Life as Art as Life: Dramaturgy as Psychology

By Scott Berghegger
2009, Vol. 1 No. 11 | pg. 1/1

Aristotle played with the idea of human life as a drama and its role on the Greek stage in his Poetics, defining tragedy—the highest form of drama, of art, and of life—as “a mimesis of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude” (Hevern and Bamberg 2005a).

Today, modern playwrights and filmmakers have utterly annihilated some of Aristotle’s dearest axioms; Nolan’s Memento and Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction defy his notions of order and completeness, and stories that spit in the face of reality (Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy comes to mind) proliferate modern literature and art in general.

However, Aristotle’s notion of drama as life has not gone completely unheeded in modern times. Figures such as Stanislavsky, Moreno, Goffman, and Sarbin have, through a historical continuum, flipped Aristotle’s hypothesis to compare drama, a defined, concrete concept, to life and how we go about living it—a much more abstract idea. In other words, no longer do we celebrate the pure mimesis of life on stage, but we appreciate that life—consisting of a central character with many roles, other, supporting characters, and plot—is a drama, told as a narrative that may be more poetic than historical.The turn toward life as a drama began with Konstantin Stanislavsky’s rejection of the histrionic, over-the-top performances usually enjoyed by actors and audiences near the end of the 19th century.

Directors of old required their actors to merely act; Stanislavsky required them to feel. Writes Stanislavsky’s partner, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko:

"Our demands on the actor are that he should not act anything; decidedly not a thing; neither feelings, or moods, nor situations, nor words, not style, nor images. All this should come of itself from the individuality of the actor, individually liberated from stereotype forms, prompted by his entire nervous system..." (Hevern and Bamberg 2005c)

Drama was no longer a mere imitation of life. In fact, in a sense, drama became life itself; or, at least, this is what Stanislavsky strived for. The method that his actors used to prepare was a sometimes grueling metamorphosis into the characters they played on the stage. The Stanislavsky method was the first turn of the cog in the psychology of modern stage audiences. Critics and play-goers alike changed their ideas on what a good performance is — instead of praising actors for the sheer sense of suspense and melodrama they could generate as performers, the public now expected them to embody a role on stage, to become a character with multifaceted roles of his own that not only portrayed external expressions but internally affected the character, and thus the actor, the audience, the whole notion of the role(s) of self (Hevern and Bamberg 2005c).

Jacob Moreno took Stanislavsky’s idea of absolutely entering a role and employed it in his psychodramas, clinical processes in which the patient literally takes a stage and assumes the roles of whatever character he or she is performing. In directing these psychodramas, Moreno presents himself as someone aware of his clients having multiple roles. Usually performed in a group setting, the director enforces various rules to ensure the creative and spontaneous freedom that, according to Moreno, a person needs in order to create a fully edifying drama. In the effort to create stories that were therapeutic and not simply recounts of history, patients were allowed to interpret their own statements made in a different role, both as themselves and as the characters they play. “The use of psychodramatic methods can be an effective form of engaging in learning about these many roles, rather than simply talking about them,” says Blatner (2002).

“Psychodramatic role playing is a major form of experiential and participatory education, and education is a major aspect of a total psychotherapeutic program.” The point that Moreno attempts to make with the process of psychodrama is that we as humans are able to distance ourselves from one role and place ourselves in another, an imaginative quality that he believed was crucial to the understanding of self in a social setting. Stressing the social dimension of drama and life (he also later created the sociodrama), Moreno implores his “student-players” to build each successive drama into more and more complex scenes involving multiple roles and characters. Then, there is the self and there are other players within the lives of those playing out the psychodrama — life is becoming more and more dramatic.

While Moreno’s studies come closer to equating life as a drama, there is still something farcical about the psychodrama; life imitates art imitates life. Erving Goffman was the first to proclaim that life was like performing on stage. Goffman, like Moreno, was interested in the social implications of life as drama, but out of the clinical context the theory became a different animal altogether. It was one thing to say that life was a drama and act it out on stage, but quite another to claim that we play out a drama in our everyday lives. To counteract the intuitive position that some may have — “I’m not a character in a play, this is who I really am, this is me socializing with other people in the world” — Goffman created the notion of “front region” and “back region,” sections of a person’s social performance that they bring to the “stage” of social reality each time they interact with others.

