Six Degrees of Separation

by John Guare

Start Free Trial

Historical Context

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 economics, 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.

Racial Issues
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-American 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 American 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...

(This entire section contains 881 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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.

The Theater
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.

Literary Style

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

Media Adaptations

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Guare wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of Six Degrees of Separation, directed by Fred Shepisis. The film starred Stockard Channing (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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.

Guare, John, "Production Note," in Six Degrees of Separation, Vintage, 1994, p xi.

Henry, William, III, Review in Time, June 25, 1990, p. 77.

Kirkpatnck, 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. C1.

Further Reading
"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 the 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 Kolm, Greenwood Press, 1989, pp 142-54.
This article is a survey of Guare performance, criticism, and research to 1989.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Cohn, Ruby. New American Dramatists: 1960-1990. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

Curry, Jane. John Guare: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

DiGaetani, John L. A Search for a Postmodern Theater: Interviews with Contemporary Playwrights. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Gillian, Jennifer. “Staging a Staged Crisis in Masculinity: Race and Masculinity in Six Degrees of Separation.” In New Readings in American Drama: Something’s Happening Here, edited by Norma Jenckes. New York: Peter Lang, 2002.

Martin, Nicholas. “Chaos and Other Muses.” American Theatre 16 (April, 1999): 26-29, 51-52.

Plunka, Gene A. The Black Comedy of John Guare. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2002.

Plunka, Gene A. “John Guare and the Popular Culture Hype of Celebrity.” In A Companion to Twentieth Century Drama, edited by David Krasner and Molly Smith. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005.

Rose, Lloyd. “John Guare.” In The Playwright’s Art: Conversations with Contemporary American Dramatists, edited by Jackson R. Bryer. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Slethaug, Gordon E. “Chaotics and Many Degrees of Freedom in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation.” American Drama 11 (Winter, 2002): 73-93.

Zimmerman, David A. “Six Degrees of Distinction: Connection, Contagion, and the Aesthetics of Anything.” Arizona Quarterly 55 (Autumn, 1999): 107-133.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide