The son of the psychiatrist who founded psychodrama examines the life of his “famous, eccentric, and controversial” father and traces the evolution and impact of his ideas.
For clarity, Moreno (Philosophy and Medical Ethics/Univ. of Pennsylvania; The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America, 2011, etc.) refers to his subject as J.L. throughout the book. Born in Bucharest in 1889, J.L. rejected Freudian theory while still a medical student. Early in his career, he developed a form of psychotherapy he called psychodrama, in which the stage becomes a therapeutic platform. From the 1940s to the 1970s, public psychodrama sessions were a feature of Manhattan’s Moreno Institute. Recognized as one of the leading social scientists in the United States, J.L. believed that spontaneity and creativity are driving forces in human nature and that love and mutual sharing are powerful principles. In J.L.’s view, improvisation and spontaneity come together in psychodrama, providing a way for members to help each other. Moreno shows the influence of his father’s ideas in the “happenings” of the 1960s and the group-dynamic experiments of the human potential movement. That J.L.’s ideas percolated through popular culture, though in watered-down form, is aptly demonstrated in the author’s discussion of the hit movie Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), in which the characters experience an Esalen-like encounter, and of Clint Eastwood’s 2012 empty-chair role-playing performance at the Republican convention, a technique rooted in improvisational theater that J.L. used in Vienna a century earlier. J.L.’s insights into group relationships—he created the science of sociometry—predates by decades the success of social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. The attention-loving J.L. understood the human impulse for self-expression and the desire to belong to a group.
An adept introduction to an innovative thinker whose dramatic flair and sometimes-messianic personality tended to overshadow his accomplishments.