Six Degrees of Separation
Six Degrees of Separation
JOHN GUARE 1990
The heart of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation can be summed up in a few sentences that Ouisa Kittredge directs at the audience: “I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation... . It’s a profound thought. ... How every person is a new door, opening up into other worlds.”
Six Degrees of Separation first opened off-Broadway in 1990. Its original ten-week run was extended almost immediately. Audiences lined up in hopes of ticket cancellations to see this play that explores late twentieth-century society as deftly as it does universal human relationships. Called a tragicomedy by some critics, Six Degrees of Separation is a witty, biting, yet ultimately sincere commentary on what drives people: the desire for money, fame, social standing, comfort, and, for the lucky, a desire for meaningful human connection. Guare based the premise of his play on an actual incident—a young African-American man gained access to the homes of upper-class New Yorkers by pretending to be the son of actor Sidney Poitier—but the creation of the play is an imaginative tour de force. Guare uses the props of the late twentieth century, such as social issues and art, to create a comprehensive picture of a fragmented society, one in which those simple six degrees that bind people together are overlooked, blatantly ignored, and, very occasionally, celebrated.
John Guare was born on February 5, 1938, in New York. At age eleven, along with another boy, he produced his first play in a garage for an audience of family and friends. He also called up several magazines and newspapers to promote the play. Newsday sent a photographer, and the paper ran pictures of the production in July 1949.
As a teenager, Guare attended the theater regularly and listened to cast recordings of musicals. He attended Georgetown University and graduated in 1960. Three years later, he received his M.F.A. from Yale Drama School. Guare expressed dissatisfaction with this course of study, however, claiming that he learned more about plays while at Yale from a design course than from his playwriting course.
After finishing school, Guare wrote several one-act plays and worked as a reader for a London publishing house. In 1965, he began hitchhiking through Europe. His visit to Rome inspired one of his most important plays, The House of Blue Leaves, which shows his vision of modern America.
When Guare returned to the United States, some of his plays were produced off-off-Broadway. He eventually was invited to become a founding member of the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theatre Playwrights’ Conference, and that is where the first act of The House of Blue Leaves had a staged reading in 1966. After working on nine revisions of the second act, Guare concluded that he still lacked the skill to complete a full-length play. Instead, he concentrated on writing more one-act plays, some of which were produced at the O’Neill as well as off-Broadway.
Guare’s early plays raise several themes that would continue to interest the author throughout his career. The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year (1966) and Muzeeka (1967) both rely on a character’s act of violence to avoid life’s dreary existence. Guare has also attacked the role of the media in several of his plays. He eventually completed The House of Blue Leaves, and he staged it in 1971.
Over the next decade, Guare continued to produce his work, which included a rock musical adaptation of a Shakespeare play, a science fiction comedy, and a murder mystery. Six Degrees of Separation opened in New York City in 1990. It was an immediate critical and popular success. It was made into a movie several years later and Guare wrote the screenplay.
Guare has won many awards over the years. His screenplay for Atlantic City, directed by Louis Malle, garnered an Academy Award nomination. He has been a longtime member of the Dramatists Guild and was elected in 1989 to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
The play opens with a middle-aged, upper-class New York couple—Ouisa and Flan Kittredge—eager to share what happened the previous night. Flan and Ouisa invited a wealthy friend, Geoffrey, for dinner. Flan, an art dealer, planned to ask Geoffrey for two million dollars that he needed to purchase a Cezanne. In the midst of their drinks, there is a knock on the door. It is the doorman, accompanied by a young African-American man who has been beaten. The young man introduces himself as Paul, a friend and Harvard classmate of the Kittredges’ children. He has been mugged in Central Park. Now he has no money until he meets his father, the famous actor Sidney Poitier, the following day. Ouisa and Flan take care of Paul’s wounds, give him a clean shirt, and invite him to go out to dinner with them. Instead, Paul fixes everyone a wonderful meal. He tells them about his theories about the imagination. Ouisa and Flan insist that Paul spend the night at their home and give him fifty dollars. Everyone has a delightful evening, including Geoffrey, who agrees to give Flan the money.
The next morning Ouisa knocks on the door to wake Paul up so he can go meet his father. When she opens the door and turns on the light, a naked man is in Paul’s bed. Ouisa calls for Flan, who kicks out the man. Paul tries to explain, but despite his apologies, they make him leave.
Later that day, they meet their friends, Kitty and Larkin, who have a similar story to tell. Paul had shown up at their apartment on Friday night, mugged, and they had also invited him to spend the night. That evening, they awakened to hear someone yelling “Burglar.” Paul was chasing a naked thief down the hallway. They believed that Paul saved their lives—until Ouisa and Flan tell their story. The couples try to get in touch with Sidney Poitier, but they are unable to do so. They call the police. A detective comes to the apartment but, upon finding out that Paul did not steal anything, leaves. Later, however, the detective tells them of another man who had a similar run-in with Paul. The man told his son about meeting Paul, and the son says he knows no such person—Paul is an impostor.
The only connection between the adults’ children is their boarding school. It turns out that Paul learned all about the families from a high school classmate, Trent Conway, who briefly was Paul’s lover.
Flan and Ouisa hear no more mention of Paul for a while. Then their doorman spits at Flan and mentions “The Negro son you deny.” They learn that Paul had met a young couple in the park. Rick and Elizabeth came to New York from Utah to be actors. Paul made up a story about his father—Flan—who denied his existence. Under their urging, Paul agrees to try and reconcile with his “father.” He tells them that he has been successful and that Flan wants to introduce him to the family—only he needs money to travel up to Maine to meet his father. Against Elizabeth’s wishes, Rick takes all the money out of their joint bank account and gives it to Paul. In celebration, Paul takes Rick to the Rainbow Room and for a carriage ride in Central Park, and the two men have sex. Upset at what he has done, Rick commits suicide. Elizabeth goes to the police with her story, and the police swear out a warrant for Paul’s arrest for theft.
Flan gets the paper to run a story about Paul’s shenanigans, and soon thereafter, Paul calls the Kittredges. Ouisa answers the phone and convinces Paul to turn himself in. She promises to visit him in prison and help him start a new life when he gets out of jail. He wants her and Flan to come with him to the police station. Ouisa says that they will come pick him up, but they also tell the detective his whereabouts. The police arrive and arrest Paul before the Kittredges get there.
Ouisa is unable to track down Paul—she doesn’t even know his real name. She fantasizes about what happened to Paul, even imagining his suicide. Though Ouisa is unable to help Paul, she recognizes that her connection with him has been meaningful.
Trent Conway attended the same high school as the Kittredge children. While attending MIT, he met Paul in Boston. The two young men had a three-month affair. Trent told Paul all about the wealthy New York families he knew.
Elizabeth moved to New York from Utah with her boyfriend Rick. They want to become actors. They befriend Paul in the park and believe his story about being Flan’s ostracized son. When Paul asks them for money, Elizabeth refuses but later learns of Rick’s deceit. After Rick kills himself, Elizabeth presses charges of theft against Paul. She believes that he has taken everything from her.
