J.L. Moreno and Conscious Connection

Posted on March 15, 2019

When I mentioned the name of J.L. Moreno on Facebook, earlier this week in a comment about the history of the authentic relating movement, I immediately received a call from Alanja Forsberg. She was struck by the fact that I knew about Moreno. She told me that Moreno had been one of her teachers, and a great source of inspiration.

Well, in the conversation that followed I had to admit that my knowledge of J.L. (Jacob Levy) Moreno was scant. I knew he was the inventor of psychodrama, and a early advocate of spontaneous creative encounter. Indeed, he can be viewed as a theorist of spontaneity. I knew he had made a name in sociology, where he was a pioneer in social network theory (one of the academic interests in my previous life). I knew he was keenly aware of all the things that can go wrong in group interactions, and of the dynamics of domination in groups. And that was about all I knew. So after my conversation with Alanja I decided that finding out a bit more about Moreno might be a good investment.

Jacob Levy Moreno was born in Bucharest, Romania, in 1889. He studied in Vienna, and he had a wide range of interests, from mathematics and philosophy to medicine. In 1917 he became a Doctor of medicine. In his autobiography he mentions an encounter with Sigmund Freud in 1912, where he makes clear to the (then already famous) inventor of psychoanalysis that he, Moreno, intended to take psychotherapy one step further than the master, by meeting people in the streets and in their homes rather than just inviting them to the office and putting them on a couch for a polite interaction.

Moreno had the idea of using the theatre for psychological healing purposes. He founded the Theatre of Spontaneity (Stehgreiftheater – impromptu theatre) in Vienna, in the early 1900s. Its goal was to engage in a form of psychotherapy with role playing and improvisation, for which Moreno coined the term psychodrama. This was his way of bringing psychotherapy into the real world, where the creativity and spontaneity of groups of people in their natural environment could be engaged for the purpose of healing the soul.

In 1914 and 1915 he wrote several booklets called Einladung zu einer Begegnung (Invitation to an Encounter), under the name Jakob Levy (the Moreno was added later, first as Jakob Moreno Levy, which later still was changed to J.L. Moreno). The booklets were filled with short texts and expressionistic poems, and they contained invitations for face-to-face meetings, with a contact address!

Ich warne vor dem Echo meiner Stimme.
Ich warne vor dem Spiegel meines Auges.
Ich warne vor dem Schatten meines Leibes.
Ich bin einmalig in der Zeit.
Ich bin unteilbar im Raume.

Einladung zu einer Begegnung, 1915, page 3

My rough translation:

I warn for the echo of my voice.
I warn for the mirror of my eye.
I warn for the shadow of my body.
I am unique in time.
I am indivisible in space.

The poem illustrates Moreno’s distrust of whatever is fixed in communication, in particular the fixed written word, and his preference for immediate, spontaneous meetings Here and Now.

Moreno’s ideas about encounter have a lot in common with the philosophy of I and Thou of Martin Buber, which also was developed in the early 1900s. The common understanding is that Moreno was influenced by Buber, but there is good reason to assume that the main influence was the other way around. See this post about a talk by Robert Waldl for further information. In any case, Moreno himself later summarized the relation with Buber like this:

The author Buber does not talk with his “I” to a “Thou” of the reader. Buber’s “I” does not come out from the book to encounter this “Thou.” Buber and the encounter are stuck in the book. The book is abstract and in the third person. It is an abstraction of the living encounter and not the encounter itself.

From the preface to Who Shall Survive?

In 1925 Moreno moved to the US and started working in New York. He believed that new tools developed in the social sciences, such as psychodrama and sociodrama, could counteract tendencies of the modern industrial age that he detested, such as the “three materialisms” (economical, psychological, technological). He believed in spontaneity and creativity as moving forces in societal development, in love and sharing as working principles in a healthy society, and he hoped for the emergence of new kind of healthy and dynamic community living based on these forces.

My position was threefold: first, the hypothesis of spontaneity-creativity as a propelling force in human progress, … second, the hypothesis of having faith in our fellowman’s intention … of love and mutual sharing as a powerful, indispensable working principle of group life; and third, the hypothesis of a superdynamic community based upon these principles.

From the preface to Who Shall Survive?

In his practice of psychodrama he developed a number of specific techniques, such as role reversal.

[..] in role reversal we request the wife take the part of the husband, and the husband take the part of the wife. We expect them to do this not only nominally, but to make an effort to go through the actual process of reversing roles, each one to try and feel his way into the thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns of the other.

Moreno jokingly compares role reversal with the Christian injunction to love our neighbour. “Well, we have not really improved very much on ‘Love your neighbor’ except that we have added, ‘by means of role reversal.’” If you read Moreno, you also find the key ideas of family systems psychology and family constellations therapy, and by now familiar insights on the importance of touch and embodiment in psychotherapy.

Moreno died in New York, in 1974. He wanted to be remembered as the man who brought laughter to psychotherapy, and this text was put on his grave at his request. I believe Moreno’s work is still important for us. He is a pioneer for current practices of conscious connection, and in spite of his distrust of the written word he has a very clear and accessible writing style. I hope to get more insights from studying his work more deeply.