Gestalt therapy fritz perls’ theater experiences (bernd bocian)

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The following is a reprint of an article from Gestaltkritik 2-2006:

Bernd Bocian The search for the emotional truth Fritz Perls' theater experiences

Whenever something real happens, I am deeply moved, and every time I engage in an intense encounter with a patient, I completely forget about my audience and their possible admiration, and I am completely there."(Perls 1977, 2)

The art-loving mother

Amalie Perls, Fritz's mother, was the daughter of a tailor and had no higher education, but, as a typical bourgeois woman, she sought her home in beauty, in art. She passed this love on as a gift to her son, who remained in touch with classical music, opera, painting and theater throughout his life. Perls recalled that he went to Berlin's National Gallery for the first time when he was about eight years old (cf. Perls 1981, 140). Mother and son attended theater and opera performances together in Berlin and Amalie saved money to pay for the tickets. In Berlin, Perls took acting lessons, sang Bach cantatas, wrote poetry, later began painting in the U.S., took painting lessons in Israel on one of his world tours, and after 1945 returned regularly to Europe (such as Vienna and Verona) for museum and opera visits (1). Unlike Freud, he was a great lover of music. During the memorial ceremony organized in San Francisco after his death in March 1970, the dancer Anna Halprin improvised to the music of Gustav Mahler, who, according to Stoehr, was Perl's favorite composer (cf. Stoehr 1994, 282). The love for Mahler's music existed in Perls even before the Mahler Renaissance on the record market. Mahler, as a Jew in the German cultural sphere, experienced himself as homeless and inwardly torn, and different and seemingly contradictory musical elements were woven into his music, whose expression is often described as "broken" (cf. Adorno 1960; Hermand 1996, 71f). Paradoxes are part of the characteristics of Mahler's music, and Mahler himself emphasized that his symphonies cannot be "handled with elegance" (cf. Müller 1988, 609). The conductor Eliahu Inbal emphasizes in reference to this music that when "the beautiful is there, the ugly is also there" (Inbal in Müller 1988, 604) and one musical passage must be understood through the other. Inbal sees the seemingly contradictory sounds as parts of a great symphonic figure, which can only be understood in context: "Disruption is both rupture and coherence!" (Inbal in ibid., 614). Perhaps Perls' early interest in this music had to do with the fact that it also reflected something of his own state of mind.

Max Reinhard

The Berlin theater experiences had an early and lasting effect on Perls. Already as a child he was fascinated by the world of the stage, a fascination that was triggered by the fact that at the age of four he fell in love with a circus rider, his "first goddess" (Perls 1981, 313) and dreamed of one day becoming part of her world that seemed so wonderful to him. He made his first theater experiences in the narrower sense in the living room at home. It was part of bourgeois culture that art was not only consumed but also produced (cf. Ottersbach 1992, 7). This included domestic chamber music, which was part of everyday life in the home of Perls' later wife, Lore Posner, who was a talented pianist, or even a theater performance. Theo Freiberger, son of a neighbor, was allowed to use the spacious living room of the Perls family for his performances. Little Fritz watched the rehearsals and was allowed to help a little here and there. With the help of Perl's Hebrew teacher, Theo Freiberger staged an opera performance, "Il Trovatore" by Verdi, which, however, was disappointing for little Fritz, so that he ridiculed it.

Like many students, he was later an unpaid extra at one of the Berlin theaters: "We loved the costumes and being there and becoming familiar with literature in a lively way" (Perls 1981, 314). He regularly made his favorite sister Grete and his grandparents' maid laugh at family gatherings when he recited the great poems and ballads of Schiller and Goethe to them theatrically and parodically (cf. Gaines 1979, 2).

At about the same time that his father tried to introduce him to one of his Masonic lodges, and Perls found the "performance" staged for him there ridiculous, he contacted Max Reinhard's theater. This was around his eighteenth year, around 1910 or 1911. After his unpaid extra roles in the conventional theater, where the Kaiser was an occasional guest, Perls became a paid extra at the Deutsches Theater, which had been directed by Reinhard since 1905. Reinhard, who was from Vienna and whose real Jewish name was Goldmann, is described by Perls as the "first creative genius" (Perls 1981, 315) he met. What Reinhard was concerned with, and what Perls took up and integrated into his life as well as into Gestalt therapy in the most radical way, was the demand for truth and authenticity, in the face of a naturalistic theater tradition in which the actors dressed up and "brought the words of the poet to the ear" (Ottersbach 1992, 9), but did not bring the character to life. For Reinhard, this was connected with a critique of bourgeois education for convention, for the concealment of feelings: "Thus arise the well-known repressions, the time sickness of hysteria, and in the end the empty acting of which life is full" (Reinhard 1993, 52). Of course, this is reminiscent of the early cultural-critical Freud, and Reinhard accordingly certainly worked with therapeutic means, without calling it that (cf. Ottersbach 1992, 6). Perls was present as an extra at the rehearsals of Reinhardt's important performances and thus had the opportunity to study in detail his style of staging and his way of dealing with the actors. Moreover, according to recollections of Lore Perls, he seems to have participated in the "famous acting classes of Max Reinhard" (Sreckovic 1999, 20). His sister Grete Gutfreund confirmed this: "When he was a teenager, enrolled in the Gymnasium, he saw that Reinhardt was giving classes. He signed up, and had small parts in plays. Once he played Mephisto for Reinhardt" (Gaines 1979, 3).

