Six Degrees of Separation

by John Guare

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Themes in Six Degrees of Separation and Their Reflection of the Era


Six Degrees of Separation explores themes such as social class, identity, and human connection, reflecting the era's preoccupation with wealth disparity and the search for authenticity. The play captures the 1990s' fascination with the interconnectedness of individuals and the superficiality of social status, highlighting the characters' struggles with self-perception and societal expectations.

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

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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What are the themes of Six Degrees of Separation?

The principal themes of John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation are the connections between people and the motives that drive their behavior toward one another.

The first of these themes is evident in the title. People are connected to each other in ways that they would not have imagined. Paul gains entry to the Kittredges' home and their world by pretending to have a connection with them that does not exist. However, he remains connected to them in other ways, as Ouisa Kittredge remarks in the play's most famous monologue:

It's a profound thought. How Paul found us. How to find the man whose son he pretends to be. Or perhaps is his son, although I doubt it. How every person is a new door, opening up into other worlds. Six degrees of separation between me and everyone else on this planet. But to find the right six people.

The second theme, that of motivation, is explored first through the snobbery of the status-conscious Kittredges, who are motivated to help Paul when they believe he is the Harvard-educated son of a Hollywood star. Speculation about the motives behind Paul's destructive, sociopathic conduct also contributes to the theme, as does his most famous monologue in the play, a meditation on why The Catcher in the Rye, a "touching, beautiful, sensitive story," has motivated so much violence and hatred.

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