Buried Treasure: The Healing Power of Ritual in Psychodrama

By Joni Crone

The theatre was dimly lit. A warm glow from the gas fire and dim red lights invited us in. We moved towards the cushions placed against the wall. It was only when I sat down that I noticed the object placed in the centre of the stage. We sat silently for a few minutes until all our attention was focused on it; a plain gray slab resting against the end wall.

When the first person in the psychodrama group moved into action, it became a gravestone. Death and resurrection were on our minds. The second person who came forward enacted a scene where she could say all that was left unsaid at her father’s grave. She had been too young to articulate her feelings when he died. The burial ritual, created within the psychodrama allowed her to make her peace with her dead parent.

The workshop was an Easter residential offering an experience of psycho­drama in Newtown House, Doneraile, Co. Cork. As a trainee psychodramatist, this session, more than any other brought home to me the healing power of ritual in psychodrama. As participant and observer, I became aware of how an object placed in an appropriate setting, takes on a rich symbolic meaning and can have a powerful effect, by triggering emotional responses, producing insights, catharsis of long buried memories.

The word “Ritual”

The word ritual can sometimes cause an allergic reaction in people who associate it with religious ceremonies. They find any mention of it in a thera­peutic context highly suspect. I’m using it in the broadest sense to encompass a range of meanings: Any personal spiritual practice, such as meditation or guided visualisation can be considered a form of ritual; in groups generally, the practice of saying our names or introducing ourselves is highly ritualised and varies from culture to culture; the practice of drinking tea or coffee may be a mundane activity but it can also have layers of meaning, in that we’re not simply consuming a beverage: We may be engaging in our only means of relaxation, of withdrawal from the world – an occasion for taking time out from professional or domestic duties. Having a cup of tea, generally signifies engagement in some form of personal interaction.

Therapeutic Journey

In my personal therapeutic journey towards self awareness and integra­tion, I have participated in ritual events as part of co-counselling weekend workshops. I have designed and officiated at group rituals. In the context of exploring feminist spirituality, I’ve helped groups devise ritual performances as part of a training programme for community arts workers. In my experi­ence of ritual in these diverse contexts, it has come to mean any activity that has a particular pattern or symbolic meaning for those who engage with it. In a therapeutic context, psychodrama uses ritual to great effect. I believe this is because the structure of a psychodrama session and its philosophical system can allow ritual to become an integral part of the process.

The Psychodrama Session

In classical psychodrama, the whole process of Warm-up, Action, and Sharing is carefully constructed. It draws on the creativity and spontaneity of the Director or Therapist and also that of the main Actor or Protagonist, whose story is being enacted. Those who play auxiliary roles are encouraged to embody their characters, to flesh them out, so that the protagonist can have an experience as close to reality as possible.

The protagonist is the person “through whose eyes we see all the action, the first (proto) to communicate (agone)”. The auxiliaries are group members who take on the roles of people who are important in the action, e.g. mother, father, sister, brother, child, friend, of the protagonist. The auxiliaries are not merely helpers. They are fully involved in the action. In the Sharing they have an opportunity to say what significance their role has had in their own lives.

The Warm-up may involve an opening ritual, where group members are invited to bring objects of symbolic value into the theatre and to speak of the meaning of their symbols. The Action could take on a ritual clement, for example, when the whole group takes on the role of healers. This happened in my work on one occasion when, as protagonist I requested to group to visualise a circle of healing energy surrounding my body. The Sharing may involve a ritual of closure. This can be devised spontaneously, if the director and the group feel this is appropriate.

The purpose of any ritual clement is to heighten the experience for the protagonist. It is an additional option, not an essential part of the process. The use of a “Death Scene” such a that employed on the Easter residential, where the protagonist speaks to a significant other who is dying or has died, would only be appropriate when the group is already warmed up to each other or focused on an issue related to death or rebirth.

Ritual as Symbolic Expression

Ritual as “the symbolic expression of the sacred in life, death and rebirth” can easily be incorporated into the Warm-up or Action stages. Everyday objects such as fruit, flowers or scarves can become charged with meaning in the context of a psychodrama. Ritual can be especially powerful in enacting possible future scenes in “surplus reality”.

Surplus Reality

Creating scenes in surplus reality, that is, “scenes that have never happened, will never happen and can never happen”, scenes that represent hopes, fears, or unfinished psychological business, can involve people in making rituals with deeply personal meanings that draw on the imagination to create what Moreno called the “Theatre of Truth”, because what is really true for people includes “their emotions, their fantasies and their surplus realities”.

Moreno’s Philosophical System

Jacob Levy Moreno, the founder of psychodrama, wanted to live in a world, where he could “free souls imprisoned by the social and cultural conserves”. He wanted to help people “search for inner and outer freedom”. The philosophical system of psychodrama uses life as a model, including the Universals:- Time, Space, and the Cosmos.

TIME relates to events that occur in the past, present and future. Moreno disagreed with Freud because, in his view, Freud placed an undue emphasis on the past and “on trying to find the cause of things”. For Moreno, the present and future have equal significance. He employed a “rehearsal-of life” that proved particularly effective in affairs of the heart where clients who were concerned with prospective marriage-partners or relationships or thinking of having a baby, could explore the possible consequences of future actions.

SPACE in a psychodrama context, refers to the characteristics of the environment where a particular scene takes place. In psychodrama, every element is significant. A protagonist may be asked to change places with an object, such as a bed or a window and to speak from the viewpoint of the object.

REALITY relates to how we live our lives, how we conduct ourselves in our relationships with significant others, how our particular circumstances impinge on our psyche.

The Fourth Dimension

The fourth Universal element, the COSMOS, was perhaps the most significant for Moreno, since he considered that any therapeutic method that did not concern itself with the cosmic implications of our actions was “incomplete and inadequate”. The cosmic dimension is the great leveller, where all our individual characteristics can be transcended. There is no sex in psychodrama, that is, “the differentiation between the sexes is overlooked and surpassed, differences in age are overlooked, the actualities of life and death are overlooked, there is no death in psychodrama. The unborn and the dead are brought to life on the psychodrama stage …”

When we incorporate the elements of ritual in the fourth dimension of psychodrama, we are free to become the midwives of our new selves, we can become our own priests, our own gods. We can connect with energies from the farthest stars or the smallest atomic particle. The ways we give symbolic meaning to our actions in personally devised scenes, arc as limitless as our imaginations. We need only stay present in the moment. Be our spontaneous selves. The most profound meaning can be evoked from the smallest action. A ritual for birth, death or reconciliation can be improvised with the mini­mum of props or costumes. An old rag, folded and cradled, can become a baby, a seal pup, an embryonic self. A broken brush handle can be a wand, an oar, a magic broom. Any object can be transformed on the psychodrama stage. In the mind’s eye, its myriad facets can be explored. The role of ritual in psychodrama allows the personal self and the cosmic self to mirror each other. And when they do there is Joy, in Moreno’s words:

“A meeting of two, eye to eye, face to face …
then I will look at you with your eyes
and you will look at me with mine”.

Psychodrama is essentially a ritualised form of self discovery in that it draws on the ceremonial aspects of theatre and the interpersonal aspects of ritual, not to produce an art form, but to give our ordinary human dramas their cosmic dimension. It is a form of therapy that heals the whole person, a therapy where ritual can be used as an effective and integral part of the entire therapeutic process.


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Blatner Adam & Allee, Foundations of Psychodrama, History, Theory & Practice.

Fox J., The Essential Moreno.