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Marx and dramatherapy pedagogy

There are some obvious ways in which we might connect Marxist ideas with Dramatherapy. Marxism is a theory of social change; it is a materialist viewpoint that explains power relations in society as observable and measurable. It is based in a philosophical theory of dialectics which regards each entity as dependent on its opposite in an ever evolving cycle of change. In other words we understand what it means to feel sad because we know what it means to feel happy or that the absence of a thing or person can be experienced because we know what it is like to be engaged with their presence. Marxists see this dialectical relationship as embodied and enacted through human relationships where the balances of power rely on embracing particular roles which contribute to the maintenance of a hierarchical society. For example, for there to be ‘rulers’ there must be those who accept and legitimize their ‘rules’; if those who are ‘ruled’ cease to accept those ‘rules’, the ‘rulers’ lose their power.

Of course this materialist conception can start to seem simplistic and problematic when we get into the realms of perception. Something may be present but we may not be able to see it and so on, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. We can apply this thinking to feelings in a similar vein. We may feel all kinds of things but these feelings may not alter our material universe, ‘feeling powerful’ does not mean that we are powerful though it might help. This brings us to the relationship between ideas and actions, the relationship between theoretical ideas and how they are materially substantiated. Marx pithily encapsulated this relationship as such: ‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas' (Marx, 1845), by which he means that not only does the ruling class hold and control the basis of material power (‘the means of production’), but also dominates the ideas, values and ‘common sense’ of any given society through their institutions, culture and philosophies.

At the same time, however, history does not stand still: for every dominant idea held and disseminated by the ruling class, there are emergent oppositional ideas developing amongst those who are exploited, oppressed and alienated by their material circumstances. This fundamental contradiction provides the motor of history – for example: Trumps’ manifest misogyny and sexism has given rise to a rejuvenation of feminist organization and creative forms of protest.

‘Men and women make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past’ (Marx, 1852) wrote Marx expressing another core principle: dialectical historical materialism. Circumstances shift and change where we are more or less in control of the factors influencing our lives. This sense of control applies to both the political and the personal. The dialectic between ‘making history’ and the ‘given circumstances’ mean that each one of us (individually and collectively) have the capacity to envisage (through our active imagination) that things might be different. These are the glimpses of possibility which are explored in the creative world of Dramatherapy.

To embrace Marxist ideas assumes the dissolution of a whole lot of rhetorical barriers, prejudices, false ideas and rumor-mongering which have besieged Marxist thinking for several decades.

Of course, if a set of ideas is associated with such hideous activities as the Stalinist purges in Russia, or the drabness of repressive communist one-party states, where corruption could thrive, then it is unsurprising that they are rejected as fearful, monolithic and ultimately de-humanizing.

America experienced its own scare, with ‘reds under bed’, whereby ironically Senator Joe McCarthy conducted his own ‘purges’ to root out communists in public life (put into theatrical metaphor by Arthur Miller in The Crucible) We see its contemporary equivalence in Trump’s twitter campaign against fake news’ (anything that criticizes or questions his authority and integrity). Suspicion, surveillance and a prevailing sense of potential betrayal are the consequences of such actions and at the core of these events lies the fundamental human need for trust, and/or the corruption of trust.

And, therapy relies on trust – a fundamentally benign acceptance of the other as an essentially human/humane being.

The question of who can be trusted continues to dominate everyday life. As a consequence a significant number of the population look for straightforwardly stated ideas that connect with their lived experience - and, low and behold, can be captured by the simplistic rhetoric which points blame for everything that is going wrong on those who are somehow ‘different’, by virtue of the color of their skin, speaking a different language, confounding sexual or gender ‘certainties’, or holding different religious beliefs. Meanwhile those who are deemed ‘different’ or who claim the status of ‘difference’ explore the vilification and depredations they are subjected to and look for explanations.

As an antidote to this atomization of forever exclusive and ultimately divisive sense of ‘identity’, Dramatherapy serves to find our commonalities – the potentiality of what might connect and unite us as human beings, rather than rigid differences of experience that those in power have been all-too-ready to exploit within their history of “divide and rule”.

So how can these theoretical principles be applied in the Dramatherapy classroom? We suggest 4 themes:

  • In the communality of the theatrical principle of ensemble, creating the ‘performance’ of experience together.

  • In applying the concept of dialectical process as a concomitant of therapeutic development and change.

  • In recognizing that different types of ideas co-exist in all of us, some which hold us back, some which urge us forward

  • In recognizing that all therapeutic practices carry ideological implications

Each of these could be explicated and explored through the ways in which Dramatherapy embodies metaphor in a directly material way. Dramatherapy educators structure the learning context by incorporating theoretical ideas into the exploration of ‘as if’ scenarios where in the safety of the training room the student is able to face their own vulnerabilities, develop and apply vocabulary of therapeutic and artistic skills and importantly find ways to explain these experiences. Marxist ideas can contribute to the interrogation of practices and point the way to growth and change. They embrace kindness and understanding of how we are vulnerable and at the same time have the potential to support us to become robust fighters for change because we become armed with ideas that make sense of ourselves and the world around us.


Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1845) The German Ideology: Introduction to a Critique of Political Economy. Re-printed: London, Lawrence & Wishart Ltd; Student edition (1 Jan. 1987)

Marx, K. (1852) The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Re-printed: Gloucester, Dodo Press (13 Feb. 2009)

Miller, A. (1952) The Crucible. Re-printed: London, Penguin Classics; New Ed edition (24 Feb. 2000)

Anna Seymour, PhD, PFHEA is Professor of Dramatherapy at the University of Roehampton. She is an international trainer and consultant to several Dramatherapy programmes across the world and is Series Editor, Dramatherapy: approaches, relationships, critical ideas published by Routledge/Taylor and Francis. Correspondence regarding this article may be sent to anna.seymour@roehampton.ac.uk

Pete Holloway has been a Lecturer on the MA Dramatherapy programme at the University of Roehampton since its inception in 1993 and is also currently employed as a Consultant Dramatherapist and Clinical Lead for a specialist psychological therapies unit within community mental health service in the UK NHS. pete.holloway@roehampton.ac.uk

#dramatherapy #marxism #criticaltheory


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