Six Degrees of Separation

by John Guare
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 527

Six Degrees of Separation premiered at Lincoln Center in May, 1990, in a production directed by Jerry Zaks. It featured Stockard Channing as Ouisa, John Cunningham as Flan, and James McDaniel as Paul. The play was widely praised by critics and won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best play of the 1990-1991 season. The play was also a hit in London, produced by the Royal Court Theatre, where it won the Olivier Award for Best Play for the 1992 season. In 1993, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) produced a film adaptation of Six Degrees of Separation, directed by Fred Schepisi. Subsequent revivals and critical studies of the play have made Six Degrees of Separation John Guare’s best-known work.

The script begins with the description of a double-sided painting by Kandinsky that revolves over the stage, and the ambiguity of art—particularly the source of its value—is a central theme in the play. While private art dealer Flan Kittredge trades works by Cézanne and Henri Matisse in the booming art market, Paul tries to trade on his performance as “Paul Poitier” in the expensive apartments of Manhattan’s East Side. Although Paul is quickly exposed as a fraud, Ouisa finds that he has given her a uniquely vital experience, one that she refuses to reduce to an anecdote. The minor characters of Trent and Rick seem likewise mesmerized by their intense connection with the elusive Paul.

Guare posits Ouisa’s encounter with Paul in a distinctly postmodern universe, in which randomness overwhelms structure and imitation undermines any stable truth. Guare never reveals the “real” Paul, whose protean ability enables him to become whatever his audience wishes to see. Strangely, this mutability has extended beyond the stage into critical discussions of Guare’s play. Just as Ouisa wants to see Paul as a loving surrogate son and Rick and Elizabeth want to see him as a romantic hero, so literary critics have chosen to use the ambiguous figure of Paul as a satirical scourge of racism, classism, and homophobia. The character is certainly transgressive, exposing the many degrees of separation drawn in American society.

While the wealthy, educated son of Sidney Poitier is welcome in the Kittredge home, the anonymous African American man enjoying gay sex is not. Once they realize they have been duped, the wealthy white characters quickly jump to racist, homophobic stereotypes, calling Paul a crack addict and wondering if he might have AIDS. Much critical attention has focused on the racial identities performed and assigned in the play and the hypocrisy of the liberal values that shrivel when confronted with an outsider. Guare’s focus, however, is less on race relations than on the vacuous postmodern world of barren relationships in which the characters are starving for an authentic connection.

The play suggests that art and imagination are keys to unlocking authentic self-knowledge. As Paul remarks during his first scene, To face ourselves. That’s the hard thing. The imagination. That’s God’s gift to make the act of self-examination bearable.

This kernel of wisdom lies inside Paul’s fraudulent performance, but in Guare’s bittersweet, ambiguous universe, even playacting can sometimes reveal truth.

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Critical Overview