See Flanders Kittredge
Geoffrey is a liberal South African billionaire. He is an acquaintance of the Kittredges and is at their home when Paul arrives. Geoffrey is charmed by Paul, and his supposed relationship to Sidney Poitier. He enjoys the evening so much that he gives Flan the money for the painting.
Flan is an attractive, middle-aged art dealer. His business is the discreet buying and selling of expensive works of art. Flan got into the art business out of a sincere love for art, but by the play’s opening, he has lost this idealism. The passion he once felt for art has been supplanted by the great sums of money it can earn for him. He recognizes that some of the people to whom he sells great works of art value them not for their beauty but for their social cachet. Like his wife, Flan is drawn to Paul, but unlike his wife, when he learns the truth, he detaches from Paul. Even though he acknowledges the service Paul provided in obtaining the two million dollars from Geoffrey, he continues to refer to Paul as a “crook” and wants little to do with him.
Louisa Kittredge (often referred to as Ouisa) is a rich, attractive, middle-aged woman. She lives with her husband in a posh Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan. As the play opens, Ouisa is characterized by superficial traits: she is a good hostess, a quick conversationalist, and a dramatic storyteller. However, she also is the character most affected by the meeting with Paul. The experience leads to growth and her spiritual rebirth.
Ouisa gives voice to the play’s title, that there are “Six degrees of separation. Between us and everybody else on this planet.” This linkage allows her to recognize the potential for a sincere connection between herself and Paul despite their vastly different backgrounds. Although in the end she does forsake him to the heartless bureaucracy of the police department, her meeting with Paul leads to an inner transformation and a new way of looking at the world around her. She no longer values anecdotal experience but yearns for true experience, which indicates her desire to forge deeper relationships with others. She comes to realize that while her life has been filled with interesting experiences it has no inherent meaning of its own.
Tess is the Kittredges’ rebellious daughter. She tracks down Trent Conway and finds out about his relationship with Paul.
See Louisa Kittredge
- Guare wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of Six Degrees of Separation, directed by Fred Shepisis. The film starred Stockard Chan-ning (who played Ouisa in the original production), Donald Sutherland (Flan), and Will Smith (Paul). The film is available from MGM/UA Home Video, 1994.
- The play was recorded in audio version for L.A. Theatre Works in 1999. Swoosie Kurtz spoke the role of Ouisa, Alan Alda the role of Flan, and Chuma Hunter-Gault the role of Paul.
Paul Poitier- Kittredge
See Paul Poitier
Very little is known about Paul’s true identity. He claims to be the son of Sidney Poitier as well as a Harvard classmate of the Kittredges’ children. In reality, he became aware of the Kittredge children, and others in their social milieu, when he met a young man with whom they had attended high school. Paul used this young man to learn how to comport himself in upper-class society and also to learn enough details to pass himself off as belonging in the Kittredges’ world.
Though Paul is not really an actor’s son, he is a good actor himself. He easily convinces the Kittredges of his false identity; and his affability is a crucial determinant in Geoffrey’s decision to invest the money in the Cezanne painting. His articulate and intelligent conversation belies his background.
Paul is equally adept working himself into the good graces of Rick and Elizabeth, a young couple who have moved to the city from Utah to become actors. Paul’s experience with the couple, and his seduction of Rick, teach him that his self-centered actions and lies can have devastating results on others. At Ouisa’s urging, he turns himself into the police, but he maintains his hope of becoming a better man in the future—the man he pretended to be.
Rick has moved to New York from Utah with his girlfriend Elizabeth. They want to become actors. The couple met Paul in the park and believe his story about being Flan’s ostracized son. When Paul needs money, Rick secretly withdraws it from his and Elizabeth’s account. Rick and Paul dance together at the Rainbow Room and then have sex in a hansom carriage in Central Park. Devastated by what he has done—betraying Elizabeth’s confidence and having sex with a man—Rick commits suicide by jumping out a window.
See Talbot Kittredge
Race and Racism
Paul is the only African-American character in the play. He recognizes that his race is a detriment in the society in which he wants to immerse himself, so he makes the best of it by claiming to be Sidney Poitier’s son. Paul draws on the appeal of one of the first African-American actors who successfully challenged the race barrier, much as he is attempting to do now.
Paul makes pretensions to that world. He tells the Kittredges “I never knew I was black in that racist way til I was sixteen and came back here [to the United States]. ... I don’t even feel black.” He claims not to experience the typical problem of “being black in America” while he pretends to be of their world. Once the truth about his background has emerged, however, and Paul faces arrest, he admits the falsity of his earlier words. He asks Ouisa to take him to the police station because “I’ll be treated with care if you take me.... If they don’t know you’re special, they kill you.” When Ouisa protests, he says, “Mrs. Louisa Kittredge, I am black,” which is his first admission that race has had its effect on his life, his actions, and his choices.
Paul’s primary motivation in tricking the Kittredges and their acquaintances is to win their “everlasting friendship.” Most important to Paul is creating a family for himself. Although his claim that Sidney Poitier is his father is calculated to win the trust of the liberal, wealthy Manhattanites, the lie also plays into Paul’s sublimated desire for a family. Similarly, when he claims to be Flan’s neglected son, his yearning to forge a relationship with his father is quite real. Paul’s fantasies all surround familial ties, but significantly, those that he describes to others are all broken relationships. Paul reveals nothing about his past, but his isolation is physically and symbolically indicated by his first introduction to any member of Manhattan’s upper class, when Trent Conway finds him standing alone in a doorway.
Paul preferred the Kittredges to the others because they paid attention to him and welcomed into their circle. Kitty and Larkin as well as Dr. Fine all left him alone, but at the Kittredges,“We all stayed together.”
The final conversation that takes place between Ouisa and Paul shows his desire to belong to them. He wants to live with them or take over Flan’s business. He has started to call himself Paul Poitier-Kittredge. For her part, Ouisa understands what Paul wants and she seems to demonstrate some willingness on the telephone to make it happen. As she tells him, “We’ll have a wonderful life.” Despite this, and for reasons that are somewhat inexplicable, she tells the police Paul’s whereabouts instead of taking him down to the station herself. In so doing, she loses all connection with him. As she tells the audience, although she tried to track him down, she was unable to do so, for “I wasn’t family.”
Imagination is an important theme in the play. Paul has an active and vivid imagination. For one thing, it allows him to assume easily and convincingly the role of an upper-class young man. He uses his imaginative talents to persuade others to trust him and like him. With Rick and Elizabeth, Paul spins a story of being forsaken by his father, and the couple feels so badly for him that they invite him to stay with them. In a sense, they become a surrogate family, standing in for the Kittredge family that denies itself to Paul. He appeals to the Kittredges and their acquaintances by allying himself with theater royalty and also by promising bit parts in the movie rendition of the Broadway hit Cats.
