Catharsis – “empathy” and identification in role play


By Roger Schaller

Catharsis is ancient Greek meaning purification and is a central concept in Aristotelian theatre. Aristotle saw the purpose of the tragedy in the purification of the spectator from fear and pity through the imitation of acts that arouse such emotions. This purification occurs as the result of a peculiar psychic phenomenon, the empathy of the spectator with the characters assumed by the actors. A drama is considered to be Aristotelian if it induces this empathy.  The imitation of human action by the actors is supposed to induce an imitation of the actors by the spectators. (Brecht 1976, p. 240f.)

Aristotle was the first to describe the concept of passive catharsis for theatre and music. The act of psychological “empathy” can generally be described as an attribute of art: In an art exhibition, looking at the painting “The Poppies” by Emil Nolde, I am somehow deeply affected, I stay in front of the painting for a long time, I have the feeling that the poppies are speaking to me, I understand everything, but I still don’t know exactly what is going on, why I am so affected. Music can also have a similar effect, as can reading poems and novels. Before the invention of printing, storytellers played an important role: through special narrative techniques, metaphors and the melody of the voice, storytellers were able to make the listener empathise with the stories and identify with the fictional characters; and this just by passive listening.

The process of passive catharsis is also significant in the psychotherapeutic field, for example in hypnotherapy: reliving situations from the past or witnessing imaginary images and scenes in a trance state seems to have a healing effect on the psyche. Freud was interested in this phenomenon and developed it further: In psychoanalysis, the concept of catharsis is relevant insofar patients may be ” purified” of impulsive desires or relieved from fears by recalling difficult life events or telling illicit fantasies and desires. Great importance was accorded to dreaming and dream interpretation:

One can understand every dream as a drama in which we ourselves are everything, that is, the author, director, actors, and prompter, as well as the spectators. If one tries to understand a dream in this way, the result is a startling realisation for the dreamer of what is happening in him psychically, “behind his back,” so to speak. The surprise may be experienced as painful, as joyful, or as enlightening, depending on how he accepts the dream-play in consciousness. (von Franz, 1998)

While dreaming and watching are associated with passive catharsis, role-playing involves an active catharsis: By participating in the scenic representation of his life-world, of interpersonal or intrapsychic conflicts, of fantasies and imaginations, the role-player can make new experiences with strong emotional involvement. The idea is that through the scenic action new energies can be gathered to cope with difficult situations. Through rituals, transitions into a new phase of life are addressed with the goal of gaining courage and support to effectively enter a new phase of life. This is the case, for example, in grief work: by ritually saying goodbye at a funeral service, it is possible to recover energies for coping with life without the deceased person. On the other hand, avoiding farewells and repressing grief can often lead to depressive and psychosomatic disorders and prevent a successful new beginning. Rituals have thus an important psychohygienic function: the processing of traumatic experiences or the removal of obstructive fears:

In their continuous struggle for life, humans began to dance, shout, sing, invoke, and yell battle cries in order to acquire the power of his ancestors and the strength of his opponents. These were originally unique, let’s say magical behaviours (…) It was not about entertaining or instructing, but about defending oneself. Actually, the art as a whole consisted in the technical improvement of these magical actions. These kind of human behaviours, consisting of movements, screams, songs, dances, drawings, masks, sculptures, sounds and noises had nothing to do with literature, they concerned the human being. The origin of theatre can be found in this human imitative behaviour. (Barrault, 1962)

Creative role play makes it possible to perceive individual life events as social phenomena in relation to other roles, to recognise new interpretative patterns as well as to try out alternative forms of action and to sense whether these are “coherent”. The alienated reality of role-playing facilitates self-perception and the processing of inner conflicts. In the fear-free setting of the stage (where making mistakes is allowed), the participants are more likely to perceive their own feelings and role in a situation. The discovering of new experience and behaviour possibilities is a source of relaxation and joy for the players. The catharsis of play can be described primarily as a process of self-knowledge: an “aha” experience about oneself. The protagonist recognises his own inappropriate attitudes and processes negative experiences by identifying new possibilities for experience and action. In addition to this process of behavioural change, role-playing also improves general well-being:

From a public health perspective, many of the major diseases in the developed world are related to stress – it appears that a major function of catharsis is to reduce stress. A person feels better after a good cry. Or a good laugh. Modern psychology only confirms the common sense understanding; biological research also supports the thesis, showing that catharsis triggers biochemical reactions which have a healing effect. In a society in which the concept of trance has been forgotten, many people seek help from a therapist for psychological catharsis and the healing process associated with it, though watching a movie or going to a good show might also do us some good. Despite the modern trend away from expressive behaviours, dramatic rituals of cathartic nature, which have been present since prehistoric times are still important to us, particularly those associated with birth, marriage, death, and the changing of the seasons. Such events may trigger deep emotions in those affected and make them embrace wholeness. (Fox 1996, p. 134)

Further information on the sociodrama method can be found in: Kellermann 1984; Duggan & Grainger 1997; Miller 2001; Moreno 1940.

This article is a translated excerpt from the book: Schaller, R. (2001): Das große Rollenspiel-Buch. Grundtechniken, Anwendungsformen, Praxisbeispiele. Weinheim, Basel: Beltz Verlag


Barrault, J.-L. (1951). Reflections on the Theatre. Rockliff

Brecht, B. (1967). Gesammelte Werke 15. Schriften zum Theater 1. Frankfurt a.M.

Duggan, M, & Grainger, R. (1997). Imagination, Identification and Catharsis in Theater and Therapy. Bristol, PA: Jessica Kingsley.

Fox, J. (1994). Acts of Service: Spontaneity, Commitment, Tradition in the Nonscripted Theatre. New Paltz, NY: Tusitala Publishing

Kellermann, P. F. (1984). The place of catharsis in psychodrama. Journal of Group Psychotherapy, Psychodrama & Sociometry, 37(1), 1–13.

Moreno, J. L. (1940). Mental catharsis and the psychodrama. Sociometry, 3, 209–244

Miller, Donell. (2001). Catharsis and Closure. Redlands, CA: Beacon Book Reminders Psychodramas.

Schaller, R. (2001): Das große Rollenspiel-Buch. Grundtechniken, Anwendungsformen, Praxisbeispiele. Weinheim, Basel: Beltz Verlag

Von Franz, M.-L. (​1998). Dreams. A Study Of The Dreams Of Jung Descartes Socrates And Other Historical Figures. C.G. Jung Foundation Book