2003: Romek E. Premonitions and presages of psychodrama in Russia (choric theater of Vyacheslav Ivanov).

Психодрама, социометрия и прикладная психология

// Психодрама, социометрия и прикладная психология. Материалы Второй международной научно-практической и учебной конференции (Морено-Фестиваль 2002). - Ростов н/Д: "Фолиант", 2003, с. 63-70

Psychodrama got to Russia in the beginning of the 1990s. It was met enthusiastically, readily accepted, successfully learned and applied but still felt like extraneous experience, in the sense that it came from abroad and in view of its high theoretical and practical worth had to be adopted to Russian background. I am not going to argue the doubtless fact that psychodrama was elaborated by Moreno in the United States and came to post-soviet Russia from abroad. I just intend to disclose one of the Russian roots of psychodrama to bring into light its essential affinity to our culture.

On the border of XIX and XX centuries Russian intellectuals - philosophers, writers, musicians in search of irrational (authentic) ways of expression turned towards drama and theater. On the one hand it was inspired by Russian religious philosophy, particularly that of Vladimir Soloviev who criticized one-sidedness of the western philosophy (mostly of positivism) and appealed to a holistic comprehension of things, - N. Berdyaev and L. Shestov started from this point (and finally invented existentialism). On the other hand literary and artistic bohemia was fascinated by dionysiac pathos of  F. Nietzsche and his Russian muse Lu Andreas-Solome. Poets-symbolists (A. Blok, O. Mandelstam, A. Bely, F. Sologub and others) intended to crash the lines of demarcation between different genres “to touch yet not born Aphrodite, who was a music and a word” (Mandelstam). Against this background in the middle of the first decade of the XX th century Vyacheslav Ivanov (1866-1949) bore a design of  “choric theater”.

In Russia V. Ivanov is considered to be an embodiment of creative universality of the Silvery age epoch (the first decades of the XX th c.): “Philologist” called him V. Soloviev, “Vyacheslav the Great” (L. Shestov), “Master of human souls” (N. Berdyaev), “Poet-hierophant, possessing mysteries”(M. Voloshin), “Schellinganian” (P. Florensky), “Russian... professor with red passport”(M. Gorky). He was a historian, a brilliant connoisseur of Greek and Roman culture (a disciple of  T. Mommsen), a linguist, a poet, a translator of ancient poetry, a philosopher (one of the key figures in Russian theosophy), an essayist and of course a leader and inspirer of the Russian Silvery age.

Basic idea of Vyacheslav Ivanov was quite common for Russian thought - to overcome individualistic development of the modern time, which brought the West into crisis[1]. Predominance of “civilization” beyond “culture” caused one-sided growth of analytical reason and criticism at the expense of more profound “organic” medieval intelligence. But unlike other Russian philosophers who sought the solution of the problem either in the field of pure religion or in the ways of social reorganization,  Ivanov turned to Nietzsche and made a successful attempt to reconcile his dionysism with orthodox and socialist ideas. Thanks to V. Ivanov Nietzsche was took in Russia primarily for a religious thinker, a contributor to the “Russian idea”.

So then Russian church and Nietzsche have already outlined a way out of  the deadlock of individualism. It was a way of  sobornost - an accord, free transpersonal unity of personalities, Ьbermenschlichkeit in Nietzsche’s terms.

“Individualism “killed the old god” and worshipped Ьbermensch. Ьbermensch killed individualism... Individualism presupposed self-sufficient fullness of human personality; but we have been enamored of Ьbermensch. ... Ьbermenschliche  is no more just individual but necessarily universal and even religious. Ьbermensch is Atlantus upholding heaven, carrying the burden of the world upon his shoulders”(Ivanov, 1994: 22).

But how to develop such a trans- and interpersonal connection between individuals (a sociometric network - as Moreno called it later)? Is it enough to be aware of its urgency, to worship it, to long for it ? Or...

Vyacheslav Ivanov criticized “idealistic romanticism” (of C. Bodler, S. Mallarme, P. Verlaine and their Russian followers) for contemplativeness and detachment from life. “Our psychology is not a psychology of romanticists. We oppose to romantic dreaminess and romantic languor a strong-will act of self- affirmation. ... Romanticist remembers too well that his castles in the air are in the air; tension and resistance necessary for tragic struggle are lacking in his ideal”(Ivanov, 1994: 39).

To step into a new “organic epoch” of mankind (sociometric community in terms of  Moreno) one should leave a dream world of reflection and begin to act. It is in this point that V. Ivanov exposes his project of soborny or choric theater which he supposes to be a vehicle of creative activity of masses.

In its original dionysiac sense theater was a dynamic unity of interpersonal (empathic) relations, intimate mystic (ecstatic) experience and religious action. Each member of choric dithyramb was at the same time a piece of the Body of Dionysus and a part of his religious commune. Former real sacrifice converted into a fictitious one and this is how a protogonist appeared. Initially he was a double of Dionysus displaying inside the circle torturous destiny of the doomed hero. Whereas the round dance sprung from the commune of  sacrificers, partakers of a sacrificial mystery.

