The Most Influential Psychiatrist of the 20th Century Might Be Someone You've Never Heard Of

One hundred years ago, a 23-year-old University of Vienna medical student attended a lecture by Professor Sigmund Freud. It was a dream analysis. As the students filed out of the lecture hall, the famous psychoanalyst asked the young student, later known as J.L. Moreno, what kind of work he was doing. "Well, Dr. Freud," he replied, "I start where you leave off. You meet people in the artificial setting of your office. I meet them on the street and in their home, in their natural surroundings. You analyze their dreams. I give them the courage to dream again."

This extraordinarily arrogant response by an unknown medical student to a distinguished professor foreshadowed the life of a prolific innovator whose ideas are so pervasive that they rival those of Freud himself in their influence on our time.

I'll admit a bias here. J.L. -- who died in 1974 on his 85th birthday -- was my dad, and I've just published a book about his life and work, Impromptu Man: J.L. Moreno and the Origins of Psychodrama, Encounter Culture, and the Social Network. But I think the facts bear me out.

Do you enjoy improvisational theater? J.L. is thought to be the first theater director to ask for audience suggestions for the cast to act out. Were you creeped out by Peter Lorre in "The Maltese Falcon" or "Casablanca"? J.L. discovered him in his experimental theater in Vienna and gave him his stage name (It was Ladislaw Lowenstein -- tough to fit on a marquee.) Ever done role playing as part of a class or to prepare for a job interview? J.L. was doing that in the 1920s at R.H. Macy. Visited a doctor? Chances are she learned how to communicate with patients using role playing. So did some trial lawyers.

Ever been in therapy where you took different roles? J.L. started the therapy he called psychodrama, where he came up with techniques like the empty chair, role reversal, and the mirror. Or maybe you've been in group therapy or seen it in a TV show? J.L. was the first person to use that term, in 1932. Have you checked out your Facebook friends' network? J.L. was drawing those graphs at places like Sing Sing Prison and in schools in the early 1930s. He called them sociograms. Now social networks are the idea behind some of the most successful companies in the world. Have you noticed how journalists like to interview psychologists to analyze just about everything? J.L. might have been the first media "mental expert" in the 1930s, when the Associated Press arranged for him to interview heavyweight boxers and their trainers and predict the outcome of the big fights. The boxing press fell in love with the blue-eyed, sandy-haired shrink with the Viennese accent. He predicted many matches and was never wrong.

J.L. even left his mark on screening and training spies. His spontaneity techniques were adopted by the Office for Strategic Services during World War II. Naval aviators are still selected based on testing for leadership skills that he pioneered, and U.S. Secret Service agents are trained for hostage negotiations using psychodrama.

It sounds crazy but I've only scratched the surface. Take a simple example. We usually think of Woody Allen as preoccupied with Freud, and it's true his neurotic character makes a lot of jokes about psychoanalysis. But if you look at what he actually does in his movies instead of what he talks about, you'll see there's a lot of explicit role playing. In "Bananas," his would-be revolutionary frantically plays his own role and that of a lawyer cross-examining him. In "Annie Hall" his girlfriend, played by Diane Keaton, has a "double" (another J.L. technique) who says what she's really thinking about her boyfriend's sexual demands.

These playful elements are no accident. Many actors and comedians like Alan Alda were devotees of psychodrama in the 1960s. Just a couple of years ago, Tina Fey told The New Yorker that she did a course of psychodrama. Joy Behar, former host of "The View," has had her own psychodrama group for 30 years. Woody Allen himself attended J.L.'s public psychodrama sessions in New York's Upper West Side and used them to help him develop his schlemiel character.

Come to think of it, J.L. was a character like Zelig who popped up all over the place. But unlike Zelig, he left a remarkable trail of ideas that changed the world as much as his formidable professor in Vienna.

Jonathan D. Moreno teaches medical ethics and history of science at the University of Pennsylvania and is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.