According to his own recollections, he participated in performances of "Oedipus," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Faust Part 2" and "Everyman". These performances took place between 1910 and 1913, when Perls was 17 to 20 years old and went to the Askanische Gymnasium (high school).

His love for the theater was so strong that he thought of becoming an actor. He took acting lessons and played in an open-air theater under contract, which in turn gave him enough money to finance his acting lessons and also to buy a motorcycle. Until then he had gotten the money by tutoring and stealing from his mother's purse, since there was no pocket money for him. His daily routine in the summer, when the open-air theater was open, was as follows: In the morning he did his homework on the city train, on the way to school; after school he went home for dinner and then biked to the performance at the open-air theater. Afterwards he returned by bicycle, either to have a short meal at home or to go directly to the performance at the German Theater, which usually lasted into the night (cf. Perls 1981, 315 f.). His sister Grete recalled that coming home late often led to conflicts with his father, who sometimes simply shut him out, so that he would have had to spend the night outside if his mother had not secretly let him in (cf. Gaines 1979, 3).

With the neighbor boy Theo Freiberger, who by now apparently had his own theater group, to which Perls also belonged, he went to small towns where they performed (cf. Perls 1981, 314). In retrospect, he described himself as not a good actor, but he could imitate the voices of many famous actors very well.

Max Reinhard influenced him deeply: "Characters who had no contact with their fellow actors had to disappear. Nothing was left untouched until the play transcended into a real world and yet left enough room for the audience's imagination" (Perls ibid., 315). His recollections (2) of the above-mentioned productions, written down late in life, testify to an unbroken appreciation and continuing enthusiasm for what he experienced (cf. Ibid., 315).

The actor Perls: Revealing the false pose

Max Reinhard's understanding of acting and theater awakened something in Perls that remained alive in him to his end. In Reinhard's sense, Perls was an actor, a comedian, and he wanted to be:

"Nowhere does man reveal himself more purely, more truly, more childlike than in play. The bourgeois life is full of conventional lies. The goal of the actor is the ultimate, the innermost truth. For his profession is not disguise, but revelation. In all transformations the revelation of his innate personality" (Reinhard 1993, 82). Again and again Reinhard outraged against the containment. Flattening of the emotional life by the bourgeois conventions. It was important to him that the "organs of the soul" were also active: "We unmistakably feel how a hearty laugh can free us, a deep sob can relieve us, an outburst of anger can redeem us" (Reinhard 1993, 82). Yes, we often seek such outbursts with unconscious desire" (ibid., 52).

Especially the emotion-relieving element, (3) which was at the beginning in the framework of psychoanalysis as cathartic therapy by Breuer and Freud, was taken up again by Ferenczi in the neo-cathartic technique and got a firm place by Wilhelm Reich in his character analysis, only to be split off together with Reich, has always remained an important component in Gestalt therapy. The "acting" ability of his psychoanalytic teacher Reich to imitate his patients impressed Perls in the early 1930s (cf. Ottersbach ibid., 6) and again and again he came into contact with the theater world. Thus, in emigration in South Africa, he led a theater circle, and among his contacts in New York, in the period of collaboration with Paul Goodmann, were Julian Beck and his wife Judith, founders of the experimental Living Theatre. Both were also of Jewish origin. Judith Malina was a rabbi's daughter who was born in Kiel in 1926 and, together with Julian Beck, had studied at the New York Dramatic Workshop, which was directed by the Berlin émigré Erwin Piscator (cf. Bundeszentrale o.J., 125).

The early experiences at Max Reinhard's theater, the techniques from Moreno's psychodrama, which Perls used in modified form especially in his last years, and the impulses of the Living Theater, lived on in his notorious demonstration sessions at the Esalen Institute in California, which he called his "circus" himself. Here he communicated gently or confrontationally and often instructively like a director with a person who had sat down on a chair in the middle of the group, letting the person act out and live through his or her personality or dream polarities. During this period, Perls considered himself a "good actor and performer who transforms easily like a chameleon" (Perls 1981, 317).

Perls distinguishes between representation and imagination. He wrote that in performance "you use the role as a vehicle to convey your being. In this, your personal skills, genuine feelings and sensitivity support you. (…) In performance you do not bring yourself in. You feign a feeling that is not there and have no confidence in your abilities. In short, you are a fake" (ibid., 148).

