in Vienna in 1921. From the aforementioned kinds of experiences (although I'd never heard that serial killer anecdote in the 35 years that I've been involved with the field), Moreno also began to see that enacting a role can lead to a modification of deeper patterns associated with that role.

   S. .. This emotional connection between actor and role now seems banal, but for Moreno it was a lightning bolt, generating the idea of reversing the process.  "Patients" could act out their personal problems on the stage as a form of psychotherapy: thus the term, "psychodrama."

   B. Why does it seem banal? Because Stanislavski (separately and around the same time, responding to the same feeling that theater had become devitalized and formailzed) developed method acting? And this plus many other currents, including improv, evolved so that contemporary directors utilize these dynamics?
     And why does Dr. Stone put the word "patients" in quotes?  Does he imply that those who have used psychodrama as a form of psychotherapy are not really working with actual patients? What is the meaning of the quotation marks? Does he really intend to treat this approach, one of the first to offer an alternative methodology than the passivity of the couch, with such contempt?

    S. (Discusses the plot of the movie.) Although the acting is improvised, the characters seem to be drawn straight from psychiatric textbooks; their eccentricities are clinically real. (Describes more of the plot). "As psychodrama becomes nightmare, Maurice saves the day by pronouncing an end to secrets and lies..."
  B. Again what I said about a misuse of the term psychodrama. The problem here is that there is a vague implication of histrionics and worse, a sense that a psychodrama can be an indulgent acting out of emotional scenes without any operation of what in psychotherapy is called "the observing ego." But psychodrama, in fact, is a procedure that makes the inner role of the observer more concrete, and the protagonist may well be asked to step out of the scene and watch someone playing his or her own role, as if watching a videotape playback. The method cultivates this observing function, and therein lies one of its more useful functions. In addition, there are scores of other ways that psychodrama is helpful, and these are described in detail in my books–especially my Foundations of Psychodrama: History, Theory & Practice (4th ed.).(New York: Springer, 2000.)

     At present, the use of the method is growing internationally, though it, along with many other forms of non-manualized psychotherapy, is declining in the USA–in part due to the general constriction of the field and of hospital treatment in an aged of "managed care." My own thinking is that I find that a number of psychodrama's concepts and methods are readily adapted to a wide range of currently utilized approaches, from family therapy and cognitive therapy to behavioral treatments, and I'd like to see them used more, as their integration can facilitate the speed and effectiveness of many treatment methods.

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