In the front region are all those actions deliberately constructed by a person, i.e. dress, vocabulary, anything a person does consciously to create an impression of him- or herself in a social environment. But behind the scenes is the back region, consisting of things that a person does not want others to know about. Goffman says that reconciling both regions is not a foolproof process, and, as we are all fools at some point in our dramatic lives, some parts of the back region — that is, unintended physical or verbal cues — may show at one point or another. The boundary between front and back regions, intentional and unintentional cues, may not be as delineated as Goffman would have us believe, but his dramaturgical metaphor is a step towards presuming that each person, with his series of characters and roles he plays to placate society and personal “asides” he chooses to keep secret from those with which he interacts, is subject to life as a drama.

Expanding on Moreno’s role theory and Goffman’s idea that we live as though in a play, Ted Sarbin took the understanding of the roles people play on a daily basis and evaluated how they go about switching among the many roles they need to assume to socialize in the environment around them. In choosing the word “role,” a metaphor derived from the theatre, as a term “intended to denote that conduct adheres to certain 'parts' (or positions) rather than to the players who read or recite them,” Sarbin further illustrates the connection between life and drama (Hevern and Bamberg 2005c).

If people perform actions (giving birth, teaching arithmetic, arresting a drug dealer) according to the roles they undertake (mother, teacher, police officer), they form the plot of their own lives. The enactment of these roles place a person in the position to be judged and evaluated by others, a concept stemming from the social theories of Moreno and Goffman. According to Sarbin, a person has many roles and participates in these roles to a degree of organismic involvement, i.e., how engrossed the “actor” is in his role. To channel Stanislavsky, being fully engrossed in a role is the best way to convince others of competency and believability in that role, and Sarbin alludes to the proposition that the “preemptiveness” of a role in a person’s life decides their primary identity — as an actor may be “doing Shakespeare,” a woman may be “doing mother,” and subordinately “doing businesswoman,” “doing tennis player,” and so on.

Necessarily social, people (and the roles they devise and embody) overtly conduct themselves and assume roles through the actions that create their own personal plot, the cornerstone of narrative study. Plot, in addition to being the basis of narrative psychology, is at the foundation of the theatre. Life has finally fully become a drama.

In the “method” works of Stanislavsky to the psychodrama of Moreno, to the “behind the scenes” evaluation of Goffman to Sarbin’s elaborated role theory, the definition of life and how we go about living it has continuously metamorphized into something resembling Aristotle’s drama. However, mere history, mere imitation seems inadequate to recreate what life is; interpretation, context, and complexity, along with characters and plot, form the dramatic series of events we refer to as “life.” Perhaps Shakespeare was right — all the world’s a stage.

Asma, David. Welcome to Jail: Some dramaturgical notes on admission to a total institution. Retrieved 7 November 2005, from

Blatner, Adam (2002). Theoretical foundations of psychodrama. Retrieved 7 November 2005, from

Ganzevoort, R. Ruard (2005). Investigating life-stories: Personal narrative in pastoral psychology. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 21 (4). Retrieved 7 November 2005, from

Hevern, V (2004). Narrative psychology: Theorists and key figures M-N-O. Retrieved 7 November 2005, from mno.html#moreno.

Hevern, V. and Bamberg, M. (2005). The ancient and medieval worlds of the West. Retrieved 7 November 2005, from .htm.

Hevern, V. and Bamberg, M. (2005). Dramaturgical analysis: Erving Goffman. Retrieved 7 November 2005, from

Hevern, V. and Bamberg, M. (2005). Dramaturgy, Sarbin, and social role theory. Retrieved 7 November 2005, from

Philips, James (2003). Psychopathology and the narrative self. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 10.4, 313-328. Retrieved 7 November 2005, from 10.4phillips.html 

Sarbin, T. R. (1943). The concept of role-taking. Sociometry, 6, 273-284.

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