A Conversation between Arthur L. Caplan and Jonathan D. Moreno about Impromptu Man

Arthur L. Caplan: People think of you as someone who writes about ethics: ethics of weapons, ethics of national security. What made you decide to take on your dad in book form?

Jonathan D. Moreno: Part of it was the fortieth year since he disappeared. He was eighty-four years old when he died. I was seven when he was seventy. The second reason is that it was an opportunity to write a biography about someone I didn’t know because his most vigorous years happened before I came along. But at the same time, I did know him for twenty-two years. So I had a funny advantage in that respect in writing about him. Also, it struck me that this was a guy who did so much that shaped our time. And in seeing the surprising connections in his ideas from improvisational theatre, to psychotherapy, to social networking, to social media, you view all of those parts of our culture in a different way.

AC: Tell us about growing up north of here. You’ve told me that you were raised in an insane asylum.

JM: Yes. Sometimes I go to talks and tell people that I grew up in a mental hospital, and people will elbow each other and say, “My family was crazy, too,” and I say, “No, I really grew up in a mental hospital.” In 1935 my dad scraped together a little money and bought a sanitarium called Beacon Hill. Over the years, he accumulated thirty to forty long-term mental patients, and I grew up hanging around the patients and the staff, not knowing the difference between the patients and the staff, in many ways.

AC: You told me there were some pretty interesting patient acquaintances.

JM: One of the most memorable stories: I was coming home from school. My father specialized as a psychiatrist for the most floridly psychotic patients. He loved the most delusional patients because he thought they were really suffering from an excess of creativity, and that if you act out their delusional fantasies, you can satisfy their act hunger. I was being driven home from school one day—I was seven years old or so—and I saw this new, young male patient, so I waved at him. He had very thick, black hair, and was nude. He was standing on one of those beautiful fields that overlooked the Hudson River, and finally I found out from my mother that he had a Jesus fixation. He thought he was Jesus, and Jesus must be pure, and to be pure, you must be naked. In order to help him act out his Jesus fixation, his family, his girlfriend, and his therapist agreed to be nude. Next to our twenty acres, there was a convent—an intake convent for new nuns. One day my mom got a call saying that the man walking around nude was very disturbing to the novice nuns. And my father said: “Well, they don’t have to look.”

AC: Tell us a little bit about the early days of psychodrama, and what your dad was doing relative to psychiatry, psychology, and how he moved in the direction of merging theatre into psychiatry.

JM: The origins of psychodrama were not psychology. He was not interested in psychology. Sigmund Freud was one of his lecturers in medical school and there was a story that in 1914, Freud had just given a dream analysis lecture to his students. Afterwards Freud said to my father, “Moreno, what are you doing?” and my father replied: “Professor, I begin where you leave off. You destroy people’s dreams by analyzing them. I give them the courage to dream again.” By then J.L. was already a storyteller in the gardens of Vienna and he noticed that the kids he told stories to would tell their own stories. And in those stories, they would play roles: Mommy, Daddy, teacher, kid, and so forth. And he realized what they were doing was giving themselves their own sort of therapy. How do you find your place in the world as a real person except by playing roles? This was also a time of great ferment in Vienna. Due to the First World War, the place was falling apart. There were lots of intellectuals: Hitler was there, Trotsky came through, everyone was there. And everyone was interested in theater. My father decided that the problem with theater was that people were trying to play other people when they should play themselves and make up their own rules. So he decided to start a theater of spontaneity in which the actors play themselves.

AC: Did he have a therapeutic view in his mind at the time?

JM: One of the things that caused him trouble in his career is that he never saw a distinction between theater and therapy. As a result he found himself doing therapy with his actors during plays. He was relatively successful in getting people to come to his theater of spontaneity in the 1910s and 1920s, but he found that people didn’t really like improvisational theatre because it was uneven and didn’t have a dramatic arc. He started something called the living newspaper in which his cast, including Peter Lorre, would go out and find the news of the day, and at night, the audience would watch the cast reenact the news. This is the ancestor of what improvisational theatre does today. For example, improvisational theaters will ask the audience to suggest a theme that they would enact. According to one of the theater historians I spoke to while writing this book, J.L. was one of the first people who had that idea.

AC: How did this evolve into a more medicalized idea?

