Overview of Psychodrama

Psychodrama, one of the first distinctly non-analytically based psychotherapies, was developed by Jacob Moreno, a Viennese physician turned psychiatrist, during the early part of the twentieth century. Moreno’s concept, what is delineated as classical or protagonist-centered psychodrama, can be perceived as an extension of group psychotherapy. However, psychodrama takes the therapeutic process one step further. Its inception can be perceived as a major turning point away from the treatment of the individual as an isolated entity, toward the treatment of the individual within the framework of a group.

The ‘Theatre of Spontaneity’ which Moreno originated in Vienna in 1921 has been purported as the forerunner of classical psychodrama. This modality involved untrained participants acting out events from the daily newspaper or ones suggested by the audience; subsequently the audience was encouraged to engage in a discussion of the presentations. Moreno observed that the cathartic reactions of the audience and the discussions positively influenced the selection of the event and the enactments. Moreover he noted, it also positively impacted the personal lives of the actors.

Such observations as well as clinical experiences formed the foundations for the group methods and action techniques he later developed and incorporated into psychodrama: This method is a combination of the principles of spontaneity drama with the more traditional profession of psychiatry.

Moreno continued his work after he immigrated to the United States and established a sanitarium in Beacon, New York in the mid-30s. Eventually through his writings and workshops, psychodrama and its techniques were introduced to health care professionals in not only North but also South America, Asia, and Europe. As its popularity as a therapeutic modality spread, psychodrama also became conceptualized at least in text as a paradigm with a collective set of operational components, techniques, and a theoretical foundation.

The overarching purpose of psychodrama is to create a therapeutic milieu utilizing life as a model, where group members can act out conflicts instead of talking about them. The purpose of such ‘acting out’ is to facilitate the acquisition of insight, to assist members to achieve catharsis, and to help them to develop behavioral skills. The anticipated end result is that each group member will not only clarify conflicts but become empowered and enabled in their growth and development. One side benefit is that individuals also develop enhanced communication skills, that is, they can relate to each other more effectively.

Although psychodrama has been used in a variety of settings – individual, family and group, its primary application has been with groups. In this context, it has had a momentous influence on group work within the parameters of institutions, community agencies, and the educational system. Perhaps, because of this impact, psychodrama has been characterized as one of the most dynamic interventions formulated for the purposes of working in group settings. Whereas psychodrama is still practiced within the confines of a group setting, its associated techniques have been integrated with other approaches for use with a wide array of clients. Consequently, psychodrama is now perceived in both a specific or classical, protagonist-centered form and in a more general sense.

Nonetheless, classical, protagonist-centered psychodrama should be discerned as a powerful technique, a technique that should only be implemented by those who have received extensive training and supervision. Professionals without this training can utilize techniques employed during psychodramatic enactments to intensify feelings, lead to catharsis, and to foster insight. As noted earlier, these have been frequently adapted, and used with other approaches (cognitive, behavioral, and psychodynamic) in a variety of settings with a diverse range of problems and clients.

Similar to other psychotherapy modalities, most reports related to the effectiveness and therapeutic validity of psychodrama are anecdotal. According to its critics, the empirical evidence which does exist is problematic since it contains a number of research design flaws. Several authors have concluded that there is a definitive need for research in this area and on the factors that make up this approach.

(References available upon request.)