Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2176
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 playwrights 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 disonentation 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 theater-goers forget the reason for the reenactment." 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 in said 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 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 theatre-going experience? The answer comes through the play's heroine, Ouisa.
At the end of the play, Ouisa is distraught over Rick'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. Poquette has a bachelor's degree in English, and specializes in writing drama and film.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1194
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 teenager, 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 tafent 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 piay) 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 thai 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 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.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 536
John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation begins with a scene of pure urban hysteria. Ouisa Kittredge (Stockard Chanmng) and her art-dealer husband, Flan (John Cunningham), flap about their ritzy New York apartment in a frenzy; they've discovered that they've been hoodwinked by a young black man, Paul (James McDaniel), who's passed himself off as the son of actor Sidney Poitier. Claiming to be short on cash while awaiting the return of his "father," Paul has talked himself into the hospitality of Flan and Ouisa, who later discover their guest copulating with a male hooker. Frazzled with fear and horror, the couple throw Paul out. It turns out that Paul has pulled a similar scam on other upscale New Yorkers. Events escalate into a surreal comedy that highlights the confusion between illusion and reality in the increasingly chaotic metropolis.
Guare has based his piercing play on a true story from the early' 80s. The figure of the con artist has fascinated American writers from Herman Melville's The Confidence Man, to David Mamet's film House of Games. In Melville's novel, a savage satire on American moral complacency, the confidence man assumes several shapes, including that of a poor black man. Melville was making a statement about pre-Civil War America. Guare is talking about race and other disconnections that sunder the city in 1990.
Since this is John Guare (The House of Blue Leaves, Bosoms and Neglect) the play takes off on a careening ride from disorienting comedy into unexpected pathos and tragedy. Even greater than the gulf of misunderstanding that separates white from black is the gap across which parents and children regard one another with appallingly hilarious hostility. A daughter threatens her parents with an elopement to Afghanistan; a son goes bananas when his parents give a favorite shirt (it showed off his "new body") to Paul. What at first seem like the scary but bloodless crimes of a clever hustler take on darker aspects that lead to the suicide of one of Paul's young dupes.
Perverted potential: Paul is a major creation; he's a figure of dizzying ambiguity, weirdly innocent, sexually seductive, socially unsophisticated, startlingly insightful. In an impassioned speech he talks of the death of the imagination, that faculty which, he says, is "God's gift to make the act of self-examination bearable.'' Guare (and McDaniel) make every shift of Paul's sensibility believable and disturbing. It's as if this apparition from the shadows embodies all the fragmented potential that his privileged victims have perverted. Flan, for example, has real insight into the nature of creativity, but his energies are directed to big scores in the madly inflated art market.
It's Ouisa who's awakened by the amoral Paul to the emptiness of life in the fast lane to nowhere. "He did more for us in a few hours than our children ever did," she says wonderingly to Flan. Stockard Charming's performance is the peak achievement of director Jerry Zaks's fine 17-actor ensemble at New York's Lincoln Center. Channing has become a superb American stage actress. It's doubtful that anyone else could move so inexorably and affectingly from ditsy comedy to transcendent radiance.
Source: Jack Kroll, "The Con Games People Play," in Newsweek, Vol. CXV, No. 26, June 25,1990, p 54.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 838
Armed with a lot of preparation, I wrote Six Degrees of Separation very quickly. (The question actors get asked is: How do you remember the lines? The question playwrights get is: How long did it take you to write it? The answer on this one from a playwright born in 1938 about a play written in 1989 is fifty-one years.) I brought Six Degrees to Lincoln Center Theater, which had produced the 1986 revival of House of Blue Leaves. Gregory Mosher and Bernard Gersten, the director and executive producer of Lincoln Center Theater, read it and put the play into immediate production, making it a rarity in today's theater, no workshop, no readings, and seventeen actors. Lincoln Center reassembled most of the Blue Leaves design staff. Jerry Zaks, who'd directed Blue Leaves, agreed to direct. We began auditions in October and saw an average of fifty actors for thirteen of the roles. We used that time of casting to discuss the play, to understand the rhythm of the play, to hear what the play wanted to be. All I knew about the play was that it had to go like the wind.
Jerry Zaks felt it crucial to translate that speed into stage terms. The play was to open at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, which has a thrust stage, meaning the audience sits three-quarters of the way around the stage. Meaning it's ideal for a play that addresses the audience in a very intimate, friendly fashion. Meaning also it's a long way for entrances and exits and pulse-killing scene changes. Jerry met the challenge. He and Tony Walton devised a production scheme whereby the actors (except Paul, the Hustler, and the Doorman) sit in the front row for the course of the performance, appearing and vanishing, handing up, holding up, and receiving props and costumes as needed.
We decided that when anyone speaks on the phone, he or she simply steps into a special light that lasts for the length of the conversation. No one mimes handling a phone. They just talk. A click signifies the call's termination
Tony Walton designed a deceptively simple set a bright red carpeted disc, two red sofas, and, hanging over the stage, a framed double-sided Kandinsky which slowly revolved before the play began and when it was over. He encased the back wall, made of black scrim, in a gilt picture frame and then divided that into two levels. The openings on either level were framed in gold. When actors appeared in the upper level doors, the set would give the feeling that they floated in the dark. The geometric interplay between the circle of the bright red disc and the rectangle of the back wall caused a palpable tension.
The audience only sees through the black scrim once, when Ouisa goes down the hall and opens the door.
Paul Gallo's lights defined the different locations and changes of time. William Ivey Long costumed the actors in vivid stained-glass colors.
Rehearsals began. Oh boy. We had made one casting error, which rectified itself after two days but left us stranded with sixteen actors and no lead. Every actress we wanted was working. Or busy. Or out of town. We kept rehearsing. We went into our second week of rehearsal with no lead. Peter Maloney's wife, Kristin Griffith, filled in. Steven Beckler, the stage manager, filled in. One morning we read in the paper that a play, starring Stockard Channing, expected to open next on Broadway would instead terminate its run in San Diego. Stockard had been nominated for a Tony for her work in House of Blue Leaves. We sent her the script. Stockard, the exemplar trouper, closed in San Diego on a Sunday and came to us on Tuesday and we didn't miss a beat. Has any other actress been scheduled to open in New York at a certain time and indeed did open at that time, however in another play.
Our original ten-week run was extended. Magazines did stories on people hopefully waiting in line for ticket cancellations. Stockard left temporarily to honor a movie commitment made when we were on a limited run. Swoosie Kurtz, who'd won the Tony for Blue Leaves and had been shooting a pilot during our rehearsal panic, came in and was brilliant for nine weeks. James McDaniel left to go into a TV series. Courtney B. Vance succeeded happily into the part and would remain with it when Swoosie left at the end of October to do her TV series, and Stockard would return for a now-indefinite run upstairs at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.
The experience has been remarkably happy. I wrote this play for a specific theater and they did it. It's a wonderful thing for a playwright in the 1990s to belong to a theater.
What else to say?
Six Degrees of Separation is performed without an intermission and takes approximately ninety minutes to perform.
Source: John Guare, "Production Note," in Six Degrees of Separation. A Play by John Guare, Random House, 1990, pp xi-xm