JM: Peter Lorre is a good example. He is almost a caricature, and that became the problem for him. The creepy role was a role he developed with my dad, because whenever there was a violent crime in Vienna, Peter wanted to play the part of the murderer. My father warned him that if he didn’t find another role he would be typecast. By the time we were kids, he was so recognizable in that role, there was a Peter Lorre character who was in a cartoon with Bugs Bunny. There is a lesson there about getting stuck in your character. My dad’s whole idea behind psychodrama was to try other characters, and you can do that in the protected confines of the psychodrama therapy. So this fellow Jesus could be Jesus until he got tired of it, which he did. There was an Adolf Hitler patient that was assigned therapists who would play the role of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle during World War II. Finally, the guy shaved his little mustache and went back to being a butcher instead of thinking that imposter in Berlin had taken his place.

AC: So the therapeutic transformation comes from the success in a way?

JM: You don’t necessarily resolve all these delusions if you’re very psychotic. But say you’ve played Hitler for a few months now—what about Fred, the butcher from Yorkville, what’s he like?

AC: At the same time your dad is pushing along in this arena, we’re watching the rise of Freudian psychoanalysis. People, particularly in the US and South America, are very engaged by this. What is your dad’s attitude about psychoanalysis? Is he an outlier?

JM: When my father arrived here in 1926, he was not prepared for the success of psychoanalysis in New York City. When he would do psychodrama demonstrations, for many years, he would literally get laughed out of the room. He was also probably the first very public critic of psychoanalysis. He once said to me, “There is nothing real about the relationship between the patient and analyst.” The patient being analyzed doesn’t even look at the analyst. And yet, a key part of psychoanalysis is the idea of transference. Let’s act that out, let’s not amputate it. The analyst couch, my father once said, isn’t even a real bed, so your sexual problems are not going to be worked out. He did have a struggle with psychoanalysis.

AC: Tell us about your mom.

JM: She’s 97. She was twenty-eight years younger than my dad. She became his partner and a famous psychodramatist in her own right. When she came along it was 1941 and, at that time, his ideas were being brought into the OSS, the predecessor of the CIA. This gets us into the really odd ways in which his ideas are very contemporary. The OSS was trying to figure out how to screen people to be counter intelligence operatives during World War II, but they were getting a lot of applications from really strange people that they needed to figure out how to screen. At this time my dad had been doing what he called “spontaneity tests”: giving situations and seeing how people respond. They instituted these tests as they would bring in thousands of people who wanted to be spies for the US in World War II. They would put them in new situations and see how they reacted because they had to be very spontaneous—you never knew when your cover would be blown if you were a spy. The Navy was interested in his ideas to help sailors and Air Force pilots decide who they wanted to be with in combat units. His other ideas relate to how people organize in groups. How do people self-organize? My mother gave a lecture to a bunch of naval officers during the war about how to use his ideas of sociometry to help these people figure out who they want to work and fight with.

AC: In that regard, as he began to understand how people act, play roles, and become interested in interrelationships, was he kind of a precursor to Facebook?

JM: He was. If you look at your Facebook friends network, there are nodes connected by what they call edges—the lines. He started drawing these images in 1931. A national prison committee approached him in 1931 because they heard he was interested in groups, and they wanted to make Sing Sing a model prison. He went to Sing Sing and reorganized it according to what he called “sociometric lines.” Who do you want to work and live with in the prison, and so forth. Because problems are going to happen if you’re living and working with people you don’t get along with. He also had these hardened thugs engage in role-play. He gave them scripted and unscripted assignments to play different roles, and they would watch each other play these roles.

AC: Do any recordings exist from these sessions?

JM: Unfortunately not. There is a document he delivered to the prison committee at the American Psychiatric Association in Philadelphia in 1932 that describes what he did in group therapy. These guys would watch and choose each other for different work groups in the prison. The first recorded sociogram was when he and his team went to P.S. 181 in Brooklyn and observed kids from kindergarten to third grade. He watched the way the kids played with each other. Some kids would run over to play with other kids on the playground, while some kids would want to sit next to each other in class. Based on those selections, he drew little maps called sociograms. The first sociogram is of a fourth grade class. It looks a bit primitive, but looks very much like your Facebook friends network. If you look at what the National Security Agency is doing with your email and your cell phone calls, they are drawing these. These sociographics are everywhere, and Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are making fortunes with them.

AC: Something is puzzling me here. In one sense, your dad is tracking prisons, government groups, armed forces, but at the same time, he’s operating somewhat on the margins. How does that square?

