Was J.L. Moreno and Why Do We Care?
Mary Nicholas, LCSW, PhD, CGP , and Gene Eliasoph, LCSW, CGP
Few group therapists know about J.L. Moreno, psychodrama, or sociometry, and not many AGPA members know there is another national group psychotherapy society—the American Society of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama (ASGPP). I (Mary) trained in both psychodrama and psychodynamic group therapy. Frankly, I'm not sure how I would have survived as a group therapist without this training. I have found psychodrama to be indispensable in conducting large groups, short-term and one-session groups, organizational groups, and groups with revolving populations, such as inpatient and partial hospital or intensive outpatient programs.
How psychodrama and sociemetry work
Psychodrama and sociometry are group methods that rely on action and enactments, as well as verbalization to depict a particular situation. Each session starts with a warm-up, which will evoke the thoughts and feelings, as well as material about group members' current or past relationships (usually outside of the group). A typical psychodrama warm-up (which, by the way, can be easily adapted for non-psychodramatic group sessions) is "the empty chair." Everyone is asked to look at an empty chair and imagine someone with whom they have unfinished business sitting in the chair. Each person is asked to report on who is in his/her empty chair, and commonalities and subgroups are immediately noticed. For example, a majority of people might choose their children. One of this majority group will be the focus of the psychodrama since the energy around parents and children is clearly present.
In this example, a mother is chosen by the group to enact a scene that will show us her daughter's anger toward her. The mother is called the "protagonist" for this segment of the group meeting. (The choice of the protagonist always comes out of the sociometry of the group.) The director (therapist) will invite the protagonist to pick a group member to be the daughter, and the two of them will, with the director's guidance, set up a scene in which the daughter and the mother confront one another.
The characters will then be asked to reverse roles and the mother playing the daughter will show how the daughter walks into the room, speaks, gestures, etc so that the person in the daughter role will be able to play it more accurately. Then they reverse roles back and begin to play the scene. Other roles (father, sister, etc.) played by other group members might be introduced into the scene through role reversal with the protagonist.
An important role is the "double," who plays an alter ego of the protagonist, perhaps a part that that is not being overtly expressed—for instance, the frightened, angry, or sad part. As the drama unfolds, the protagonist and the group members, including those who are not playing any parts, are exposed to a number of different perspectives, feelings, and insights. Through role reversal, the protagonist gets to hear how she is coming across to her daughter, to experience the problematic situation from a number of other points of view, and to own the parts of her that she has projected out onto her daughter and others. Every psychodrama session ends with "sharing," in which all group members discuss the relevance of the session to their own lives and dilemmas.
My husband, Gene Eliasoph, MSW, CGP, was one of the first psychodrama practitioners and a protégé of psychodrama's founder, J.L. Moreno, MD. Moreno was a colorful, egotistical, and incredibly creative psychiatrist. A younger contemporary of Freud (whom he claimed to not like much) in Vienna in the 1920s, he conducted role-playing groups with prostitutes in the park (talk about bringing groups to the community!). In America he conducted open sessions for people off the street in New York City and founded a residential program in Beacon, New York, that welcomed patients and therapists wishing to learn about and be healed by psychodrama. He also developed a theory of human dynamics based on sociometry and spontaneity that was radical and thoroughly group-based.
Moreno was one of the founders of the AGPA but broke with the organization in the early 1950s because of his intense personal conflict with Samuel Slavson, another founder. Upon Moreno's departure, psychodynamic group therapy became central in AGPA, and the unfortunate split between action and psychodynamic group therapies persists to this day. (Ironically, Slavson's major contribution to group therapy was "activity group therapy!")
Gene shares his impressions of Moreno
During my schooling at the Columbia University School of Social Work, we were not permitted to use the term "group therapy" since it had to be referred to as "group work." While I continued nevertheless to do group therapy upon graduation at a hospital for drug addicts, it wasn't until 1954 that I heard J.L. Moreno tell a group he was leading: "We are all patients in this group, and we are therapists as well for one another. I will learn from you and you will learn from me, and who knows, we may be the first group to fly to the moon!" Having had the privilege of meeting Dr. Moreno at that time and studying with him, I was constantly struck by his defiance of the rules that we were taught, his grandiosity and yet, at the same time his humility. When he announced that "there can be no therapy other than the therapy of mankind as a whole," I was struck by his vision, much as I was some years later by that of Martin Luther King, Jr., when he delivered his "I have a dream" speech.
My struggles with Moreno from the 1950s until his death in 1979 revolved around some of his flagrant rejection of many of Freud's concepts, such as the unconscious and transference. His interminable battles with Samuel Slavson convinced me that Moreno's own transference and countertransference, along with his own unanalyzed unconscious motivation needed to be addressed. It was also apparent through his ingenuous ways that his consciousness and unconscious were often expressed without his awareness. Here was a renowned psychiatrist who, upon being driven home after a movie, insisted that he be returned to see the Mickey Mouse cartoons again! Here was an adult who often inappropriately insulted colleagues who disagreed with him. He was excessively competitive and all too often chauvinistic toward women. He did have, however, a European charm and grace and a deep concern for the plight of others. While powerful, almost mystical, at times as a clinician, he was unpredictable and idiosyncratic.
Moreno's contributions related to spontaneity, sociodrama, role-playing, and action-oriented therapy were vast. His work with sociometry clearly anticipated systems theories of psychotherapy. Shortly before he passed away, he shared with some of us his regret that he did not further develop "group therapy" since he was so involved in promoting and defending psychodrama. In retrospect, we recognized that, although he disavowed it, his work shows some attachment to Freud and the post-Freudian object relations, self psychology, and intersubjective schools. Currently, in fact, there is a psychoanalytic psychodrama division of the
In the 1980's when I was President of the ASGPP, I recommended merger of the ASGPP with AGPA. Unfortunately, while some parties on both sides were receptive, this did not take place. Perhaps the future leadership of AGPA and ASGPP will have the imagination and open-mindedness necessary to heal this ignoble split in our profession, so that all competent group therapists can learn from and grow with one another.
This article was published in the August/September 2002 issue of
The Group Circle.