Perls in his last popular years was certainly in this sense one who brought himself to the representation. The reviews that see him more as a theater director than as a Gestalt therapist seem to me to stick to the surface. For one thing, Perls, an experienced psychiatric and psychoanalytic clinician, was quite aware of the difference between therapy with a client and a demonstration session, in the midst of a predominantly professional audience (cf. Perls 1981, 238, 254, 292), which is also confirmed by his wife, who is extremely critical on this point (cf. L. Perls 1992, 14). On the other hand, this was his very special style of Gestalt therapy, which he demonstrated with publicity only in the last years of his life, a "synthesis of drama and therapy" (Clarcson et al., p. 1). Al. 1995, 36), which was definitely in the cathartic-psychonalytic tradition.

In addition to his many years of experience with severe disorders in a therapeutic sense, his "strong stubborn intellect" (Perls 1981, 277) was combined here with a great intuition and a willingness in therapy situations literally to "put his life and reputation on the line" (Perls ibid., 102). Perls, with the authority of a theater dramaturge, has claimed the right to be real. Inauthenticity presumed in relation to the "scene" presented. Testimonies of his hard confronting way, which opened up new things to some clients and deeply hurt others, as well as of his gentle and empathetic way of working are plentiful (cf. Gaines 1979; Clarkson et. Al. 1995; Cohn et. A. 1991, 299 f.). That following the late demonstrations, which became popular, more and more therapists understood these techniques as the essence of Gestalt therapy and that the emphasis was shifted one-sidedly to the quick release of emotional outbursts, still worried Perls himself. For him, Gestalt therapy was a path of growth that takes time and, above all, does not avoid pain and working through grief, which is why he repeatedly referred to the importance of Freud's notion of grief work. (cf. Perls 1981, 309) Accordingly, he opposed the confusion of Gestalt therapy and technology and the "pseudo-spontaneity of the stimulants" (Perls 1986, 12).

The following words of Reinhard seem to me to have resonated with Perls and to have been transmitted through him, with all their positive and negative implications:

"The strongest power of the comedian is truth, the last, the most inward, burning truth. Boldly show the made-up people their unmade-up faces and leave them to it (…) the false poses, the conventional lies, the phony pathos and the factory-made ready-to-use emotions. Buy nothing, take nothing over, create everything yourself. (…) Become essentially. It is not the world of appearances you are entering today, it is the world of being. Not he who does something can hold his ground in it in the long run, only he who is something" (Reinhard 1993, 33).

The fact that the reality of everyday work in Gestalt therapy has long since moved beyond this risky intensity into a more clinically secure and less spectacular channel, with all its advantages and disadvantages, does not, in my opinion, negate the fact that this message can still be found at the core of the Gestalt approach and still constitutes something of its attractiveness.


1 Cf. For example, his recollections of the opera performance in the Verona Arena (in Perls 1981, 21).

2 In the "Autobiographical Keywords," however, there is also a hint of an experience that irritated him at the time: "Making the stage realistic. Turning the world into a stage. What is reality? Confusing." (Perls, F., 1998).

3 In my opinion, this was exactly what made Perlsian Gestalt therapy so attractive in the first years in Germany. I am referring here to a deeply traumatized postwar society in which the ideology of collective innocence and the repression of one's own experiences of guilt and entanglement, of loss and suffering, of shame and hatred had put feelings on hold.

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Gestalt therapy fritz perls' theater experiences (bernd bocian)

Gestalt therapy fritz perls' theater experiences (bernd bocian)

Bernd Bocian

Dr. Bernd Bocian

Bernd Bocian, Dr. Phil., born 1954, Gestalt therapist and psychotherapist. Continuing Education in Reichian Bodywork. Depth Psychological Psychotherapy. Many years of work in psychosocial counseling centers of the AWO-Düsseldorf and in free practice in DIGS (Düsseldorfer Institut für Gestaltanalyse und Supervision). From 1985 to 2000 member of the editorial board of the journal "Gestalttherapie" of the DVG. Various publications on the historical and current relationship between psychoanalysis and Gestalt therapy (u.A. B.Bocian/F.M. Staemmler ed.: Gestalt Therapy and Psychoanalysis. Vandenhoeck u. Ruprecht, Göttingen 2000). Lives with wife and daughter in Genoa, Italy. Current Interests: Psychology of the emigration experience, psychotraumatology.

Note: The above text is a preprint from Bernd Bocian's book "Fritz Perls in Berlin 1893 1933: Expressionism Psychoanalysis Judaism", published in spring 2007 by the Gestalt Institute Cologne/GIK Bildungswerkstatt Edition. Here you can find more information about the book.

Gestalt therapy fritz perls' theater experiences (bernd bocian)

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