Paul shows his interest in imagination through his talk about The Catcher in the Rye. Later in the play, it becomes obvious that when Paul says, “I believe that imagination is the passport we create to
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Many critics have remarked on the satiric elements in Six Degrees of Separation.Remember that satire is the use of ridicule, humor, or wit to criticize human nature and institutions and provoke change. Do you think the play is satirical? Why or why not?
- Paul talks about the death of the imagination in his Catcher in the Rye speech. How does his monologue show his imaginative powers?
- Conduct research to find out more about race and class relations in America in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Do the Kittredges strike you as realistic representations of wealthy, white New Yorkers? Explain your answer.
- The play references numerous works of art. If you had to depict the play in a visual form, what would it look like?
- Imagine that Ouisa had arrived at the Waverly Theater before Paul was picked up by the police. What do you think she would have said to him? Write their dialogue.
- At the end of the play, Ouisa says of Paul, “He did more for us in a few hours than our own children ever did.” Does the play support this assertion? Explain your answer.
- In his review of the play, William Henry III writes that the play “confronts the ambivalence that the sane feel toward the mentally ill” and calls Paul “pathological.” Do you agree with the assessment? Why or why not?
take us into the real world,” he is speaking literally. Paul has created a persona for himself to bring him into the upper-class world he wants to join. Paul’s imagination makes him want to be a part of the Kittredges’ family, and he comes up with a very imaginative plan to make his dreams come true.
The play’s primary symbol is the Kandinsky painting that hangs in the Kittredges’ living room. It is the audience’s focal point; as the play opens, “A painting revolves slowly high over the stage. .. . [Kandinsky] has painted on either side of the canvas in two different styles. One side is geometric and somber. The other side is wild and vivid. The painting stops its revolve and opts for the geometric side.” The two-sided painting symbolizes human duality. Paul is the living embodiment of the Kandinsky. The “somber” side he introduces to the Kittredges, with his preppiness, his Brooks Brothers shirt, and his Poitier pedigree. When Ouisa startles Paul the next morning, however, she comes across the “wild” side of Paul, the young man who purchases sexual favors from gay prostitutes. Throughout the play, Paul wavers between both personalities. To Rick and Elizabeth, he appears as the young man of good breeding; this time, instead of claiming Sidney Poitier as his father, he claims Flan Kittredge. After he has won their trust and money, however, he reverts. His actions and his speech become coarser once again, eventually asking Rick “if he could f—me.”
Other pieces of the play emphasize this duality. Dr. Fine says,“There are two sides to every story—” Indeed, Paul is like a story with two sides. Trent Conway, in a moment of “fierce tenderness,” tells Paul,“We’ll give you a new identity. I’ll make you the most eagerly sought-after young man in the East. And then I’ll come into one of these homes one day—and you’ll be there and I’ll be presented to you. And I’ll pretend to meet you for the first time.” Trent’s words demonstrate that Paul cannot exist in the world of the Kittredges without pretending to be someone he is not.
The setting of the play is the Kittredges’ living room in their Upper East Side Manhattan apartment. The Kittredges’ home and their friends reflect their social milieu. They have money, breeding, culture, and education. They send their children to East Coast boarding schools, like Groton, and private universities, like Harvard. Their material and cultural wealth is emphasized by the Kandinsky painting that hangs in their living room.
Paul does not belong in this setting, though he tries to enter it. He makes pretensions to being a part of this high-class New York world through his claims to attending school with the Kittredges’ children and to being the son of Sidney Poitier. In reality, Paul only became intimately acquainted with this world after being picked up by a wealthy college boy when he was standing in a doorway in Boston.
Elizabeth and Rick occupy a different social setting than the other people that Paul meets. They are naive wannabe actors who have settled in New York from their native Utah. Their background represents a more wholesome environment, yet they are similar to the Kittredges in that they are all duped by Paul.
The play has a nontraditional, fluid structure. The play is not divided into acts or scenes—one segment of the play flows into the next. For instance, the play opens with Ouisa and Flan relating the previous evening’s events to the audience, but quickly moves into a re-creation of the evening, complete with all the relevant players upon the stage. The characters’ words provide the aural bridge that links various segments and times. The characters also appear on stage when the narrative calls for them, so, for instance, when Tess phones her parents with the news of her upcoming marriage she is physically thrust upon the stage. Similarly, Paul’s liaison with Trent Conway is acted out for the audience. Since the entire story is actually told through the Kittredges’ recollections, this technique makes the characters come alive. Guare also infuses the play with many storytelling techniques, such as monologues, dreams, and direct conversation with the audience.
Point of View
The whole play is filtered through Ouisa Kittredge. In a sense, she “narrates” the play. Although the segments of the play are acted out for the audience, the events are really presented how Ouisa imagines them or how she has been told they occurred. Ouisa’s perception of Paul, his actions, and others’ reactions to him form the backbone of the play. She alone among the characters has been emotionally affected by meeting Paul. As she tells her husband and the audience—whom she rightly recognizes is more receptive to her—“He did more for us in a few hours than our children ever did.” Ouisa’s statement, and the fact that she continues to be drawn to Paul despite the knowledge that he is a liar and an impostor, reflects the inadequacies of her life and family.
The Reagan Years
Ronald Reagan was the president of the United States throughout most of the 1980s, from 1981 to 1989. Reagan was a conservative Republican. He believed in the theory of supply-side economic, which argued that lowering the top income tax rates would cause people to invest their savings, thus spurring economic growth overall. Under Reagan, Congress passed a plan to cut federal income taxes by 25 percent. Congress also supported Reagan in decreasing government involvement. His economic plan called for cutting back on government regulations in industry, as well as cutting back on funding for social programs.
By the mid-1980s, the economy was booming, but many critics charged that not all Americans were benefiting equally. The very small percentage of wealthiest Americans grew richer, while the incomes of the middle class fell. Spending cuts on federal programs also hurt poor people. While employment rose, joblessness remained high among minority groups.
As in the decades before it, racial tensions continued to be a concern in the 1980s and 1990s. Several incidents became headline incidents around the country. In 1984, a white man, Bernhard Goetz shot four African-Americans youths on a New York subway. He claimed that they were trying to rob him, but he was still put on trial for attempted murder. In 1987, he was acquitted of these charges. Civil rights leaders expressed their opinion that if the youths had not been African American, the trial’s outcome may have been different.
A racial incident in Howard Beach, Queens, also attracted considerable attention. In 1986, three white teenagers chased a young African American into the path of an oncoming automobile. Michael Griffith died, and the teenagers were charged with manslaughter. When they were found guilty the following year, crowds disrupted the subway, claiming the ruling was too lenient.
Throughout the 1980s, many students on college campuses protested racial incidents and practices. In January 1987, tens of thousands gathered in Cumming, Georgia, and held the biggest civil rights protest since the 1960s. Also that year, President Ronald Reagan came under attack. The U.S. National Urban League called his administration morally unfair and economically unjust to African Americans. Noted African-American Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall ranked Reagan at the bottom of U.S. presidents on civil rights.