Afterwards - already in the classical period - the holistic unity of dionysiac performance had split up. Dithyramb developed into a kind of  lyrics, story of the hero acquired an exclusive significance and transformed into a core of the drama, whereas chorus separated simultaneously from the commune and from the hero. “Thus arose a “theater” (qeatron), i.e. a “show” (spectacle, Schauspiel), - just a show” (Ivanov, 1994: 43).

In the XVII-XVIII th c.c. such “static” development of theater was furthermore  intensified by the ideology of Classicism. And only in the XIX th century Wagner, Ibsen, Matterlink brought in a fresh wind of change.

New theater should return suggested V. Ivanov to its dionysiac origin and not so much for aesthetical reasons but rather for the aspiration of social synthesis. It ought to become a center of communal activity, a place where “a dramatist will put forward a personal problem of life, will state a question to be discussed at the meeting of the public opinion”( Ivanov, 1994: 44).

It is really amazing and remarkable how close V. Ivanov’s project is to the conception of psychodrama and sociodrama independently developed by Moreno in the 20 th - 30th. Of course at times Ivanov outlines his ideas in somewhat too general, nonspecific if not vague manner:

“The performance has rather a psychological than an aesthetical aim: a need to condense an internal event experienced by all - “life”, to be terrified having discerned and recognized your own double, to throw a torn into a yawning black abyss so as to lighten up by a rapid lay its bottomless imeasureness” (Ivanov, 1994: 44).

All the same some passages of his “Premonitions and presages (new organic epoch and theater of the future)”(1906) could be taken for a Russian translation of Moreno’s  “Stegreiftheater” (1924).

“Theater must ultimately discover its dynamic essence; hence it must cease to be a “theater” in the sense of just a “spectacle”. No more spectacles, we don’t need circenses. We want to gather in order to create - to act - conjointly and not to contemplate only: “zu schaffen, nicht zu schauen”. No more enacting, we want acting. A spectator must become an actor, a partaker of the action. A crowd of spectators must consolidate in the choric body resembling mystic communes of “orgies” and “mysteries” of the ancient times”(Ivanov, 1994: 44)

In spite of all aesthetic sophistication of this lines written in the style of his beloved Nietzsche and clearly addressed to the refined intellectuals Ivanov’s conscious target was to promote the outgrowth of social self-organization and self-government in Russia.

How can society subsist without repressive institution of state? How to teach Russian people who lived under the pressure of an over-centralized state for centuries and didn’t have a historical experience of freedom since pre-Mongolian times to be responsible for their social life? In the XIX th - beginning of the XX th c. these were the key questions for all tributaries of Russian thought. Intellectuals enthusiastically believed that their raison d’йtre was in serving common people. Except extreme conservatives this conviction (however seen and understood) was shared by everybody from anarchists and social-democrats to religious philosophers and artistic bohemia. It might seem naive or even spurious to a unhistorically disposed (post-) modern observer nonetheless it was the idea of serving people that fed creative universality of Golden (XIX th c.) and Silvery epochs of Russian culture.

A son of his age Vyacheslav Ivanov regarded the renovation of theater first of all from the viewpoint of social improvement:

“Theaters of choric tragedies, comedies and mysteries must grow into the centers of creative or prophetic self-determination of the common people; and only then the problem of confluence of spectators and actors into the one orgic body will be finally solved when by means of direct and animating facilitation of the chorus drama ceases to be an external spectacle and becomes an internal deed of people’s commune (I designate it by a conventional term “prophetic” in order to oppose it to the other communes setting up construction of the civil society ... and religious life...)  - that one commune which assembles around this particular orchestra.

And only then a true political freedom will be accomplished when the choric voice of such communes becomes a genuine referendum of veritable people’s volition”( Ivanov, 1994: 50)

Actually in V. Ivanov’s design choric (dionysiac) theater carries out a function of auxiliary psychological device promoting development of social creativity, efficiency and eventually self-government of people. The author is very thorough in describing this device and despite of uncommon and a bit turgid terminology anyone acquainted with psychodrama will easily recognize in his description familiar features of Moreno’s theater:

“In addition to the second requirement (to involve music - symphony - into the action - E. R.) a demand to restore an orchestra should be attached. Stalls must be freed for choric dance and choric play and represent a semblance of a flat bottom of a hollow opened from all sides and situated by the foot of hilly slopes occupied by a scene from the front and stairs for spectators from the other sides. ... The chorus I conceive to be twofold: a small chorus immediately connected with the action like in Aeschylus’s dramas, and a chorus embodying all the commune, the one that might be spontaneously enlarged by new participants, a chorus which is numerous and intruding into the action exclusively in the moments of the highest excitement and full release of dionysiac energies; dithyrambic chorus of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony exemplifies it. First chorus naturally brings more play and orchestral energy into the synthetic action, while the second one focuses on the most important as well as most animated rhythms, constitutes processions (marches, theories) and effects by the agency of his mass grandiosity and consolidated authority of the commune it represents” (Ivanov, 1994: 48).

