Rediscovering the Impromptu Man


When Clint Eastwood introduced an empty chair as President Obama at the 2012 National Republican Convention and then leapt into dialogue with the invisible incumbent, Jonathan Moreno immediately recognized the technique. It was one that his father, the psychiatrist J.L. Moreno, had begun developing 100 years earlier.

Jonathan—a bioethicist and the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor of Ethics—was working on a book at the time about the 1960s human potential movement. “I didn’t think of it as about my dad,” he now says of that book, “but everything I wrote tied back to him.”

The day after Eastwood’s appearance, Moreno published an op-ed in the New York Times about the “empty chair” exercise his father had created and the reason Eastwood’s performance fell short. (He didn’t switch roles and put himself in the empty seat to act as Obama—a crucial part of J.L.’s “psychodrama” exercise.) “I’d spent about six months trying not to write a book about my father,” Moreno says. “After I saw [Eastwood] and wrote the Times op-ed, I thought, This is it. I have to write a book about him.” (See excerpt at end of article.)

Now an empty chair covers Moreno’s latest book, Impromptu Man: J.L. Moreno and the Origins of Psychodrama, Encounter Culture, and the Social Network (October, 2014). In it, he charts J.L.’s long and impactful career, from 1900s Vienna until his death in 1974. Moreno shows that as the father of psychodrama—a therapy treatment in which patients act out their internal experiences, often on a stage with co-stars and props—J.L. influenced theater, created improv comedy methods, and pioneered the concept of roleplaying. He also says that J.L.’s “sociometry”—a quantitative method for measuring social relationships—laid the groundwork for social networking sites.

But the elder Moreno had his quirks. A self-described megalomaniac, he kicked up controversy with his unconventional work and his dramatic persona.

“He agreed with Shakespeare that ‘all the world’s a stage,’” Jonathan says. “He just didn’t behave like anybody who was in science. He didn’t behave like a doctor; he didn’t behave like a psychiatrist. He behaved like a theater impresario.”

Moreno spoke with Gazette contributor Molly Petrilla about J.L.’s career, his influence, and the bold statement he once made to Sigmund Freud.

How did your father wind up connecting theater and therapy to develop psychodrama?

Around 1910, while he was still a university student, he started hanging around the gardens in Vienna. He became a storyteller. He’d sit under a tree and kids would gather ’round and he’d tell them stories. Then he’d have them tell him stories. He noticed that when they told him stories, they tended to act them out. They’re natural role players.

He realized that all kids have this natural psychotherapy they do for themselves by playing these other roles. It’s a way of expressing their creativity. When we get older, those role patterns tend to fall away, and that’s when we get into trouble. The problem is then being spontaneous enough when you’re older to write a new script for yourself. This is not an unfamiliar idea now, but people weren’t talking about this a hundred years ago. He thought, maybe in theater I can help people in a protected environment learn how to play new roles. There was hardly any boundary between the theater and therapy in his mind.

You talk about J.L. wanting credit for coining the term “group therapy,” and how important that credit was to him. Why did he think an audience or group was necessary for a psychodrama?

In psychoanalysis, there’s only one therapist, and there’s this idea of transference: I’m projecting my father on you. My father thought, why don’t you let the therapist actually play the father and act it out? But then you need different people to play different roles, which is where the group comes in. I need a mother, a father, a sister, a brother, an employer, a teacher, a lover. One person can’t play those roles, so it makes no sense to think that one [therapist] can. It’s much more efficient and more effective to have a variety of role players who can play different parts for you in your psychodrama, just as people do in your life.

That’s also where he started to see that you pick different people to play different roles for particular reasons. There might be something about the way you sit or talk that reminds me of my dad, so I choose you to play my dad. But in you playing my dad, you may discover things about your relationship with your father that you hadn’t thought about. It’s very common in psychodrama for people to say: “When I was playing your father, I actually completely remembered how my father treated me. I was able to say those lines because those were the lines my father said to me.”So in playing these roles for other people, you also learn about yourself.

J.L. was working during the heyday of psychoanalysis and attended lectures by Freud while he was in medical school. In the book, you say he told Freud afterward, “I start where you leave off.” Why didn’t Freud’s theories work for him?

He didn’t believe that people were fundamentally driven by their neurotic complexes. He didn’t believe that death was the be all and end all. He thought people were only preoccupied with death if it was called to their attention. He didn’t think people were fundamentally selfish or narcissistic; he thought people were basically good. He thought that platonic love was not only possible but common. He thought that [Freud’s] whole image of a human being was wrong and he thought that the whole psychoanalytic environment is completely unrealistic. As he once said to me: “The couch is not even a real bed.”

And yet we all know Freud’s name, while J.L. was mostly left out of contemporary psychology texts. Why?

