J. L. Moreno, the creator


By Norbert Apter

Dr. J. L. Moreno, ce créateur



Norbert Apter, trainer and specialist of Moreno’s method, traces in this article the professional creativity and contributions of the pioneer Dr Jacob Levy Moreno. Moreno’s research is based on the principle of putting into action rather than talking about. He develops this approach in group psychotherapy, sociatry, action research, psychodrama and Action Methods, presented in this article. Doctor Moreno, aware of the breadth of these theories, trained numerous professionals who disseminated his method by becoming in turn trainers. We can see that interaction, creativity, sharing and action are an integral part of J.L. Moreno’s vision, even in his method of propagation.


Norbert Apter, formateur et spécialiste de la méthode de Moreno, retrace dans cet article la créativité professionnelle et les contributions du pionnier que fut Dr Jacob Levy Moreno. Les recherches de ce dernier partent du principe de mettre en action plutôt que de parler de. Il développe cette approche notamment dans la psychothérapie de groupe, la sociatrie, la recherche-action ainsi que le psychodrame et les Méthodes d’Action, présentés dans cet article. Le Docteur Moreno, conscient de l’ampleur de ces théories, forma de nombreux professionnels qui diffusèrent ses méthodes en devenant à leur tour formateurs. On observe alors que l’interaction, la créativité, le partage et l’action font partie intégrante de la vision de J.L Moreno, jusque dans sa méthode de propagation.


Despite his fame, and especially the notoriety of psychodrama, which has become a widespread term, one could just as easily have written: “Moreno, the unknown”, “Moreno, the underrated”, or “Moreno, the plundered”. (…) It remains a mystery how and why Moreno managed to be so famous and so unknown at the same time, so widely used and still rarely read and studied, at least in Western Europe and in the French-speaking countries. (…) However, there is no doubt that Moreno has marked his time and his era. He was, if not the only one, at least one of the first and most determined to seek to change the world with social sciences and to make the leap between macro-sociology, micro-sociology and psychotherapy. (Ancelin Schützenberger, 2016)


Dr. J. L. Moreno (1889-1974), a Viennese psychiatrist born in Bucharest (Romania) in a Jewish family, began his work in situ. He notably worked with prostitutes in Vienna (1913), then with refugees in Mittendorf (1915-1917). From the 1920s, he realised the importance and effectiveness of a concept he developed in his improvisational theatre company, the “Stegreiftheater”: to get into action instead of just talking. Although words are useful, action mobilises our entire organism. Moreno’s hypothesis is that this global mobilisation encourages expression, exploration and change.

In 1925, he moved to Beacon (New York, USA). Thanks to his knowledge as a doctor specialised in social psychiatry, as well as a sociologist and philosopher, he identified interaction (i.e. the relation-action synthesis) as being the central element of the development of the person. “In the beginning is the relation”, said Martin Buber (1969), “in the beginning is the interaction” could have said Moreno, considering that the relation and the action (including non-action) are omnipresent in our lives.

Thus, in the first half of the 20th century, he became the pioneer of group psychotherapy, the initiator of sociometry (at the origin of systemic approaches), the precursor of sociatry, the creator of action-research and the founder of a method aimed at deepening interactions and relational growth. This method is declined in two distinct versions: Psychodrama (therapeutic) and Action Methods (pedagogical and social).

The following is a brief presentation of these various contributions of J. L. Moreno.

