Psychodrama: a Response to the Challenges of the 21st Century?

By Joni Crone

“a truly therapeutic procedure cannot have less an objective than the whole of mankind” (Moreno, 1993).

Is therapy primarily an internal process of self awareness or can it also address social issues? I would like to explore this question with reference to JL Moreno, the founder of psychodrama, as an example of a visionary practitioner who applied therapeutic techniques in a political and social context and also in relation to my own therapeutic work in Ireland over the past five years.

Psychodrama: a therapy for the 21st century.

I believe the concepts, theories and techniques developed by Jacob Levy Moreno and Zerka Moreno constitute a therapy for the 21st century for a number of reasons.  JL Moreno’s life can be viewed as a model of a therapeutic practice, inclusive of social and political action and  his methodology offers creative responses to the challenges we face in the 21st century.  I would name these as the need for greater awareness, understanding and acceptance of diverse cultural standpoints; the need for a more equal distribution of wealth and resources worldwide; the recognition and promotion of human rights that challenge the traditional structures of power in society.

Despite all our advances in technology and communications we appear to be unable to resolve political difficulties without the use of force, extreme violence and weapons of mass destruction.  As a feminist activist in the 1970’s I became aware of the slogan ‘the personal is political’, meaning that the power structures in society impinge on our personal choices and freedom of expression.  Being involved in therapy for many years, I have also become aware of ways in which ‘the political is personal’, meaning that the conflicts and power struggles on the world stage often mirror the kinds of difficulties we encounter in our interpersonal relations.  Issues such as violence, abuse, dominance, betrayal, blaming, reprisals come to mind, along with the belief in the necessity for rigid adherence to family and cultural traditions, as well as the lack of understanding and lack of forgiveness and compassion.  Both personal and political conflicts can often be viewed as originating in deep seated fears: fear of punishment, fear of loss of identity, loss of homeground and, ultimately, the fear of annihilation.  If group therapy can function as a means of discovering the origin of our fears, of relieving isolation and reconnecting us to the human family, as I believe it can, then surely it can contribute to our development as human beings and ultimately to finding ways to live more harmoniously on the planet.

Psychodrama, along with all forms of therapy, in my view, is concerned with resolving difficulties in our human relationships and in our sense of self.  JL Moreno, is an example of a practitioner who lived his philosophy authentically, both personally and politically.  His life and work offer a model which we can usefully draw upon as we attempt to live more freely and truthfully in the coming decades.

1. Moreno as innovative, inclusive, political activist

At the end of the First World War, as a qualified doctor and Health Officer in Vienna, Moreno concerned himself with the health of the city’s prostitutes.  He brought them together in groups to discuss their needs, their problems and what they saw as possible solutions.  This often involved dealing with psychological trauma.  As Moreno encouraged the women who had lived through similar experiences to learn from each other, the concept of group therapy was born (Marineau 1989; Williams 1989).

Moreno conceived the therapy group as a container, a catalyst for change.  Each group member became “a therapeutic agent for the other” (Moreno, 1966: 21-22). The therapist became a facilitator rather than an authority figure and people were encouraged to trust the authority of their own lived experience.  The concept of group therapy  challenged the power of the physician. This was revolutionary in the 1920’s (Williams, 1989:12).  So, too, was Moreno’s emphasis on the importance of the Here and Now, of the creative responses available in the present moment.

As the originator of group therapy, Moreno’s vision was innovative, inclusive and political.  He was concerned with creating a therapy for ‘the whole of mankind’ (Moreno, 1993:3). In his late seventies, in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination of President Kennedy, he offered his services to President Johnson to ease the ongoing tensions between the leaders of the USA and the Soviet Union. The therapists of his day saw this as an example of Moreno’s ‘megalomania’.  Presumably, today, we would be more appreciative of the need for effective conflict resolution in political and social contexts.

2. Personal Therapeutic Journey

Having recently completed a masters thesis in equality studies, I have become aware of the importance of locating ourselves in our own historical context, that is, identifying and acknowledging the factors that influence our individual view of the world. Being white,  English speaking, educated and living in the Republic of Ireland, for example, places me in the privileged upper third of the global population.  Being female and Lesbian Feminist my life experience has included economic deprivation as well as prejudice, violence and discrimination, sometimes from people and places where I least expected it.

My therapeutic journey has become a life time quest for awareness, enlightenment, integration, balance.  Beginning in my early twenties, it has taken me from Encounter and Gestalt in the 1970’s to Co-counselling, Theatre training and Voice work in the 80’s, Psychodrama training in the 90’s and most recently Shamanic Journeying and Soul Voice (Crone, 2003). In Ireland, psychodrama is practiced by a small number of practitioners who trained in England and America. The BPA, British Psychodrama Association was established over twenty-five years ago and in America psychodrama has been used in psychiatric settings since the 1940’s.  Newtown House Psychodrama Centre in Doneraile, Co. Cork was established in 1991.  I began my formal training in 1993, completed my final practicum in 1998 and became a registered practitioner with the UKCP in March 2000, as the first Irish trained psychodrama psychotherapist. Five other Irish trainees are currently in the final stages of their accreditation.  I was particularly drawn to psychodrama, not just because it combined theatre techniques and therapy work but because it appeared to offer a group method which could be applied as a form of social action.