For one thing, his ideas were essentially formed before 1940. In the ’40s, all these German Jewish psychologists came over to America and there was that flood of psychoanalysis and existentialism and so forth that he had pre-dated.

He also never wanted a fulltime job at a university, so he didn’t produce generations of PhD students, and that’s a huge thing. Then there’s the fact that he was difficult. When he did have the opportunity to be recognized by the new young social psychologists in the late ’40s and early ’50s, he alienated a lot of them. Freud was much more canny and shrewd in the way that he kept his young colleagues together.

Finally, psychodrama—his most famous creation—is at the boundary of psychology and theater, so who really owns it? The theater people know it and the psychologists know it, but neither of them feel that they really own it. So that’s another problem. It’s all a lesson in how you can be incredibly influential and left behind.

You write about J.L.’s social-network studies through what he termed “sociometry.”

He said, Look, there are formal relationships—organization charts—and there are the real relationships. He realized that these invisible, actual relationships can often be a lot more important than the organizational chart. Now you have great fortunes being made at Google, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn based off this idea of social networks and exploring social networks in new ways.

He believed that too many people were lonely and isolated, and he could show that in his “sociogram” drawings. He wanted to help people make connections in life and figure out ways to reduce people’s isolation and loneliness. In 1930, he starts to get the chance to actually do that in Sing Sing prison and the Hudson School for Girls. Then FDR discovers him and brings him on to help resettle the Dust Bowl farmers. That’s when he has the chance to implement his ideas of sociometrics in creating new communities. He believed it’s very therapeutic to live and work and play with people that you choose. But then you also have to do psychodramatic interventions to help people reach across the group to someone from whom they’re isolated or someone who rejects them.

What was he doing in Sing Sing?

He wanted to explore these guys’ abilities to be spontaneous. He really believed that releasing spontaneity in some way could help people manage their criminality. How do you play the role of someone who’s not a criminal? Play the role of a baker who has to go to work every day and support a couple of kids. How would that be? To some extent, he believed roleplaying was role training. He also wanted the inmates to see each other playing these roles out because it might affect how they went about choosing each other for work situations or living situations. So that was also the sociometric side: I don’t see you as a thug; I see you as the guy in this role-play.

You quote J.L. as saying, “There is no controversy about my ideas, they are universally a c cepted. I am the co n troversy.” It sounds like he knew he was getting in his own way.

The social scientists coming out of the Second World War were very quantitatively oriented. This did not interest him. The only reason he thought you should examine a group is so you can go in and improve it. He was a social reformer. The new generation of social scientists just didn’t get him. This is a guy who looked like a bombastic nut, but he had come up with all this stuff on social networks. It really annoyed them and they never understood him. And he of course thought that they were unimaginative and boring.

When he was asked if he really believed he was god, he would say yes. For him, it was a game. He loved shocking them because they had no sense of humor, no sense of irony. But it also became a problem because then they thought he was crazy—and in some respects he was.

You mention his “self-described megalomania” several times in the book. That can’t have helped endear him to his peers either. How did it influence his work?

It gave him the energy to be as original as he could, and it gave him a lot of confidence. But of course it was also a two-edged sword.

What was it like to grow up as J.L.’s son?

Growing up with him was always entertaining—fascinating and fun. I realized pretty early what he was up to. I had a very different temperament. He wanted me to go to medical school. I had no interest. But I was very interested in the doctor-patient relationship, and I think that’s one of the things that really got me into bioethics.

At a more abstract level, if you have any tendency to think yourself, growing up with a big thinker is going to be influential. I got very interested in ideas and the history of ideas and how they work in society.

Let’s talk about the book cover —the empty chair.


It was because of Eastwood, but also because that was so often the start of a psychodrama: who’s in the chair for you? It could be a person still with us, someone who died and you have unfinished business with; it could be God; it could be Barack Obama, as it was for Clint Eastwood—who did not do a complete role reversal. It got Eastwood riled up and it got the crowd riled up. It was a real turn-on, but it wasn’t a therapeutic experience, and that’s one of the reasons it bombed. It was not a complete psychodrama. When I started looking back to see how the culture received what he did, the people who got what he did were often the comedians. Bill Maher, who’s obviously not sympathetic at all to Clint Eastwood’s politics, thought it was great.

Why did comedians get it?

Because psychodrama had a huge impact on comedy. It’s clear the people who were doing theater games in Chicago were aware of J.L. They incorporated his stuff. The people who started Second City were aware. Alan Alda came to see J.L.’s psychodramas in Manhattan. So did Woody Allen. Then you get down to Tina Fey, who told The New Yorker that she was in psychodrama. Alan Arkin mentioned psychodrama in his memoir. Joy Behar has had a psychodrama group for 30 years. In fact, my friend threw a book party for me in New York a few weeks ago, and Joy was a co-host. We did an empty chair, and she became Dick Cheney. She was so funny. It was a riot.