Americans and Apartheid
Many Americans also protested civil rights violations abroad, particularly South Africa’s apartheid system. Over the decade, these racist policies began to attract increasing attention from foreigners as well as foreign governments. In 1985, a dozen Western nations, including the United States, voted to impose economic and cultural sanctions against South Africa’s government. Measures included the prohibition of most loans to the government as well as the sale of computer and nuclear technology. A few months later, the South African government barred television camera crews and photographers from covering racial incidents. Officials claimed that the foreign press was misrepresenting the country.
Some Americans companies began pulling out of South Africa. For example, in 1986 General Motors left South Africa. Spokespeople said the company was losing money but also disapproved of the government’s refusal to adopt reforms in the policy of apartheid. Students on university campuses launched major protests. Students at some campuses, such as at the University of California at Berkeley, protested and even shut down administrative and class buildings.
Other Social Issues
Many other issues concerned American in the 1980s. Crime rates in the United States had dipped in the early 1980s, but by the middle of the decade crime rates were on the rise again, significantly so for violent crimes. The rising crime rate was a major issue in the 1988 presidential elections. Republican advertising portrayed Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis as weak on crime. Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts when a convicted murderer, out of prison on a weekend pass, attacked a couple in Maryland. The murderer was African American, so some critics charged that the ads played on racist fears of black criminals.
AIDS also came to the forefront of the American consciousness. The first cases of AIDS in the United States were reported in the early 1980s. By the mid-1980s, more and more Americans were becoming concerned by the spread of AIDS. In 1993, AIDS was the leading cause of death between men ages 25 to 44 in 64 U.S. cities. Between 1986 and 1990, new AIDS cases reported for women more than tripled.
The abortion debate was also an important issue throughout the decade. The Supreme Court upheld several challenges to the constitutional right to legalized abortion. However, Reagan’s administration, along with the growing conservative movement and fundamentalist Christian organizations, opposed abortion. State legislation as well as federal courts eroded a woman’s right to obtain an abortion, and the availability of abortions became restricted over the years. Two divisions grew: pro-choicers, who wanted to eliminate most legislative restrictions on abortion and pro-lifers, who wanted to outlaw almost all abortions. Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group, organized the barricading of abortion clinics, and some abortion clinics were even bombed.
In the 1980s, many “blockbuster” musicals were produced in theaters all over the world. These musicals involved spectacular sets and lavish musical arrangements, and often had unusual themes or settings. British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber produced several musicals in London. Cats, which was based on the work of English poet T. S. Eliot, became the longest-running Broadway show in history.
Six Degrees of Separation opened in New York City in 1990 and was an immediate critical and popular success. Outstanding reviews and full houses greatly extended the play’s original ten-week run. Eva Resnikova, writing in the National Review, called it “the lone original American play of the season.” Guare’s play went on to win the New York Critic Circle Award for Best Play of the Year and London’ s Olivier award, and to be nominated for a Tony Award. In the New York Times, Frank Rich wrote that viewing Six Degrees of Separation was “a transcendent theatrical experience that is itself a lasting vision of the humane new world of which Mr. Guare and his New Yorkers so hungrily dream.”
Critics applauded the actors, the characters, and Guare’s imagination and skill. Newsweek reviewer Jack Kroll wrote of Paul, he “is a major creation: he’s a figure of dizzying ambiguity, weirdly innocent, sexually seductive, socially unsophisticated, startlingly insightful.” Rich further called the play a “masterwork” in his review. “Among the many remarkable aspects of Mr. Guare’s writing,” he added, “is the seamlessness of his imagery, characters and themes, as if this play had just erupted from his own imagination in one perfect piece.” Indeed, as Guare wrote in his Production Note to the published version of the play, he completed Six Degrees of Separation “very quickly” but was “[A]rmed with a lot of preparation.”
The play is loosely based on real events reported in the New York papers in 1983. Guare uses the actual occurrence of a young African-American man who maneuvered himself into the households of wealthy New Yorkers as his starting point to explore human relationships, particularly in the American family. This issue has been of primary concern to Guare throughout his career. As Tish Dace pointed out in Contemporary Dramatists, Six Degrees of Separation contains that element so crucial to Guare’s work, “dramatizing . . . the love/ hate relationships in the American family.” She further remarks on Guare’s technique:
His freewheeling imagination unfettered by the constraints of realism as he employs such presentational devices as narration, soliloquies and asides to the audience, and poetic speech, Guare nevertheless grounds his play in contemporary American life, especially the sudden end of a family unit.
The play delves into issues critical to modern life. As William A. Henry III noted in his review in Time, the story “takes on deep resonances.” Resnikova called it partly a “comedy of manners” and partly a “morality tale.” Other critics noted its farcical and satirical nature, techniques that are integral to much of Guare’s work.
In his body of work, Guare frequently deals with metamorphosis, parent-child relationships, and violence, and Six Degrees of Separation is no exception. Ouisa Kittredge, who is alienated from her children, finds in Paul a substitute child, even remarking that” [H]e did more for us in a few hours than our own children ever did.” The dissatisfaction of the relationships in the Kittredge family is made clear by Ouisa’s interest in Paul, who is an acknowledged liar.
One of the most important themes raised by the play is the ambivalent feelings that the rich feel for the poor. As Henry pointed out, the play shows “liberals’ fantasies of rescuing the poor.” As aptly demonstrated by the Kittredges’s actions, these fantasies go unfulfilled. The Kittredges are also unsure of how to respond to Paul as a young African-American man. Wrote Henry, “the encounter devastatingly sketches the uneasy state of U.S. race relations, in which white liberals may endorse the black cause in theory, yet not know any blacks socially and thus fawn on or patronize them.” Henry referred to Paul’s “analysis” of The Catcher in the Rye as an example of this: “the hosts are spellbound by his vocabulary and miss the fact that his rap becomes comic nonsense.”
The play also brings up other sources of conflict: class issues, generational disagreements, sexual orientation, and race. The characters’ dysfunction demonstrates that these are simply more places for modern humanity to become isolated from others.
Korb has a master’s degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In the following essay, she discusses the significance of the play’s cultural, social, and political references, and discusses how these elements affect its development.
Loosely based on an actual episode that took place in New York City in the 1980s, Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation is a contemporary play in both spirit and execution. It deals with general themes that concerned (and continue to concern) many Americans in the late 1980s, such as family relationships,
class divisions, and racism. It raised specific social concerns such as abortion, AIDS, the fall of communism, and apartheid. Additionally, the characters’ constant references to popular culture symbols and icons firmly ground the play in its own era. All of these stylistic elements, combined with techniques such as the characters’ tendency to directly address the audience, make Six Degrees of Separation a witty, biting commentary on late twentieth-century urban American life.
