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The Basic Theory of Psychodrama




Excerpted from
The Drama Within; Psychodrama and Experiential Therapy
By Tian Dayton, Ph.D.

When Jacob Levy Moreno, the father of psychodrama, was a young psychiatrist in Vienna during the first half of this century, he was eccentric, exuberant and fascinated by people. He used to sit in the parks and watch children play, noticing how they spontaneously acted out their emotional concerns and feelings by constructing situations and playing roles. He immediately recognized that acting out situations about which they had strong feelings and taking on the roles of authority figures in their lives had great therapeutic value for the children.

Moreno envisioned that there could be therapeutic value for psychologically disturbed patients if they were allowed, like children, the freedom to play out roles and scenes relevant to their lives. They too might live out their psychodramas in a controlled, supervised environment where they could both discharge the feelings attached to various roles and correct the experiences by playing it through as it was, as it might have been or as they wished it had been. Moreno believed first in life and then in pathology; he wished to be remembered as the person who brought joy to psychiatry.

In his autobiographical writings Moreno also describes his work with prostitutes in turn-of-the century Vienna, out of which grew his psychodramatic methods. He visited their houses, along with a physician specializing in venereal diseases and a publisher of a newspaper, not to "reform the girls nor to analyze them," but rather to return to them some dignity: "Because the prostitutes had been stigmatized for so long as despicable sinners and unworthy people . . . they had come to accept this as an unalterable fact." He met with the prostitutes three times a week in groups ranging from eight to ten. At first the meetings dealt with the problems of everyday life-"being arrested, being harassed by a policeman for wearing provocative clothing, being jailed because of false accusations from a client, having venereal disease but being unable to get treatment"; eventually, however, the prostitutes found that they were less isolated, able to share deep concerns and able to feel identified with each other. Moreno had discovered that the simple experience of sharing had a curative effect; his work with these prostitutes had convinced him of the healing power of a group.

Moreno formally introduced psychodrama on April 1, 1921, in Vienna. In the late 1920s, he emigrated to the United States and founded the Moreno Institute. Moreno felt that full treatment required a threefold system: (1) psychodrama, (2) group psychotherapy, and (3) sociometry. Incorporating these three approaches allows the person to begin to experience personal healing, to work out new behaviors and connections in a network of support and alignment, and thus to change and grow and learn new ways of being in the world. Moreno believed that in a group, each person becomes a therapeutic agent of the other. He viewed the group as rich in healing potential. His science of sociometry explored the subtle and complicated connections among people, the vast body of relationships that create our society.

Moreno explained the clinical significance of his method: "Historically," he writes, "psychodrama represents the chief turning point away from the treatment of the individual in isolation, to the treatment of the individual in groups, from the treatment of the individual by verbal methods to the treatment by action methods."

As the original action-oriented technique out of which others have grown, psychodrama is an extremely flexible method. Today various forms of psychodrama, role-play and role-training are in use in such diverse venues as mental health institutions, law enforcement agencies, schools, rehabilitation centers and corporations. In fact, psychodrama is in worldwide use. According to the World Academy of Psychodrama, there are practitioners not only in the United States but in Australia and New Zealand; Japan; France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria; Greece and Brazil and Argentina. Moreno's books have been translated into German, Italian, Spanish, French, Serbo-Croatian, Turkish, Japanese, Russian and Portuguese. Psychodrama journals have been established in Britain, West Germany, Italy, France and Japan. Psychodrama, sociometry and group psychotherapy have truly come of age as methods of treatment.

Psychodrama: Recreating The Interior Life

Moreno established the science of psychodrama to offer individuals an opportunity to rework missed developmental stages by allowing them to experience and practice the dynamics of a given stage in a safe therapeutic environment. When the trauma and pain are released in this way, they can be understood in a new light, and the experience can be reintegrated into the unconscious. The psychodramatic action can also be reconstructive work, where surrogates in the group give the protagonist the emotional support he or she never received in the original situation. In this way release is accompanied by understanding and love, which promotes healing and a greater sense of safety in trying out new behaviors.

In this sense psychodrama recreates the ordinary. It gives us the opportunity to say what was left unsaid, and in this way to correct our original experience. It provides the pathway to bring our inner and outer reality into balance and accord. Society cannot always allow us to say what is in our hearts, but psychodrama can. It gives voice to our inner life, to the pain we are too ashamed to share, to the dream we hardly dare have. As Moreno once said, "The stage is enough." Psychodrama gives us the opportunity to walk onto the stage and into ourselves, to take hold of our own dark side and place it in the light in a way that feels natural and is safe and controlled.



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