Effect of Cultural, Social and Political Elements on Development

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1560

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.

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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 tile 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 weallhy, 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 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...

(The entire section contains 6304 words.)

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