Paul and the Kittredges inhabit vastly different worlds. The Kittredges are upper-class, white New Yorkers. They live on Fifth Avenue in the same apartment building as Jackie Kennedy Onassis and the writer Louis Auchinsloss. Their children attend prestigious private schools such as Harvard University and Groton Academy. Their house is filled with trappings of the rich, from the ornate silver Victorian inkwell to the double-sided Kandinsky painting. They casually mention monetary figures that would astound the average American.
Not only are the Kittredges wealthy, but they also are aware of the cultural wealth of America and of other countries. They pepper their conversation with allusions to the arts, dropping references to Pepe le Moko, a famous French film gangster trapped in one of his films in an Algerian Casbah, as easily as to a host of successful Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. They name-drop writers and characters: Donald Barthelme, the famous postmodernist; Aeschylus, the Greek tragedian; Henry Higgins, the English professor who transformed the uneducated Eliza Doolittle into a cultured, desirable woman in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion; Scheherazade, who spun out the captivating and imaginative tales of The Thousand and One Nights.These references flow naturally in the conversation of the Kittredges and their friends, for these icons of culture are an accepted part of their world.
They also refer to societal ills that take place in the world around them. One theme the Kittredges and their friend Geoffrey raise at the beginning of the play is the effects of racism on society as well as their own position regarding whites versus blacks. Geoffrey is a South African billionaire, thus living within the system of apartheid. As Ouisa describes Geoffrey, “He’s King Midas rich. Literally. Gold mines. . . .But he’s always short of cash because his government won’t let. . . its white people take out any money. So it’s like taking in a War Baby.” Geoffrey fully acknowledges the inequities imposed by his country’s government. While he alludes to wanting to correct the system and empower the suppressed Africans—he declares that he “has
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves, his most well-known work before Six Degrees of Separation, contains the author’s darkly humorous vision of modern America. This farce features a working-class Queens zookeeper who fails as a songwriter and takes out his frustration on his insane wife.
- Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925) tells the story of a young man who, to win a society girl, takes on the persona of a well-bred young man. In his attempt to hide the truth about his past, Clyde Griffiths finds himself involved in murder.
- Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) is a scathing portrayal of wealthy New Yorkers who have all the material comforts they could desire but lack any true values or meaning in their lives. Wolfe’s protagonist is a rich bonds trader who finds his whole world coming into question when he is implicated in the hit-and-run death of a young African-American man from Harlem.
- Native Son (1940), by Richard Wright, concerns Bigger Thomas, a young African-American man hired by a liberal, wealthy northern family. The family encourages him to participate in social events, but one night, afraid that he will be accused of improper actions, he accidentally kills the daughter. In prison, he reaches the conclusion that violence is the only alternative to submission in white society.
- George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion (1914), the author’s funniest and most popular play, tells the story of Henry Higgins, who on a bet transforms a Cockney flower seller into being able to pass for a duchess. The play delves into the English class system as Eliza Doolittle, having successfully completed her lessons, ends up belonging to neither the upper class nor the lower class.
to stay there [South Africa] to educate the black workers and we’ll know we’ve been successful when they kill us.” His only concrete suggestion for bettering the situation is hosting a Black American Film Festival in his country. He can invite Spike Lee, Eddie Murphy, Diana Ross and her husband (with whom his wife went fishing), and his acquaintance Bill Cosby.
The characters continually demonstrate their inherent self-absorption and their inflated egos. Ouisa believes that she and her husband live in a charmed world. In referring to nearby culinary delights, Ouisa calls New York “the Florence of the sixteenth century” with “[G]enius on every corner.” Her cultural knowledge is demonstrated by her acquaintance with the Renaissance, a time when Italian artists produced works of great beauty and lasting import. At the same time, however, her statements show the haughtiness with which she regards her world, equating it as she does with the Renaissance, which was one of the most artistic and creative periods the world has experienced.
In order to enter their world, Paul must develop these arrogant habits. Just as casually as the Kittredges do, he manages to drop numerous references into his conversation. He speaks easily about the Russian playwright Anton Chekov and the English novelist/playwright Samuel Beckett. He even demonstrates a close and imaginative appraisal of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, analyzing its effects on society. He brings up political actions such as the assassination attempts of Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley, Jr., and the 1976 Soweto riots in South Africa. Paul’s general knowledge was, in fact, a criticism that Eva Resnikova lodged in the National Review. “The greatest hurdle of the evening is suspending disbelief sufficiently to accept the premise of the impostor’s transformation. After all, even Eliza Doolittle was trained only to make small talk, not to hold forth on weighty intellectual topics.” What this reviewer overlooks, however, is that Paul’s knowledge is essentially stolen from other people and sources. His Catcher in the Rye monologue was a “[G]raduation speech at Groton two years ago.” Notably, Paul never is called upon to respond to comments from either the Kittredges or Geoffrey about his theory of how the novel signifies the “death of the imagination.” Additionally, Paul’s knowledge about the Soweto riots likely came from seeing a movie such as the 1989 film A Dry White Season, instead of seeing a movie being shot. By the end of the play, in his final telephone conversation with Ouisa, Paul also admits that he purposefully studies culture—arts, books, even furniture—to learn how to interact in her world. He even “made a list of things I liked in the museum. Philadelphia Chippendale.” In a sense, Paul is the collage described by Barthelme—the “art form of the twentieth century.”
The musical Cats takes prominence in the play. Cats, produced by Andrew Lloyd Weber, was one of Broadway’s most successful musicals. When Guare wrote the play, it had been running for many years. The basic premise of Cats is much as Tess Kittredge puts it: “a bunch of chorus kids wondering which of them will go to Kitty Kat Heaven.” Tess reminds her parents that they originally pronounced Cats to be “an all-time low in a lifetime of theater-going.” When hearing that Sidney Poitier is going to make a movie of it, however, the Kittredges quickly change their opinion. Of course, it is not the show that interests them but the desire to be in it; or as Frank Rich writes in The New York Times, the “desire to bask in the glow of the rich and famous.” Ouisa suppresses her distaste for Cats and the meaningless art that it represents. She has a dream in which Paul takes on the role of his “father,” Sidney Poitier. Paul/Sidney explains his concern with the world that is “too heavy with all the right-to-lifers.” “And you can get all that into Cats?” Ouisa asks. When Paul/Sidney answers that he is “going to try,” Ouisa decides it is acceptable for her to play a bit role in the movie. Ouisa infuses a trite musical with the social significance of the pro-choice debate that strongly gripped the country in the 1980s in order to justify her participation.
Guare also infuses the play with actual biographical information on Kandinsky and Poitier, a technique that further grounds his work in reality. This is a subtle way of reminding the audience that odd events do happen, although they seem highly unlikely. This biographical information also links with Ouisa’s theory that there exists only
“THE CHARACTERS CONTINUALLY DEMONSTRATE THEIR INHERENT SELF-ABSORPTION AND THEIR INFLATED EGOS. OUISA BELIEVES THAT SHE AND HER HUSBAND LIVE IN A CHARMED WORLD. IN REFERRING TO NEARBY CULINARY DELIGHTS, OUISA CALLS NEW YORK ‘THE FLORENCE OF THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY’ WITH ‘[G]ENIUS ON EVERY CORNER.’”
six degrees of separation. Between us and everybody else on this planet. The president of the United States. A gondolier in Venice. Fill in the names. .. . you have to find the right six people to make the connection. It’s not just big names. It’s anyone.... It’s a profound thought. How Paul found us. How to find the man whose son he pretends to be. . . . Six degrees of separation between me and everyone else on this planet. But to find the right six people.”
