Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare

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I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation. Between us and everybody else on this planet. The president of the United States. A gondolier in Venice. Fill in the names.

            I find that A) tremendously comforting that we’re so close and B) like Chinese water  torture that we’re so close. Because you have to find the right six people to make the connection.

               — Ouisa in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation

True story: During 1983, David Hampton duped numerous New York notables into providing him food, money, and shelter by pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier. Claiming to have just been mugged, the charismatic Hampton (now David “Poitier”) solicited help from Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, the President of New York’s public TV station and conductor/ composer Leonard Bernstein, among others.

When playwright John Guare read about Hampton’s exploits, he was inspired to write a play which explores the creation of character, identity, and personal connections.  Borrowing wire-less inventor Guglielmo Marconi’s statistical theory that everyone can be located through 5.83 people, Guare explores a world where no one is anonymous, where every act has repercussions.

The CU Theatre and Dance Department production of John Guare’s 1991 tale of urban angst, class, race, celebrity, family and art, follows the story of Flan and Ouisa, a well-connected New York couple, art dealers, trying very hard to keep from falling through the upper-crust. At a crucial moment in a crucial negotiation, they receive a wholly unexpected house guest. Paul is  charming, multi-talented and just happens to be the son of Sydney Poitier. (And may even be able to get them a role in his dad’s upcoming film version of Cats!) When they wake in the middle of the night to discover that Paul has brought a street hustler into their home, they begin to suspect everything may not be quite what it seems. Paul vanishes, but his impact on their lives continues. Their involvement with him has forged a connection which they cannot seem to break. Heralded as a “tragicomic masterpiece” and “the most intelligent, immediate and artful American play in years,” Six Degrees of Separation provides us with a startling kaleidoscope of contemporary urban life, asking us to examine how we are connected to each other and what those connections truly mean.

The Playwright

John Guare is an award-winning playwright, lyricist, librettist, and screenwriter.  After      completing an MFA from Yale School of Drama in 1963, Guare achieved success off-off-Broadway with his early one-act plays. His best known early success, The House of Blue Leaves, was voted Best American Play of the 1971 season by the New York Drama Critic’s Circle.

John Guare

Guare’s work brims with inventiveness — bizarre situations, eccentric characters and improbable plots crowd his plays.  Although his conceits seem implausible, his writing touches the heart with an inner truth that surpasses surface realism.  While many of his dark comedies confront the grim truth of human aspiration and disillusionment, Guare is not critical of his characters, rather celebrates their human frailty with humor and warmth.

His haunting and touching screenplay for Atlantic City (1981) was universally acclaimed and nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay.  His other plays include Marco Polo Sings a Solo (1977), Landscape of the Body (1977), Bosoms and Neglect (1979), and Lydie Breeze (1982), and Moon Under Miami (1995).

New York City’s Signature Theater Company dedicated their entire 1998-99 season to producing the plays of John Guare.

The Imposter


David Hampton

David Hampton was nineteen in 1983 when he convinced a number of New York notables to provide him with food, money, and shelter by pretending to be the son of actor/director Sidney Poitier. Hampton (as “David Poitier”) accepted spending money from his unsuspecting hosts and then took property from their homes.  He served 21 months in state prison after being found guilty of attempted burglary. When playwright John Guare heard about Hampton’s exploits — many of Hampton’s victims were Guare’s friends — he was inspired to write Six Degrees of Separation.

In 1992 Hampton filed a $100 million civil suit against Guare, the Lincoln Center Theatre where the play was performed, Bernard Gersten, the play’s producer, Random House, which published the text of the play, and MGM-Pathe Communications which bought the film rights to the play, for compensatory and punitive damages.  The courts ruled that, although certain of Hampton’s traits could be found in the character of Paul, John Guare had not unlawfully exploited Hampton, because he did not use his name, portrait or picture.  After the trial, Guare was granted a court order to protect him from Hampton, who had repeatedly threatened the playwright.  Hampton declared if he did not get any money from the use of his story, Guare should “start counting his days.”Hampton has had several brushes with the law since 1992, usually in circumstances in which he has pretended to be someone he is not.