Two Tickets for the Psychodrama, Please

Until the 1960s, there were only a few places other than mental hospitals or other residential settings where people could experience something like group therapy, and even then human relations groups were generally not open to the general public. But J.L. continued to believe that the therapeutic theater should be open to all, just as it was in Vienna and in his Impromptu Theatre. From the late 1940s through the early 1970s, six nights a week, anyone could go to Manhattan’s Moreno Institute (first near Grand Central Station and then on the Upper West Side), and participate in a psychodrama session for about the price of a movie ticket. The public sessions followed the usual structure of a psychodrama as he conceived it, beginning with a “warm-up” (often a short lecture by J.L. or some group exercise like the empty chair). A volunteer from the audience would agree to enact his or her psychodrama, such as a conflict with a boss or a parent. Someone else would be chosen to play the role of that person and various scenes were enacted, with the aim of exploring ways to resolve the conflict. If the protagonist had trouble seeing options, members of the audience might take her role and model ways to approach the problem. If very emotional content got stirred up and the protagonist had a hard time expressing herself, another person might “double” for her and try out various lines to see if the protagonist thought they were helpful or revealing, such as “Mr. Smith, I’m very angry that you treat everyone in the office like an idiot and it makes me so anxious that I keep making mistakes.” Or, “Dad, I can’t be the child you’ve always wanted me to be. I’ve got to be my own person.” Though free to reject the double’s statement, often the protagonist would nod and say, that’s how I feel, I just couldn’t say it. After about two hours the session would end with members of the audience sharing their own experience with a difficult boss or parent, but always being warned not to analyze the protagonist’s behavior. It was not uncommon for the person whom the protagonist had chosen to play an important role in the psychodrama to report that he had had a very similar experience. J.L. cited these as cases of tele, where we seem to sense an emotional connection to another even though we often can’t explain why.

These public psychodrama sessions were a fixture of Manhattan life from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. Groups ranged from ten or twelve to over a hundred, even two hundred, people. Not once was there any problem finding a volunteer to enact her or his psychodrama. Often, several volunteers briefly described their issue and the audience was asked to vote for the psychodrama they wanted to see, leaving the runners-up disappointed, but determined to try again another night. For some, this was an opportunity for cheap therapy or for exhibitionism, cases that had to be sensitively but firmly handled. Weeping was common, especially when the psychodrama involved an adult’s “unfinished business” with a deceased parent or the loss of a child. But there was also a lot of laughter. With little urging, people were willing to disclose and share their conflicts and troubles. A group that began as dozens of strangers felt an emotional closeness after witnessing a powerful enactment, even though only a couple of hours had passed. Many new friendships ensued, sometimes love affairs. By the early 1960s, J.L.’s public psychodramas were a hip, offbeat way for city people and suburbanites to spend the evening, including even first dates. Professors like Abe Maslow brought their classes from local colleges, suburban couples showed up by the dozens, and actors and other performers observed as discreetly as they could, among them Alan Alda, Woody Allen, and Dustin Hoffman. A journeyman named Walter Klavun, who was in the original cast of the musical comedy How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying and frequently played the judge on the courtroom drama Perry Mason, became a regular director of the public psychodramas.

As popular as these open psychodrama sessions were with their select and experientially adventurous audience, they were doomed by changing times. Even if my mother hadn’t decided to sell the small building that housed the Moreno Institute in 1973 due to J.L.’s failing health and the burdens of running the business, an increasingly litigious society might have all but forced the outcome. J.L. was well aware that the group setting created special challenges for the traditional medical ethics of confidentiality. In 1955 he proposed a “group oath” to supplement the Hippocratic Oath, a remarkably far-seeing concept at a time well before modern widespread concerns about medical ethics. But at some point, a vindictive participant whose emotional life had been the subject of a psychodrama in front of dozens of strangers or colleagues would have found an enterprising attorney.

Excerpted from Impromptu Man: J.L. Moreno and the Origins of Psychodrama, Encounter Culture, and the Social Network by Jonathan Moreno. Copyright © 2014 by Jonathan Moreno. Excerpted by permission of Bellevue Literary Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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    3 Responses

    1. Welcome article on psychodrama and very interesting dialogue with Jonathan Moreno, whose new book is a welcome addition to the plethora of books on psychodrama and its related methods. Psychodrama has seeped into the community in all sorts of ways since 1923, its language part of popular culture. The fact that Eastwood used it in an unrelated area, of politics is testament to its enduring potency and attractiveness.

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