Ouisa’s acceptance of the truth of her words allows her to form a bond with Paul, despite his treachery, his background, and his sexuality. She wants Paul to turn himself into the police so “You can start. . . . Your life.” At the same time, however, Ouisa has come to understand that she too must start her life, for, like the Kandinsky painting, her life has “color” but no “structure.” She calls herself “a collage of unaccounted-for brush strokes. I am all random.” Hearkening back to the Barthelme quote, Ouisa also represents the twentieth century, but a twentieth century lacking purpose. Paul offers the human connection that her life has been missing. As the play closes, she hears Paul’s voice telling her, “The Kandinsky. It’s painted on two sides.” The stage directions state “The Kandinsky begins its slow revolve.” Ouisa now has the option to make more of her life. She may choose to learn from her experience with Paul and give her life the structure and meaning that it lacks. Though Paul was unable to accomplish this formidable task for himself, Ouisa’s continuing interest in his whereabouts—to the point of imagining that a young man who committed suicide in jail was Paul—indicates that she may be a success.
Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on Six Degrees of Separation, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Ryan D. Poquette
Poquette has a bachelor’s degree in English, and specializes in writing drama and film. In the following essay, he explores Guare’s use of a duality motif in Six Degrees of Separation.
Guare has long been recognized as a playwright who can successfully blend the two genres of farce, a type of outrageous comedy, and tragedy. In Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, this farce/tragedy duality is used as a structural springboard to introduce other contrasting ideas and elements, which collectively disorient the audience members.
From the first stage direction, Guare sets up the viewer for a play full of contrasts. Guare calls for a two-sided Kandinsky painting to revolve above the set before the play begins. On one side, the painting is chaotic; on the other, it is ordered into somber, geometric shapes. Before the play starts,“the painting stops its slow revolve and opts for the geometric side.” The painting settles on the ordered side, setting the tone for the structure of the play in the beginning. But even though the play follows an ordered construction in the beginning, it still unfolds very quickly.
Says Guare, in the production note of the published play, “All I knew about the play was that it had to go like the wind.” In an interview in 1995 in The Playwright’s Art, when discussing another production of a different farce, Guare explains why “it took thirty seconds or a minute to change each scene, and in a farce that’s an eternity.” A farce is traditionally fast and a tragedy generally unfolds slower so that it can build up dramatic tension. But in Guare’s hands, the deliberate use of contrasting subjects in this very fast-paced farce pays off in some very dramatic, and ultimately tragic, effects.
The action of the play starts in the posh New York apartment of Flan and Ouisa Kittredge, who are wealthy art dealers. They begin by telling the audience that they have had an intruder. “Did he take anything?” Ouisa asks the audience. This is the first of many times that Guare will have his characters address the audience, a technique that play-wrights sometimes use to make a more intimate connection with the audience. In this case, it also highlights yet another of the play’s dualities: art versus life. But even though the characters address the audience, they don’t wait for a response. In most cases, the audience is quickly addressed, then dismissed as the characters turn back to the play. This contrasting of the play as art and the audience members as real life serves to disorient the audience even more.
The audience’s disorientation continues when Flan and Ouisa start reenacting the events of their dinner that night. From this point on, the majority of the play is acted, rather than told, in flashback, a technique that causes the audience to forget that what they are watching is not “live,” but is instead a depiction of a past event.
This pseudo-live effect is enhanced during the Kittredges’s dinner with Geoffrey, a wealthy South African from whom they are trying to secure money for an upcoming art acquisition. They are interrupted by the introduction of Paul, a young black man claiming to be friends with their children at Harvard. Paul, who has apparently been stabbed during a mugging, gives the appropriate details about the Kittredges to make them believe his connection to their children.
Paul, who later claims to be the son of film star Sidney Poitier, is a charming individual, and quickly creates an atmosphere of intense intellectual conversation, in the process winning over Flan, Ouisa, Geoffrey, and the audience. Paul’s charm provides the catalyst for Geoffrey to give the money to Flan and Ouisa for the painting, and leads to Paul being invited to stay the night. It is at this point that Guare turns the tables on the audience, who has been led to think of Paul as a decent, interesting young man.
Robert Andreach, in Creating the Self In the Contemporary American Theatre, explains how Guare tricks the audience:“The stranger, Paul, is so ingratiating, and his anecdotes are so captivating, that the theatergoers forget the reason for the reen-actment.” For those members of the audience that do remember the mugging from the beginning, Andreach says they will most likely think it was somebody else, “until the scene erupts, that is.”
The catalytic event that exposes Paul as a fraud takes place when Ouisa goes to wake Paul up in the morning. “No printed text can communicate the power of the experience as the scene ends.” Andreach says. Ouisa opens Paul’s door to find him with a male prostitute. Ouisa, Flan, and the audience are all shocked, and the play abruptly switches from an ordered, if fast-paced, dinner conversation, to a chaotic search for the true identity of Paul.
As Ouisa, Flan, and the other wealthy socialites duped by Paul dig into the events surrounding Paul’s scams, the next major duality in the play, fantasy versus reality, is revealed.
All of the characters in the play function on two different levels, a realistic level that includes their current social positions, and a fantasy level that includes their desires and illusions. In the cases of Flan and Ouisa, their friends Kitty and Larkin, and Dr. Fine, they are all very successful financially, but they secretly yearn to touch the celebrity of Hollywood.
This is not a new idea in Guare’s works. As William A. Henry III said in his review in Time magazine, “Like his most famous play, The House of Blue Leaves, John Guare’s wry new off-Broadway work concerns the almost mystical longing of the unfamous for contact with celebrities.”
Paul recognizes that the wealthy New Yorkers have this desire, and uses it to his advantage. Frank Rich, in his review in the New York Times, described the situation. “Here that hunger takes the delirious form of a maniacal desire to appear as extras in Sidney Poitier’s purported film version of ‘Cats,’ a prospect Paul dangles in front of his prey.”
The wealthy socialites are not the only ones who are duped by Paul from his promise to fulfill their desires. The same is true for Rick and Elizabeth, the poor couple from Utah who have come to New York to be actors. They also find themselves drawn to Paul because he is confident and gives them courage to pursue their dreams. He also makes monetary promises, telling them that he will give them the means to put on a play: “agents will come see you and you’ll be seen and you’ll be started.”
