Zerka T. Moreno

(This paper appears in the book, The Quintessential Zerka, published by Routledge in 2006. It was a keynote address at the November 1997 conference of the National Association for Drama Therapy (NADT) held at New York University.) Revised and posted first in 2002, revised on August, 2006 on Adam Blatner's website:, fi: 

A mentor of mine from earlier days taught me that a post-prandial speech should be like a Bikini, in that it should be brief, should cover the essential points and still have room for further exploration. So it is my sincere hope that this speech will live up to these specifications.

In view of the fact that we are meeting here today to celebrate our involvement in various forms of drama as a healing category, it is a special pleasure to have this happen at New York University because it was in this very place that J.L. Moreno taught psychodrama, group dynamics and sociometry, in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences as Adjunct Professor from 1951 till 1966, when he was considered superannuated and retired.  As he was then 77 years old it was probably just about the right time to end that part of his career.

He had been appointed by Dr. Wellman Warner, Head of the aforementioned Department and his time here was very productive. Among one of his more celebrated students was Lewis Yablonsky who also was the person who later introduced Dr. Robert Landy to psychodrama at the University of California at Northridge. So in a small way, Dr. Landy, this is a homecoming for me.

I especially recall with a good deal of pleasure that J.L. asked me to take over two of the opening sessions of the 1958 semester as he was at that time lecturing and demonstrating around the Mediterranean, having begun his 6 weeks tour in Spain, then going to Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, and Israel. One of the outstanding students of that class was Robert Siroka.

One of the questions frequently asked of psychodramatists is: What is the relationship of psychodrama to the legitimate drama and to drama therapy? How do they resemble one another and how do they differ? Are these differences fundamental or only based on a difference of perspective?

Let me state that I see a red thread running through all of them and that thread relates them. Ancient Greece was the citadel of western civilization which also brought us the drama. Curiously, not everyone was enthusiastic about the drama.

Plato, for one, declared his outright opposition by explaining in the Ion that poets are "transported" while writing their plays and are therefore temporarily insane, thus not totally responsible for what they create. He feared that these lays would incite the citizens to be disorderly and disruptive to the state. Perhaps Plato also feared the idea of the Dionysian festivals and the wild involvement of the citizenry in these doings. At the other end of the spectrum we learn from Aristotle that the citizens watching the tragedies are particularly affected by two emotions, pity and fear or even terror in behalf of the protagonist and are thereby cleansed or as he put it, experience a catharsis of these emotions. In the Poetics he also claims that both comedy and tragedy first arose out of improvisation.

That classical tragedy was an outgrowth of the Dionysian festivals is witnessed by the fact that tragedy means "goat song" and Dionysus is most often depicted as being half goat, half man, representing both fertility and death. While Plato and Aristotle differed in their points of view obviously that of Aristotle prevailed and gave the drama a respectable basis.

We here today, are the heirs of this tradition. But drama did not emerge readily out of the festivals. "The first Dionysian festivals," according to Daniel Boorstin in The Creators, A History of Heroes of the Imagination, "were a general community activity that moved about and required no permanent building." (p. 207):

 "In the beginning, it seems, all present participated in the festival. Since there was no raised platform for the chorus, all stood on the same level."
By the way, Boorstin points out that the chorus was circular, certainly a shape which influenced Moreno in the design of his theatre. Near the orchestra, which was a central dancing place, stood the temple of the god so he could witness the celebration.
"Except for the god there were no 'spectators'"...
"In festive song and dance, any separation of citizens was invidious. Since the whole community reaped the benefits of the spring-insuring rituals, all should join. But then ritual became drama, a new separation marked the community as a new dimension was added to experience. Now some 'acted' while others watched. Citizens became witnesses, with a new set of sentiments."
Whatever contribution other dramaturgs of all stripe have made to drama, it was especially Moreno's task to return the drama to the citizens. Their creativity and spontaneity having been cut off in the classic form of drama, he now restored the role of the actor to the place of origin, that is within the actor himself. He discarded the script altogether and allowed the spontaneity and creativity of the actor to be the central motivating factor. It was a revolution in the drama.