JM: He’s on the margins in the sixties. In the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, he was really famous, and spawned a lot of imitators. In 1933 when he showed the sociograms at the Roosevelt Hotel, a guy from the Associated Press named Howard Blakeslee wrote an article about it for the Times. Then he started having problems with his marriage. He’d fallen in love with somebody else, and he had my father mediate his divorce. He was so grateful to him that he said: “I have an idea for you, J.L. There is a big boxing match coming up. I can arrange for you to go to the training camps. I want you to predict who is going to win. You’re such a good social diagnostician. Tell me, based on their relationships, who is going to win?” My dad agreed and did this about a dozen times from the mid-thirties to the mid-fifties. He was never wrong. Every time there was a heavyweight fight, the mental expert was in all the newspapers. Now we’re very familiar with the idea that mental experts or psychologists can have something to say about athletes or celebrities. At that time though, nobody had done that yet. He actually got to the point where he predicted within two rounds, which round the guy was going to win in. He really broke the ground for mental experts. The original question was: Was he marginalized? He got marginalized in the sixties. He was bombastic, he was a little portly by then, he had blue eyes and sandy hair, and he had a thick Viennese accent. When a woman came in the room, he would kiss and hold her hand while talking to her. This was very exotic and cool. And then in the sixties it wasn’t so exotic and cool anymore. He was getting older, and there were all these new pop therapies—Gestalt therapy and transactional analysis—that were taking pieces of his stuff. Abraham Maslow wrote a letter to Life magazine in ’68 saying they really need to acknowledge that so much of their spreads came from Jacob Moreno. He got acknowledgement, but the culture was passing him by.

AC: Is Clint Eastwood talking to a chair as if it were President Obama during the Republican National Convention a descendant of J.L.?

JM: No doubt. It occurs to me that I know all these guys who would kill with this routine. Shelley Berman came out of Second City. Those guys know a lot about psychodrama. Tina Fey told the New Yorker a couple years ago that she’s in psychodrama. Joy Behar, the TV host and comedian has been doing psychodrama for thirty to forty years with her own group. The loveliest contact I made in the comedian world was Alan Alda, who told me that he had been going to psychodrama sessions that my dad was doing in the Upper West Side in the sixties and it made a big impression on him. All this stuff did filter down and finally got to Clint Eastwood.

AC: Today we have this notion of psychodrama as beating someone with a pillow, or talking to an inanimate object. Is this a pale imitation of psychodrama as your dad understood it, or would you say some of the techniques and values are still there?

JM: This is what upset him the most. He had this debate with Fritz Perls, who was a very colorful hippie psychiatrist in the 1960s. J.L. said, “I don’t care if you take my stuff. You should just take all of it.” His stuff was being taken apart piece by piece, and that’s what upset him. So what did Clint Eastwood do wrong that night? He didn’t sit in the chair and become the president. He didn’t reverse roles. It would have been a much less edgy speech, but it would have been a real thing. Engage with this person you’re annoyed at. Let’s see the totality of this situation. Tina Fey said to the New Yorker that she beats up pillows and pretends that they are terrorists and George W. Bush. Okay, that’s fine. That is catharsis. But that is not enough. Let’s figure out a better way to deal with issues. You can scream and shout and cry, but let’s find a better way. It’s the reconstruction that he did in psychodrama that was left out. Many of these things are still done—primal screaming therapy, still done. It’s cathartic, but what is the upshot? What do you do when you leave the room? The emotions themselves are fine, but there is a cognitive side, too.

This conversation is transcribed from a public event, hosted by the NYU Bookstore on October 22, 2014.

Jonathan D. Moreno is a philosopher and historian who has advised many governmental and business groups and served on a presidential transition team. He is the author and editor of seminal books, including Impromptu Man: J.L. Moreno and the Origins of Psychodrama, Encounter Culture, and the Social Network; The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year; Mind Wars: Brain Science and the Military in the 21st Century; and Science Next: Innovation for the Common Good from the Center for American Progress (co-edited with Rick Weiss). Called the “most interesting bioethicist of our time” by the American Journal of Bioethics, Moreno is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, a member of the UNESCO International Bioethics Committee, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and Psychology Today. He divides his time between Philadelphia and Washington, DC.

Arthur Leonard Caplan is the Drs. William F and Virginia Connolly Mitty Professor and founding head of the Division of Bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City. His most recent books are Contemporary Debates in Bioethics (Wiley 2013) and Ethics in Mental Healthcare: A Reader (MIT Press, 2013). In 2014 he was selected to receive the Public Service Award from the National Science Foundation/National Science Board, which honors individuals and groups that have made substantial contributions to increasing public understanding of science and engineering in the United States.