As in the case of the wealthy socialites, Paul is once again playing off of his victims’ fantasies. In reality, however, he ends up swindling them out of their hard-earned money and luring Rick into a homosexual affair that pushes Rick to suicide, thereby destroying Rick and Elizabeth’s fantasies of acting success and once again shocking the audience. Up until now, Paul’s antics, though troubling to his victims, have not had tragic consequences. The
“PAUL IS THE CONSUMMATE ACTOR, PICKING UP PIECES OF LIFE FROM HIS VICTIMS, AND ASSIMILATING THESE PIECES INTO HIS CONSCIOUSNESS. AT ONE POINT, PAUL HIMSELF HITS UPON THIS IDEA, WHEN DISCUSSING HIS ‘FATHER,’ SIDNEY POITIER, WHO ‘BEING AN ACTOR, HAS NO REAL IDENTITY.’”
pendulum shifts from farce to tragedy, and the audience is dragged along for the ride.
Although the other characters all have both realities and fantasies that they can identify with, critics have noted that Paul lacks a real identity. This is the most striking duality in the play, and the one that in the end produces the most dramatic effects.
Paul’s real identity is never exposed. He lives almost entirely in the fantasy world that he has created. Even at the end of the play, the audience never finds out his real name.
Paul is the consummate actor, picking up pieces of life from his victims, and assimilating these pieces into his consciousness. At one point, Paul himself hits upon this idea, when discussing his “father,” Sidney Poitier, who “being an actor, has no real identity.” Later on in the same speech, Paul expands upon this idea: “he has no life—he has no memory—only the scripts producers send him in the mail through his agents. That’s his past.” This is an accurate description of Paul’s own life. He started out as a con artist trying to achieve his fantasy—to be like the Kittredges of the world.
He wants it so badly that he wipes away all traces of his uneducated, streetwalker self, and fills the void with information about the wealthy socialites’ lives. Andreach describes it as follows. “He is so driven to belong that he stabs himself to gain entrance into others’ lives, because he has no sense of self!”
But perhaps a more accurate description is that Paul has the sense of too many selves, and can’t distinguish between them by the end of the play. In an impassioned speech about the imagination as a link between our inner, fantasy lives and the outside, realistic world, Paul asks, “What is schizophrenia but a horrifying state where what’s in here doesn’t match up with what’s out there?” This is ironic, because one could argue that Paul himself is schizophrenic, seizing on different identities as he accumulates more experiences.
Paul demonstrates his schizophrenic tendencies at the end of the play. When he first meets the wealthy socialites, he tells them his name is Paul Poitier. When he’s duping the two young would-be actors from Utah, he tells them that he is Paul Kittredge. And finally, when he is on the telephone with Ouisa at the end, he says he is “Paul Poitier-Kittredge. It’s a hyphenated name.” But when Paul talks in the same conversation about his “father,” and Ouisa asks him which one, he exclaims, “Sidney!” Even Paul can’t keep his identities straight at the end.
Paul is so far gone in his delusions, that at this point even he may not know his own real name. He tries to become in actuality what he has up until now only been in fantasy. In Contemporary American Playwrights, Christopher Bigsby discusses Paul’s transformation. “He has the actor’s skills to enter another sensibility.” But the danger with taking on too many other identities, is that you can lose your own. Bigsby addresses this fact. “Paul’s inventions become all-consuming, until he treads the edge of madness.”
It is this attempt to live in a fantasy world, ignoring reality, which triggers the major tragic events in the play, beginning with Rick’s suicide and ending with Paul’s. Howard Kissel, in his review for New York’s Daily News, described it as thus: “Ultimately, he is his own main victim. He can follow his newfound ‘friends’ along the high wire, but, without their money, he has no safety net.”
The examination of Guare’s use of duality in the play could go on and on. Truth versus lies, parents versus children, black versus white, rich versus poor. Even the title of the play has caused a sharp divide in critics’ interpretations. The phrase, “six degrees of separation,” refers to a scientific study that took place at Harvard in the late 1960s, which concluded that each person on this planet is separated from any other person by approximately six other people.
Critics of the theory have interpreted this to mean that we are all connected, all alike in some way. Some of the play’s critics agree with this interpretation. “The world’s Pauls and Ouisas will find it worth the effort to follow the chain to one another,” says Melanie Kirkpatrick, in her review in the Wall Street Journal.But other critics have noted that even though this connection may be statistically true, everybody still exists in isolation. Bigsby says that “the more remarkable thing is how separate people are from one another, not how close, how little the responsibility each feels for the other.”
So where does this leave the disoriented audience? What should they take away from their theatregoing experience? The answer comes through the play’s heroine, Ouisa.
At the end of the play, Ouisa is distraught over Paul’s suicide, over her failure to comprehend what Paul was, and what her experience with him has meant and should mean in her life. In this way, Ouisa is much like the audience member, disoriented, wondering what to make of all of this. It is at this point, at the very end of the play that Ouisa sees an image of Paul, who speaks to her. “The Kandinsky. It’s painted on two sides,” Paul says. Then he disappears, and the Kandinsky painting from the start of the play “begins its slow revolve” once again.
Says Rich, “Every aspect of ‘Six Degrees of Separation,’ its own story included, literally or figuratively shares this duality, from Paul’s identity to a Kandinsky painting that twirls above the Kittredge living room.” Bigsby adds this thought: “But the painting revolves at the beginning and end of the play. Neither side predominates.” And just as neither order nor chaos predominates in the painting, neither does any of the other dualities predominate in the play, or in the audience members’ lives. Like life itself, there are no concrete answers.
Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on Six Degrees of Separation, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Weales presents a detailed summary of the Six Degrees of Separation and also comments on the differences found between the characters.
By now presumably everyone—or everyone who reads celebrity gossip columns—knows that John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation is distantly based on events that took place in 1983; a teen-ager, passing himself off as Sidney Poitier’s son, imposed on several affluent New Yorkers, pretending to be a friend or classmate of their children, cleaned-out by a mugger and in need of temporary shelter. The success of Guare’s play has turned the real con man—whose name happily escapes me—into a celebrity of sorts. A friend of mine tells me that during a recent television interview the young man was asked what his gullible hosts were like. “Very shallow people,” was his answer. Whether or not that is an accurate description of the original victims, it is clearly a proper label for Guare’s good-Samaritan suckers.
Caricature is central to Guare’s most successful work—The House of Blue Leaves, for instance—so it is not surprising that the characters in Six Degrees are broadly comic figures, made the more obvious by the presidential style, the fragmentation that never allows them the space or the time to develop. Much of the action of the play takes place offstage and is announced to the audience or to other characters. The one deception that we witness involves an art dealer, more concerned with the deal than the art; his wife, who has a talent for non sequitur; and their guest, a liberal South African billionaire. Having enchanted the three of them, the fake Paul Poitier manages to lose his cozy nest when he is discovered in bed with a male hustler, a scene which establishes his homosexuality (useful later in the play) and allows a naked actor to run around the stage. The other too willing hosts include a foundation executive and a doctor, but their occupational levels are meaningless in a context which demands only that they be beguiled by the prospect of meeting a “moviestar” and appearing in a film version of Cats.Their children are classic cliche brats, college-age parent-haters with no redeeming qualities. Much of this is intended as an abrasive joke, of course, and there are funny lines, but the play lacks the inspired kookiness of the best of Blue Leaves.Jerry Zaks, who directed the successful revival of that play at Lincoln Center in 1986, is again bringing his hard-punching style to Guare, but this time the result is noisy nervousness.
