When is a self not a self - when it is a role.

Moreno developed his ideas about role theory and they significantly influence how psychodrama is enacted and produced. Role theory suggests that the idea that we an authentic self, an inner self, is simply an idea we have inherited from our culture and does notmstand up to close scrutiny. In this extract from Bernie Neville's book Educating Psyche, Neville discusses Moreno's ideas about roles, psyche, identity, sel;f, and such things in a lively and illustrative manner.


For Moreno, role was all powerful. As a matter of fact, as far as personality structure is concerned, he saw nothing else. We are inclined to think of ourselves in terms of an ego surrounded by a number of roles into which we can more or less comfortably fit. Moreno would have none of this nonsense. What we may call our ego is merely one of our roles with which we particularly identify. Our ability to move freely and fluidly through many roles is a measure of our psychological health.

In Moreno's personality theory, there is no question of an ego or self acting through various roles. The roles come first. We exist as persons only in our relationships, real and imagined. Roles do not emerge from the self; a sense of self emerges from our roles. ... Our sense of who we are goes in a cycle from unity to multiplicity and back again. We become what we are capable of being only by periodically dissolving the glue which binds our parts in a single 'personality', so that we can achieve a higher integration which the next creative crisis or challenge can dissolve.

Assagioli, whose introversion contrasts with Moreno's extroversion and whose concerns and methods were different in many respects from Moreno's, comes to a similar view of personality. For him the self or ‘I’ is a point of pure consciousness, without content. We mistakenly give it content by identifying with a particular role or (to use Assagioli's term) a particular sub-personality.

When Moreno and Assagioli use these terms they are not just referring to ways of acting. Each of these roles (sub-personalities) is indeed expressed in its own peculiar ways of acting, but it also has its own set of values and attitudes, its own self-image, its own peculiar ways of thinking and feeling. Each is fairly autonomous. What we believe and say in one role may be quite different from what we believe and say in another.

Some people identify so completely with a particular sub-personality that they are stuck in it. We are all familiar with the teacher, doctor, parent or administrator who cannot stop being a teacher, doctor, parent or administrator even with people and in situations where it is clearly inappropriate.

On the other hand, some of us can shift our identification among a number of roles. We have all experienced how, for example, we are different when we are with our parents from when we are with our own children and different again when we are with our students or colleagues. When people shift their identifications in this way, they are often reacting to the demands of the situation they are in. They are drawn, largely unaware, into the role that is expected of them. This reactive shifting of roles seems to be an advance on obsessive identification with a single role. At least it makes social functioning possible.

From this viewpoint (which in the language of archetypal psychology might be called the viewpoint of Hera, goddess of sociology) roles are unavoidable, essential to our proper functioning. From the viewpoint of Moreno (and Dionysos), our habitual roles are a prison. This tendency of ours to have a situation control our behaviour, to write scripts for ourselves or borrow them from others and then follow them slavishly, to imitate ourselves and imitate others, is something from which we must be freed. Our godlikeness is in our spontaneity, and spontaneity involves doing something new and is always opposed to the cultural conserve.

In a therapeutic psychodrama, the protagonist is commonly struck by the insight that in this situation ‘X’ he is following a script that he learned long ago in situation ‘A’. He may set out to explore a present situation in which he feels anxious or uncomfortable and find himself re-enacting a long-forgotten episode in which he made decisions and established patterns of behaviour which have remained with him all his life. With the help of a skilled director he may be able to move through this insight and the emotional release which comes with it to a point where he is able to act freely, spontaneously and appropriately in the situation which has aroused his anxiety, without being constrained by any ‘mind-forged manacles’.

Of course, spontaneous expression can easily be petrified and perpetuated in a role.  For Moreno all roles, not just destructive ones, are part of the cultural conserve, in much the same way as Guernica and The Trojan Women are part of the cultural conserve. Though they came to us from Picasso and Euripides through the crafting of a spontaneous expression, generated by deep passion in an intensely experienced moment in history, they remain with us as objects.  They are powerful objects indeed, capable of forming our understanding of war and influencing every subsequent artist's attempt to deal with the subject, but they are only objects nonetheless.  It was the act of genius which fascinated Moreno, not the artefacts of genius.  No matter how wonderful a painting is, the artist who imitates it, consciously or unconsciously, is avoiding his or her own genius. No matter how good and useful a particular role may be, the person who stays within its limits is extinguishing the same spark.