Clear kinship between choric theater of V. Ivanov and Moreno’s psychodrama (sociometry and group psychotherapy) is certainly determined by a number of various circumstances constellation of which induced the idea of the psychological theater to rush in the air. Some of them are of universal significance for instance a spread of socialist ideas in end of  the XIX th - beginning of the XX th c.c. or a need in psychotherapy shaped in the West (and in Russia inasmuch as it followed the western way of social development) by the same time; some of them like the influence of Nietzsche for example are specific or even  personal. But there is a core factor due to which universal conditions transformed into the specific and personal incentives of the two (so different in fact) scholars to explicit similar idea of the psychological theater. It was doubtless the involvement of  both of them in the theatrical revolution of the beginning of the XX th century. And in this field one also faces striking coincidences which C.G. Jung used to call synchronicity while Moreno identified them prior as an objective tele.

It is well known that Jacob Moreno experimented in Vienna with his friends actors including Elisabeth Bergner, Peter Lorre, Hans Rodenberg in specially rented for the case apartment located on the last flour of the house N 2 in Waysedergasse. Thus and so in 1922 his Stegreiftheater arose.

Vyacheslav Ivanov returned to Russia from abroad with his wife Lidia Zinovieva in 1905. They settled in Petersburg in a rented apartment situated on the highest (6 th) flour in the corner ledge of the house in Tavricheskaya 25 - “the tower” which got famous as a place of artistic bohemia meetings. Philosopher V. Posanov, poets Z. Gippius, A, Blok, A Bely, glorious (actress) V. Komissarzevskaya, producers and theatrical revolutionaries Vs. Meierhold and S. Sudeykin along with many others attended the “Wednesdays” at Ivanov’s, atmosphere of which was often compared with that of Platonic feasts. And of course Ivanov and his guests experimented with staging. According to the memoir’s of the visitors of “the tower” very often it was extemporaneous producing, thйatre immйdiat.

Wednesday-meetings ceased in 1907 after the sudden death of Ivanov’s adored wife and muse Lidia. They existed consequently approximately for two years just like Moreno’s Stegreiftheater and like the later exerted considerable influence on the development of professional theater.

As for the practical outcomes of Ivanov’s project it was accomplished after the October revolution however incredible it might seem. Inflamed by the idea of choric theater originators of the “Proletkult” (ideology of the new “proletarian culture”) - P. M. Kerszentsev, A. Gan, B. Arvatov, A. Piotrovsky ( Ivanov’s direct disciple) and others converted it into the practice of “mass performances” - that was a term for prolonged unrehearsed dramatizations which reproduced happenings of the revolution and were staged in the twenties on the occasions of soviet holidays by the best theater directors. From several hundred to several thousands non-professional actors participated in such performances (Glebkin, 1998). This grandiose experience assuredly may be regarded as an anticipation of sociodrama.

At the same time (in the 1920s-1930s) in America Moreno was completing his triadic system of psychodrama, sociometry and group psychotherapy. The two pojects really should had encountered and enriched each other. But they had not. Moreno was aware of the “mass performances” and even intended as Dr. Gretel Leutz kindly informed me to come to Russia in order to participate in them. But soon already by the end of the twenties dionysiac “choric productions” degenerated into entirely formal ideologically preoccupied ceremonies - “cultural conserves”. In addition post-revolutionary rapid development of psychology (psychoanalysis, psychotechnique, defectology etc.) was gradually coming to an end until in 1936 it was actually aborted by the ill-famed Decree of the Central Committee of All-Union Communist party (Bolsheviks) “Concerning pedological distortions in the system of national commissariats of education”. One of the best known advocates of the “mass performances” Adrian Piotrovsky was arrested in 1938 and perished along with many other prominent psychologists, scholars, actors, producers. These tragic circumstances render intelligible why at the end of the fifties when psychology had been finally exonerated native psychological experience in defiance of its abundance was solidly forgotten, suppressed, while Russian investigators sought for ideas almost exclusively in the West. It also explicits why intrinsic affinity of psychodrama to Russian culture has not been recognized in post-soviet Russia at once.

V. Ivanov succeeded to leave Russia in 1924. In 1936 (after his friend M. Gorky’s death) he refused from soviet citizenship and up to the end of his days lived in Rome as a professor of Russian language and literature in the Popes Eastern Institute. He communicated with many western intellectuals - M. Buber, G. Marcel, B. Croce, T. Wilder, J. Maritain among them, his works were translated into several languages and published by such well-known philosophers as M. Buber (in German) or J. Ortega y Gasset (in Spanish). Ivanov and Moreno could had encountered at that time at least by correspondence. But they had not...


1.    Glebkin V. (1998) Ritual v sovetskoy kulure. Moskva: “Yanus-K”.

2.    Ivanov V. (1994) Rodnoye i vselenskoye. Moskva: “Respublika”.


[1] This theme was developed by Ivanov in 1905-1906 ( “Crisis of individualism”(1905), “Premonitions and presages”(1906) etc.) - thirteen years before  O. Spengler published in  Munich 1 v. of  “Der Untergang des Abendlandes” (1918).