Pioneer of group psychotherapy

At the beginning of 20th century psychology, Moreno realised that the interactions that a person had experienced throughout their life played a significant part in defining who they were and how they function today. He believed that as a person have shaped their personality through interactions, they can therefore also change as a person through interactions. Thus, at a time when individual sessions were shrinking due to the emergence of psychotherapy, Moreno introduced, in the 1930’s, the notion of immersion – favoured by the group structure – in its interactions, dynamics and creativity: this marked the birth of group psychotherapy. This type of psychotherapy allows the person to be therapeutically assisted in the experience of the “world in relation” in which they live, with the support and sometimes the conflicts that may arise. Through the presence of the group, the therapeutic experience allows the person to reveal them as they are and to discover the other in their uniqueness. The person thus progressively rebuilds essential links: in the therapeutic setting, they become corrective or restorative, and sometimes scenaric, i.e. they reproduce a relational model that the person knows and which can then be worked on in situ. The group setting also gives each person the possibility of benefiting, to a greater or lesser extent, from the impressions, feelings and contributions of others. In addition to Moreno’s discovery, Irvin Yalom has since highlighted 10 major healing factors of group psychotherapy, thus establishing its effectiveness. (Yalom, 1995)

Nowadays, besides Moreno’s method, many other types of group psychotherapy are implemented all over the world, along with numerous other methods.

Inventor of sociometry, precursor of systemic approaches

In 1935, laying the foundations of sociometry with Helen Jennings, Moreno developed a graphic representation of the relations amongst the community of young girls in Hudson (N.Y., USA). He set up a series of tools designed for measuring and analysing relations, by providing a picture of the form that our social nature takes, at a given moment, in a specific group or team. Sociometry eventually became “a quantifiable, experimental, measurable and metric approach” to interpersonal relations Ancelin-Schutzenberger, 2003). With the help of suggested sociometric exercises, the dynamics of a specific group or team could be explored and understood. These are not always known or conscious. The links and non-links between the members of the group are exposed revealing the hidden structures of its organisation, of its “system”. Moreno is thus the (often uncredited) precursor of the systemic approaches which would be developed later on: “The systemic approach is both inspired by and linked to sociometry. ” (Garcet, 2012).

Precursor of sociatry

Moreno’s approach went beyond individuals and groups, he believed that humanity as a whole could be cured of its ills – not just a few people, groups or teams here and there. Hence he invented a science that can be applied in all kind of social systems: sociatrics. This term combines his systemic vision of relations and a concept he cherished, care. It also allows to gain a better understanding of the role of the doctor specialised in social psychiatry: to cure this normal society in which we live, with its normal ills and its normal resources… and which suffers from what he calls the “normosis” – the struggle to be normal – of people who “manage their lives without psychotherapy ” (Moreno, J. L., Moreno, Z. T., & Moreno, J., 1964). Currently, only a very small number of professionals in the world are engaged in macro-systems work: Moreno is still the relatively unknown creator of sociatry.

Creator of action research

Driven by a great scientific curiosity, he started his research in 1909, after the creation of his improvisational theatre school in Vienna. The theatre soon turned into a laboratory; the stage became the place of experimentation; spontaneity and creativity were the subject of his investigations. He focused on “the human ability to assume and assign roles and in doing so to create their own role, the World and the Self” Renée Oudijk (Baim, Burgermeister & Maciel, 2007). He later developed his action-research outside of the theatre: in situ and in his professional practice as a psychiatrist and sociatrist.
The observations and critical reflection of the obtained findings became the driving force behind the development and adjustments of his method. This was especially meaningful to him as, from the beginning of its development, he wanted it to be a scientific exploration of interactions.

Founder of Psychodrama and Action Methods

The method created by Moreno extended and was intimately connected to his previous innovations (group psychotherapy, sociometry, sociatrics and action research). Based on the hypothesis that interaction can be used to achieve the desired changes, Moreno elaborates the theoretical and practical foundations of a method helping a person or a group to act out a problematic situation instead of only talking about it (Moreno, 1934).

As a psychiatrist, he could have simply created a new psychotherapeutic method, but his social – or should I say societal – conscience, probably strengthened by the inter-war period, led him to conceive a method not only restricted to its psychotherapeutic dimension, but aiming at ” the whole of humanity ” (Moreno, 1934).