To return now to the red thread referred to before, all aspects of our work are bound together by the fact that we are the heirs of that form of drama, in one way or another. But there is something else which strikes me as significant and that is that they all share what may be called a non-linear philosophy. Let me explain that.

It has recently come to my attention, upon becoming slightly familiar with the newer physics, that all forms of drama deviate from Freud in that respect. According to this insight, Freud is in the school of Newton, the old form of physics. He is deterministic, assuming that given certain facts which are the same for two or more individuals, the treatment can proceed along the same lines and the undertaking, if copied correctly, can be repeated by others with the same or at least very similar outcome.

As far as I understand Moreno, for instance, he is in the category of the new physics, quantum mechanics, in that the only thing we can be sure of are probabilities and possibilities, but not certainties. If we agree that all forms of drama therapies deal with spontaneity and creativity, then we are non-linear and not deterministic and we belong to the category of quantum mechanics. A quantum leap, for instance, is a jump of great magnitude on a subatomic scale and a metaphoric jump from what is to what could be without going in between. That is a represent-ation of our practice in the world of therapy. Moreno described spontaneity as a form of energy which is non-conservable and which must be spent as it emerges; its outcome is often unpredictable and when linked to creativity it is most valuable, producing something not pre-existing, something that was not there before and at times totally unrelated to earlier events.

Contrast this with Descartes, who was especially pleased with mathematics because of the certainty and self-evidence of its proofs. (Discourse on Method and Meditations, p.7, The Liberal Arts Press, 1960). One can see that he would not be at home in this domain, nor oddly enough, would Einstein, even though he was largely responsible for the advent of the new physics. He is often quoted to have stated: "God does not play dice with the universe". Quantum physicists have found that when particles are propelled at what they know to be an impenetrable barrier, certain particles get through while others do not and they are unable to predict just which will be which. They find that they are dealing with the probability that a number of particles will and some will not proceed through the barrier.

I find it disheartening to read research reports in social sciences which are based on the old mathematical model and the principle of predictability because the fact is that these researchers use a wrong model. Humans are not stars, stones, plants, liquids, or animals. Many medical researchers are disappointed with some of their outcomes in applying some substances to animals with positive results only to find that they fail as treatment in humans. They rest their ideas upon John Stuart Mill's notion that:

 "There are such things in nature as parallel cases, that what happens once, will, under a sufficient degree of similarity of circumstances, happen again." (John Stuart Mill, System of Logic, 1843).
One difficulty, it seems to me, lies in determining "the degree of similarity" and how parallel the cases are. This model makes it very difficult for psychodramatists especially, but perhaps also for all those who practice the expressive arts therapies, to point to levels of improvement which can be generally agreed upon. One of Moreno's ideas was that the researcher is part of the research itself and should make the so-called subjects co-researchers, partners in the research and evaluation process. He presented that model in sociometry but it has yet to be used by therapists, as it is difficult to apply.

It was for me delightful, therefore, to read in a recent issue of MIT's Technology Review an article called Subsumed by Science by Samuel C. Florman, (p. 39, July 1997) which stated:

  "Even today, engineers agree that intuition, practical experience, and artistic sensibility are at least as important in their work as is the application of scientific theory." Or, in an issue of Parabola dealing with the geometry of the labyrinth: "There is a definite path and a method that must be followed to the end, but sometimes to understand it fully or wholly, we must investigate the validity of a complementary path or of the same path presented differently."
                  (Patrick Conty, p. 14, Summer, 1942).
We are dealing with the relationship between two observables, not merely the individual. In quantum mechanics, for instance, "An elementary particle is not an independently existing, unanalyzable entity. It is, in essence, a set of relationships that reach outward to other things." (Op.cit., p.94) Or, quoting a friend of Jung's, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Wolfgang Pauli, "From an inner center the psyche seems to move outward, in the sense of an extroversion, into the physical world." (The Dancing Wu Li Masters, Gary Zukav, p.56).

Is all this beginning to sound as if physics and psychology are finding a meeting place and, if so, how?

In an article written in 1943 by J.L. Moreno, entitled "Sociometry and the Cultural Order" he postulates the concept of the psyche being, not inside the human body, but outside of it, the body being enveloped by the psyche. It is this psyche-outside-the-body concept that makes our "meeting of the minds" possible, and that is where the human encounter takes place.

