Six Degrees of Separation

by John Guare

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What is the main theme of Six Degrees of Separation and its reflection of its era?

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John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation was loosely inspired by true events, and it deals with a lot of social issues such as class, race, family, deception, and love. Mainly, however, it explores the nature of individualism, and how the concept of “six degrees of separation”—that we are all connected to everyone else in the world by six acquaintances at the most—alters our understanding of our place in the world.

The play premiered in 1990 and features an African-American man named Paul tricking two wealthy New Yorkers, amongst others, about his family, social position, and intentions. The basic premise of the play involves wholly different characters being brought together and forced to face how they change. Guare emphasizes the extent to which we are all connected; looking back at the play now, our interconnectivity has skyrocketed with the advent of social media, but in 1990 the internet was a very different landscape, with the World Wide Web only being invented that same year. This is not a play about technology, but it raises questions about how connectivity can change us as people. Perhaps more pertinent is how Six Degrees of Separation forces us to consider what makes us judge and push away other people, and whether that difference is based on race, class, or sexuality. It is important to point out that Paul’s homosexuality, and his seduction of male characters such as Rick, results in condemnation from other characters, treatment which prompts Rick’s suicide. This era of LGBTQ+ history, especially in New York, is imbued with anxieties surrounding the HIV/AIDs epidemic, and therefore should inform how we read this story.

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