Book Review: Persona and Performance: The Meaning of Role in Drama, Therapy and Everyday Life by Robert J. Landy

RfG Newsletter, Volume 4, Number 1, Fall 1994

Persona and Performance: The Meaning of Role in Drama,Therapy and Everyday Life
Robert J. Landy
Guilford Press, New York, 1993

For several years, Robert Landy has been developing his dramatic role method of therapy in which clients, working individually or within a drama therapy group, are guided through the enactment of parts of self that emerge from dreams, external events, improvised storytelling, archetypical tales, and assignments of role by the therapist. The aim is an integration of roles which permits the client to rebalance his life continually between the complex, ambiguous, and frequently conflicting impulses arising from the multiplicity of roles that Landy sees as comprising a person’s role system. In his concept of a role system, Landy includes all the interrelated pieces that represent personality, somewhat similar to the Internal Family Systems theory of Richard Schwartz. Landy’s position, summarized in the book’s conclusion, is that the well-lived life entails dramatic tension between roles:

Without the struggle between conflicting roles, there would be no drama. The undramatic life is a fool’s (simpleton’s) paradise. The dramatic life is one lived in paradox. And to live dramatically, one must cultivate a role system flexible enough to support and contain the struggle. (p. 255)

Among the goals of successful treatment by the role method are greater access, depth, and choice over role enactment (in contrast to inner or external compulsion). This involves the capacity to enacting alternative ways of being such that clients can not only choose which roles to enact but also to vary their performance along the continuum between representation (in which the client presents the character in an overly literal, rigidly realistic manner) and presentation (in which the character is portrayed impressionistically, detached from realism).

Persona and Performance is a well-written book that addresses several facets of role, including the history and development of the construct of role in the social sciences, two in-depth clinical case examples illustrating the role method, and an elaborate taxonomy of roles derived from the study of 600 significant dramatic plays. Although an admirable piece of scholarly research, a practical application of this taxonomy is not explicated.

While the lengthy case studies that display the clinical application of the dramatic role method contain many insightful comments on the interplay of internally conflicting roles, I found myself wanting a more comprehensive or theoretical explanation of how and under what circumstances particular roles emerge. I also would have liked more description of the author’s process by which he chose specific therapeutic interventions. Regarding the therapist’s stance, I came away with the impression that Landy believes that the client’s inner strivings towards integration and balance will occur given only a permissive and safe atmosphere in which to develop. Thus the therapist follows the client, tracking and interpreting the interplay between roles and seldom shares his interpretations with the client.

Reading Persona and Performance gave me a greater appreciation for the richness and variety of roles we are given, take on, and enact in life. Compared with Landy’s role method, RfG is a more directive approach that assigns tasks, uses brief, episodic enactments, emphasizes interpersonal relationship functioning, and teachs concrete skills. The two approaches may be used to complement one another: RfG for briefer therapy and especially for relationship difficulties; the role method for longer term, in-depth exploration and growth of the individual.

I recommend this absorbing book for therapists and literary-minded laypersons seeking a more in-depth view of the many selves we inwardly experience and outwardly manifest.