Two main versions of his method are currently used around the world1:

  • Psychodrama is the clinical, psychotherapeutic declination of this method, whose basic modality is to stage the patient’s inner reality. It gives the patient the possibility to use the stage to represent, work on and unravel unpleasant situations from the past, which have remained painful or unresolved. He can also decide to address situations of the present, or dreams, nightmares, or even anticipated situations from his future. The staging increases the chances to achieve the desired change by externalising internal mental processes. Psychodrama is performed in individual sessions (in which case the patient plays all the roles involved in the situation) or in group sessions (during which the other members of the group play certain roles in the presented scenes).
  • the other declination of Moreno’s method is pedagogical and social, namely Action Methods: in training, teaching, group facilitation or team management, this non-therapeutic application of Moreno’s method transforms what could have been a simple action into an elaborate and secure process. The objectives are, on the one hand, to stimulate awareness and the integration of knowledge (allowing the schooling to be transformed into competences) and, on the other hand, to support the process of a person, a group or a team and to re-dynamise it (Apter, 2011). The various techniques of this method enhance multiple and collective intelligence, leading to a more in-depth understanding of the different issues addressed. These can be related to reflection (abstractions, concepts, etc.), action (behaviours, concrete processes, related to everyday professional practice) or relations (interactions, group or team dynamics).

Obviously, these variations of Moreno’s method do not generate change in the same way, as they have their own methodological specificities according to their fields of application and their limits.


During his whole life, Moreno chose to go beyond what he called “cultural preserves” (fixed elements of the past, like “finished products”); he always aimed to create and innovate.

His desire to understand interpersonal relations has been the foundation of all his innovations. At the same time, he had a strong confidence in the internal and external healing resources of each person and a willingness to help to resolve conflicts . Indeed, the “liveliness” of his method is intended to reveal a “person’s own creative resources ” (Blatner, 1988) . They can experiment with them, test them, and discover how to use them in order to resolve the problems and/or conflicts they face.

Aware that his philosophical and societal ideal (of conflict resolution) was far too ambitious for a single person, he trained many professionals to his method, who then trained others, until they became thousands on all five continents. Psychodrama and Action Method training institutes exist on all five continents. In Europe, for example, the principal recognised institutions are grouped within FEPTO, the European and Mediterranean Federation of Psychodrama Training Organisations . Globally, a very large number of professionals trained in Moreno’s method are also grouped together in the psychodrama section of the IAGP, International Association for Group Psychotherapy and Group Process.



Ancelin-Schutzenberger, A. (2003 (original en 1966)). Le psychodrame. Paris: Payot & Rivages.

Ancelin Schützenberger, A. (2016). Moreno J.L. (1889-1974). Dans : Jacqueline Barus-Michel éd., Vocabulaire de psychosociologie: Références et positions (pp. 573-584). Toulouse, France: Érès. https://doi.org/10.3917/eres.barus.2016.01.0573″

Apter, N. (2011). Using Action Methods for training in Institutions, Companies and OrganizationsMercurius.

Baim, C., Burgermeister, J., & Maciel, M. (2007). Psychodrama. Advances in Theory and Practice. London and New York: Routledge.

Blatner, A. (1988). Foundations of Psychodrama: History, Theory and practice. New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Buber, M. (1969). Je, Tu. Paris: Edition Aubier.

Garcet, M. (2012). Changer le déterminisme social. Paris: L’Harmattan.

Moreno, J. L. (1934). Who Shall Survive? A New Approach to the Problem of Human Interrelations. Washington, D.C.: Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing Co.

Moreno, J. L., Moreno, Z. T., & Moreno, J. (1964). The first psychodramatic family. Beacon., N.Y.: Beacon House

Yalom, I. D. (1995 (original 1931)). The theory and practice of group psychotherapy). New York, N.Y.: BasicBooks.

Information about the author:
Norbert Apter, trainer and specialist of Moreno’s method, traces in this article the professional creativity and contributions of the pioneer Dr Jacob Levy Moreno. https://odef.ch

This article is 1st published in french in the free online journal “Relation et Action”