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My Dad, the Psychodramatist

My new book celebrates the life and work of J.L. Moreno

Forty years ago my father, the psychodrama and group therapy pioneer J.L.Moreno, died at the age of 84. My book about his remarkable life and the many ways he shaped our time will be published next month: Impromptu Man: J.L. Moreno and the Origins of Psychodrama, Encounter Culture, and the Social Network. The title attempts to capture the breadth of his influence, including improvisational theater; the discovery of famous actors like Peter Lorre in Vienna and his work with the Group Theatre in New York; the use of role playing in therapy; action techniques like the empty chair and role reversal; the first use of the term “group therapy”; situation training tests that have been used by US intelligence and security agencies since World War II; social network analysis and its applications from classrooms to whole communities; and the first social graphics that are now common in social media and form the basis of corporate giants like Twitter, Facebook and Linked In.

I only knew my father as an old man (I was 7 when he was 70), so his most energetic and formative period was well behind him when I came along. In that sense there was much to discover. Importantly, I approached this project not as a memoirist but as an historian, therefore my objective was to connect certain previously disconnected dots in J.L.’s life and in the development of his ideas and the impact of those ideas. In the decades since his death much new information has appeared. For instance, a biography of the actor Peter Lorre appeared in 2006 that confirms and enriches information about J.L.’s relationship with Lorre and the other actors in J.L.’s circle in Vienna. (J.L. stayed in contact with Lorre after he came to Hollywood from Germany.) A few years ago, using forgotten documents in the University of Vienna archives, an Austrian theologian wrote a persuasive reconstruction of J.L.’s influence on Martin Buber’s I and Thou. Some recent scholarship about the human potential movement that flourished in the 1960s helped explain how J.L.’s ideas were adopted by gestalt therapists like Fritz Perls. I also had the opportunity to interview est founder Werner Erhard, who explained the way that psychodrama and spontaneous improv theatre influenced him.

Most of the book is about J.L.’s professional life. I argue that the critical period in his career was 1930-1932, when he reluctantly concluded that he could not make a truly impromptu popular theater succeed and turned instead to psychiatry and social science. The contrast is vividly drawn by noting a biting New York Times review of his first public Impromptu Theater performance at Carnegie Hall in 1930, and comparing that experience to his successful appearances at the American Psychiatric Association in 1931 and 1932, where he defended Abraham Lincoln from the psychoanalysts and his group methods (really they were sociometric studies) were welcomed by influential asylum and prison officials. J.L. himself said that he found his actors both in Vienna and New York drifting away from impromptu as they were offered opportunities to work in traditional theater, but I think if he had found a way to make a living and stay involved in theater he would have been most happy to do so. Actors and mental patients competed for his affection, and if they were one and the same so much the better; but up to the mid-1930s actors were his first love. Even today actors like Alan Alda and Tina Fey acknowledge the impact of psychodrama on their work. Nonetheless, he could hardly ignore the new supporters he found among major institutions like reform schools, prisons and asylums while the actors he enjoyed were so unreliable In 1940 the superintendent of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. built the second psychodrama stage in the country.

Beginning in the cafes of Vienna a century ago, my story ends in 21st century northern California’s Silicon Valley. As I was writing Impromptu Man I became more and more interested in J.L.’s attitudes toward technology. In spite of his worry that what he called "cultural conserves" and "robots" undermined spontaneity and creativity, he was always looking for new ways to use communications media, including film and television. In 1934 he founded a company called Therapeutic Motion Pictures, hoping to find a way to reach beyond the screen to provide a universal experience of psychotherapy. Arthur C. Clarke foresaw televised psychodrama in his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey that finally became the Stanley Kubrick film. The Internet would have fascinated J.L. and he would feel kinship with today’s social media technologists. As I explain in the book, many of the new young leaders of social media have rediscovered J.L. and see him as a visionary, confirming his conviction that the best time for an impromptu man was yet to come.