Now what meaning do theses preliminaries have for the relationship, if any, between all forms of drama therapy, including psychodrama? I admit that when I looked over the great variety of fascinating presentations in the program of this conference, I was somewhat at a loss to come up with a clear idea of what separates us or where we overlap. So I prefer to sum up our commonalities.

Because I represent psychodrama, it is not clear to me how much the other drama therapies rely on what I think of as the motor that drives the psychodrama, namely role reversal. Or how much the discipline of the role is understood; the role enables channels of expression but what is often overlooked, also creates its own restraints. It is somewhat unfortunate that the idea of catharsis as related to psychodrama has become a left-over from the past because in fact, we have moved beyond that and have begun to be much more supportive of the process of integration, intra-personally as well as interpersonally, or sociometrically. Thinking in terms of the protagonists's social atom which is frequently revealed only piecemeal in the course of the drama, helps to bring about, on the part of the director, an integration that is more fundamental than an abreactive catharsis. The abreactive catharsis was to a degree inherited from psycho-analysis and it became a stumbling block until the catharsis of integration was highlighted as bringing more complete learning.

Let me explain that by describing a leap of the imagination which brought about healing for a recent protagonist. The protagonist, who I will call Paul, a 58 year old male school teacher of learning disabled students, sets up a scene from his own high school days in which he, as a single child in a fatherless family, his father having fallen as a soldier in the 2nd world war, senses his great inferiority. He comes from a poor family, his mother lives with him and his maternal grandparents. The grandfather is the only other male and though he is a good male role model, it is not his very own father.

He is silently watching a group of four classmates who have good clothes, have an air of sophistication, talk about their sports-filled weekends at the country club, one of them has a car and in general, he feels like a worm when facing this group of school mates, totally deprived. As he sits on the floor, his head bowed, while the others stand about, looking self possessed and nonchalant, he soliloquizes about his desolate state. The director is aware that these others represent a world apart from Paul not merely because of their higher socio-economic status, but because they have protection, they have fathers.

When Paul stops speaking, the director says to him: "They have fathers." "That's right", is his immediate response. This is the sociometric leap on the part of the director. Paul is immediately role reversed into his deceased father and chooses an auxiliary ego to represent him. The auxiliary now kneels in a low-man-on- the-totem-pole position represented by Paul, while Paul in his father's role strands up on a chair which represents heaven and watches himself in his misery. The father descends, picks Paul up from the floor, embraces and holds him and assures him that he is a fine young man and does not have any basis for feeling below anyone else in this world, no matter how well endowed they may be with worldly goods. Father knows he will develop into a guide for other, deprived young people and be a wise mentor to them. The two weep together and at a certain moment the director tells them to reverse roles and now Paul hears his father's supportive declaration.

Is this an abreactive catharsis? By no means, it is an integrative one. Paul is strengthened by the presence of his father in a body, not only in his imagination, or as a shadowy figure from the past. This also can be described as the psyche of the protagonist, thrust outward, meeting the psyche of the director so that the two connect, unspoken at first and the need is brought to light. The drama within is brought out into the open. That is what we all try, in our own fashion and with our own skills, to achieve.

Let me end with two declarations of what humanity means by two different persons, one a therapist, Virginia Satir, the other a poet and writer, Theodore Roszak.

 I want to love you without clutching,
 Appreciate you without judging,
 Join you without invading,
 Invite you without demanding,
 Leave you without guilt,
 Criticize you without blaming,
 And help you without insulting.
 If I can have the same from you,
 Then we can truly meet and enrich each other.
                                                         -- Virginia Satir

  You and I... We meet as strangers,
 Each carrying a mystery within us.
 I cannot say who you are:
 I may never know you completely.
 But I trust that you are a person
 In your own right,
 Possessed of a beauty and value
 That are the earth's richest treasures.

 So I make this promise to you:
 I will impose no identities upon you,
 But will invite you to become yourself
 Without shame or fear.
 I will hold open a space for you in the world
 And defend your right to fill it
 With an authentic vocation.
 For as long as your search takes,
 You have my loyalty.
                      --- Theodore Roszak

That is the red thread that ties all of us together, Thank you.

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