A sentimental subplot emerges late in this very brief play when Paul, momentarily without prosperous gulls, meets a naive couple in the park—innocents from Utah or somewhere in the West who
“A FRIEND OF MINE TELLS ME THAT DURING A RECENT TELEVISION INTERVIEW THE YOUNG MAN WAS ASKED WHAT HIS GULLIBLE HOSTS WERE LIKE. ‘VERY SHALLOW PEOPLE,’ WAS HIS ANSWER. WHETHER OR NOT THAT IS AN ACCURATE DESCRIPTION OF THE ORIGINAL VICTIMS, IT IS CLEARLY A PROPER LABEL FOR GUARE’S GOOD-SAMARITAN SUCKERS.”
have come to conquer the city—and moves in with them, steals their money, and—offstage—seduces the young man, who discovers he likes sex with another man and promptly kills himself. I don’t think there has been a character like that since the soldier who blew out his brains in James Jones’s From Here to Eternity back in 1951. If the sequence has any purpose in the play (Guare’s admirers love him for the absurdist jumps in his work), it is to indicate that Paul’s charm and his lies can be fatal as well as funny.
Yet, that is not where the seriousness in Six Degrees lies. “My concerns are about the imagination and how we live in this city,” Guare told the New York Times (June 10, 1990). The two characters who embody these concerns are Paul and Ouisa, the art dealer’s wife, the only ones who escape stereotype and provide opportunities for the best performances in the production—those of Courtney B. Vance and Stockard Channing. Vance’s tour de force is Paul’s analysis of The Catcher in the Rye as a protest against the loss of imagination in our society—a presentation that is itself an act of imagination. When Paul calls Ouisa at the end, he may still be playing his lying games, but the desperation in his voice reaches her. She attempts and fails to save him, but what she is trying to save is the perception, planted by him, of the hole at the center of their lives. Channing does a fine transition here, turning the ditzy dame of most of the play into a woman with the imagination to feel pain and distress. Guare’s theme is a solid one, but the play is as light as its mannerisms; amiably attractive, it is finally as slickly trivial as most of its characters.
At some point, Ouisa explains that she has read that everyone is connected with everyone else in the world with only six persons between you and whomever. The trick is to discover the six. The conceit gives Guare his title, but if I am going to play connection games, I prefer the network of interconnected minds that Wallace Shawn proffers in “On the Context of the Play,” the essay accompanying the Grove Press edition of Aunt Dan and Lemon.
As it happens, while Guare’s animated cartoons were moving their successful show from the small to the large theater at Lincoln Center, Shawn was touching another aspect of the lives of comfortable New Yorkers in The Fever, a monologue that played briefly at the Public Theater. It will return to New York in the spring, after Shawn has performed it in England for a few months. The persona in The Fever, a character very like Wallace Shawn (and not simply because he is performing it), is in a “poor country where they do not speak my language,” suffering from the titular fever. Between bouts of vomiting, he recalls, lovingly, his protected childhood, bemoans his affluence in the face of the world’s poor, defends that affluence (sounding like Aunt Dan), and imagines retribution for the life he leads. His presentation assumes that the audience shares his background and his anxiety. His fever is not physical; it is metaphysical. It is his inability to keep those others, those accusers, at bay. Unlike the characters in Six Degrees, he has the imagination to see people more clearly than his upbringing taught him he should. One review that I read suggested that The Fever is a dated Marxist critique, but the reviewer simplified in a way that Shawn, who has one of the most fascinating minds in contemporary American drama, never could. There is no cure in The Fever.There is only the disease, the portrait of a man trapped by perceptions that pull him deeper and deeper into a disaffection with his own life while he tries desperately to hold on to the perquisites of his position. The Fever’s fever is societally induced anguish.
The production consists of Shawn’s sitting onstage alone and talking for almost two hours. There are occasional humorous lines and images and changes of voice (indicating sides of his character) to break the even flow of the monologue, but it is a demanding work passing itself off as a comfortable conversation. It is never going to reach the large audience that has made Six Degrees of Separation a hit, but I was happier—which is to say, more uncomfortable—with Shawn than with Guare.
Source: Gerald Weales, “Degrees of Difference,” in Commonweal, January 11, 1991, pp. 17-18.
Kroll exposes the various elements that are employed within Six Degrees of Separation.
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Source: Jack Kroll, “The Con Games People Play,” in Newsweek, Vol. CXV, No. 26, June 25, 1990, p. 54.
The following is a note from the author discussing the production of Six Degrees of Separation.
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Source: John Guare, “Production Note,” in Six Degrees of Separation: A Play by John Guare, Random House, 1990, pp. xi-xiii.
Andreach, Robert, “On the Eve of the Millennium,” in Creating the Self in the Contemporary American Theatre, Southern Illinois University Press, 1998, pp. 190, 199.
Bigsby, Christopher, “John Guare,” in Contemporary American Playwrights, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 42-43.
Brustein, Robert, Review in New Republic, July 9, 1990, p. 34.
Dace, Tish, “John Guare: Overview,” in Contemporary Dramatists, 5th ed., edited by K. A. Berney, St. James Press, 1993.
Guare, John, “John Guare,” in The Playwright’s Art, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, Rutgers University Press, 1995, p. 81.
_____, “Production Note,” in Six Degrees of Separation, Vintage, 1994, p. xi.
Henry, William, III, Review in Time, June 25, 1990, p. 77.
Kirkpatrick, Melanie, “Guare Comedy Premieres,” in The Wall Street Journal, June 19, 1990.
Kissel, Howard, “Guare Succeeds by ‘Degrees,’” in Daily News, June 15, 1990.
Kroll, Jack, Review in Newsweek, June 25, 1990.
Resnikova, Eva, Review in National Review, December 31, 1990, p. 48.
Rich, Frank, Review in New York Times, June 15, 1990, p. CI.
“Chaos and Other Mess,” in American Theatre, April 1999, p. 26.
This article is an interview in which Guare discusses language and other sources of inspiration.
Drukman, Steven, “Prescriptions for a Troubled Theater,” in New York Times, October 31, 1999, Sec. 2, p. 1.
This article is a discussion of the state of contemporary theater among modern playwrights, including Guare.
Michner, C, “The Bard of Jackson Heights,” in New York, December 24, 1990, p. 84.
This article provides a nice profile of Guare.
Wilmeth, Don B., “John Guare,” in American Playwrights Since 1945, edited by Philip Kolin, Greenwood Press, 1989, pp.142-54.
This article is a survey of Guare performance, criticism, and research to 1989.