Here I make a distinction between ‘personal therapy’, which is concerned with purely personal issues, such as family or relationship conflicts and a kind of ‘political therapy’ where the insights gained are then applied in a social context. An example from my own practice will illustrate this point.

Roisin Dubh becomes Roisin Dearg

A community worker dealing with a mother who experienced violence in the home wanted to examine her own responses within the psychodrama session to understand why she became so acutely distressed by this client and how she could address the issue of violence against women more effectively in her community.  Let’s call her Roisin.

She identified the origin of her difficulties as related to early experiences in her own life which mirrored the experience of her client.  In role training scenes she focussed on identifying the systemic nature of the problem at issue. She identified supports, allies, and ways to apply the insights gained in her work with clients and also in her own life.   She became actively involved in a campaign and her self perception changed from a person who felt a sense of overwhelming powerlessness to one who felt a sense of solidarity with others and a sense of agency in the world.  Metaphorically she moved out from under the dark cloak of Roisin Dubh (the black rose).  As she lived her own socialist philosophy more fully she took on the red mantle of Roisin Dearg (the red rose). This transition came about during the course of weekly sessions of two and a half hours duration over  a period of eighteen months (Crone, 2000).

The Psychodrama Method: Participatory and Empowering

A classical psychodrama session lasts approximately two and half hours.  The structure includes Warm Up, Enactment, Sharing and Closure.  Warm Up exercises help group members to focus on their own personal issues. A group concern is identified and a protagonist or main actor is selected whose story then becomes the material for that session.  A contract is agreed setting the boundaries for the work, whether it will delve into the origins of a particular dysfunctional role in the early childhood experiences of the protagonist, for instance, or whether the action will remain in present time.  Scenes are then enacted, exploring the significant elements of life situations. This may involve auxiliary players taking roles of people, animals, voices of departed loved ones or internal personae.  Theatre terms are used such as, role taking, soliloquy, asides, setting the scene. The therapist is referred to as the director.  Scenes set in the recent past, using various psychodrama techniques, make apparent the nature of dysfunctional roles. Doubling occurs when the director or a group member speaks the unexpressed feelings or thoughts of the protagonist.  Role reversal happens when the protagonist changes places with a significant person in the scene and speaks from their point of view. Role training involves changing the action in future scenarios and applying the insights gained in earlier scenes.  Sharing allows group members to de-role and also to identify with the protagonist’s issues.  Closure brings the attention back to the practicalities to be faced in the outside world so that people leave the session having re-established a degree of emotional equilibrium.

Egalitarian Methodology: a therapy for the 21st century

The overall purpose of psychodrama is to engage in a process of self-empowerment by becoming conscious of the roles we take on in life.  Many roles can disempower us while some enable us to become our true, authentic selves. Moreno’s vision of that authentic self was a collective vision, a concept of self as socially constructed.  In his worldview, our Selves are formed and transformed in the dynamic relationship between the Inner World of self-perception and the Outer World where we engage with others (Holmes, 1992).  In psychodrama, the intention is to create a space where the group becomes the world, by embodying the characteristics of significant elements of our worldview.  We become conscious of the limiting roles we have assumed or that have been foisted on us; we begin to experiment with new roles, ones that expand our sense of self.  We then take this new self out into the world.  The theatrical metaphors in psychodrama are used to create realistic scenarios so that we can become more effective role players in our own communities.  (Leveton, 1977; Moreno, 1985; Roine, 1997).

My own experience of psychodrama has involved an expansion of my role repertoire.  Instead of thinking of myself as primarily a therapist or theatre director I now call myself a writer, trainer and therapist.  These labels refer to the work I do in the world and also to what I perceive to be elements of my life’s work.  Writing plays; receiving arts council commissions to work with community groups; using drama to address social issues; offering training in communication and presentation skills with national organisations in Ireland North and South; all of this contributes to my own sense of agency in the world by combining theatre, therapy and politics in my practice and in my personal life.

Having been involved in humanistic therapies for over twenty years, as client, trainee and practitioner I believe we are in the process of remaking and reshaping our Selves and our Beingness in the world.  Therapy can play a significant role in this ongoing process of personal and global transformation if we maintain the links with our political realities.  We may also decide, as therapists, to retreat into ourselves, claiming our primary identity within the medical model as professional care givers.  While I fully appreciate and support the need for professional organisations, to maintain professional standards and ensure safe, ethical practices, if we were to see ourselves as belonging purely in the ‘private’ sphere, I believe we would do a disservice to our profession and to the ideals of our founding fathers and mothers.  I’m thinking of Freud, Jung, Virginia Satir and in particular, JL Moreno and Zerka Moreno, the co-creators of psychodrama.

Psychodrama in Ireland is currently used in the health service, in education, in private practice and in community development projects in Ireland North and South. At a psychodrama conference in New Zealand in January 2004 entitled Psychodrama An Everlasting Present: Integrating Experience, I met several practitioners who use therapy in innovative ways to address social issues. If readers know of other therapeutic techniques which are used in education or as forms of social action in Ireland, please email me and let me know if I have your permission to use your examples. Tel Joni Crone at 087.9178189

Autobiography: Joni Crone is the first Irish trained psychodrama psychotherapist, a writer of fiction, plays and television drama, and a creative training consultant working with community groups in Ireland North and South.


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Williams, A.(1989) The Passionate Technique: Strategic psychodrama with individuals, families and groups. London: Routledge.