The Artist

One of the central images explored in Six Degrees of Separation is a two-sided painting, “one side . . . geometric and somber. The other side is wild and vivid.” The painting is attributed to Wasily Kandinsky (aka Vasily Vasilyevich, 1866-1944), a celebrated artist whose career spanned the turn of the last century.

Often described as a “disconcerting painter” because he explored so many different styles and mediums during his career; various parts of Kandinsky’s output can be labeled Impressionistic, Expressionistic, Fauvist, “medieval,” “folk art,” and abstract or “pure painting”– Kandinsky’s passionate exploration of “paintings without objects.” That there is no “Kandinsky style” is some-thing the artist celebrated, writing that “If an artist repeats himself incessantly, his art inevitably becomes decorative, and even stillborn.”

Kandinsky’s Composition VII (1913)

In many ways, Kandinsky himself was as multi-faceted as his work. Although born in Moscow, Kandinsky’s maternal grandmother was German, and thus his first language was German. Kandinsky often remarked that he was “Russian and yet non-Russian.”  Indeed, this Russian lived for over thirty-five years in Germany, only to became a naturalized French citizen in 1939.

Throughout his career, Kandinsky labored to study scientifically the mechanics of painting and to rediscover quasi-mathematical laws for the use and meanings of color. In so doing, he counted on finding meanings hitherto unknown till then.  In his abstract compositions, the elements group and arrange themselves according to a rather mysterious and yet convincing order, one in which the artist had no need of representation or dimension in order to attain the monumental. For an exhibition in Munich in 1914, Kandinsky wrote of his work: “It is clear that the choice of object that is one of the elements in the harmony of form must be decided only by a corresponding vibration in the human soul.”

Many of Kandinsky’s canvases were confiscated and sold by the Nazis in 1933 as examples of “degenerate” art.

Discussion Questions

1). What kinds of assumptions do the wealthy New Yorkers make about Paul in the play’s first scene? What does he do and say to influence their impressions and gain acceptance? How do you think Flan and Ouisa would have reacted to Paul if he was a young Caucasian male?  A young African-American woman?

2). Why does Paul’s homosexual behavior destroy Flan and Ouisa’s confidence in him?  How do you think Flan and Ouisa would have reacted if Paul had been in bed with a female prostitute?

3). What behaviors do the wealthy children exhibit that indicate their social status?  Would the children of less privileged parents act like this? Does Trent Conway’s homosexuality affect his position of privilege in the eyes of his old boarding school classmates?  In Ouisa’s eyes?

4). How are the differences in privilege between Trent and Paul important in the play? Does Trent try to exploit Paul’s marginality?  Why?

5). Why do you think the poor couple from Utah is so accepting of Paul?  What does the young man’s suicide say about stratification based on sexual orientation in this society?  Society’s definition of success?

6). What kind of advantages do the Kittredges seem to take for granted when dealing with the police?  How and why are the Kittredge’s perceptions of the police and the legal system different?

More About….

Cats — The phenomenon which is Cats had its world premiere May 11, 1981 at in London’s New London Theatre.  Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicalization of poems by T.S. Eliot was directed by Trevor Nunn, choreographed by Gillian Lynne, with set and costume design by John Napier.  Winning the 1981 Olivier Award for Best Musical, Cats became the West End’s longest running musical in 1989, surpassing the 3358 performance record of Andrew Lloyd Webber / Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar.

In 1990  Webber sets a record with five shows playing simultaneously playing on the West End:  Cats, Starlight Express, Phantom of the Opera, Aspects of Love, and Song and Dance. The New York premiere of Cats occurred 7 October 1982 at the Winter Garden Theatre, amassing 7 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Featured Actress, Best Costumes, Best Lighting, Best Book, and Best Director.  In 1997, Cats became Broadway’s longest running production, surpassing the 6,137 performance record set by A Chorus Line (1975). Andrew Lloyd Webber was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1992, and in 1997 was elevated to peerage, so his correct title is now The Lord Lloyd Webber of Sydmonton. There have been 42 productions of Cats worldwide, grossing over $2.5 billion as of this writing.  A video of the stage version was released in 1998, directed by David Mallet.

To date, there is no feature film version of Cats.

SidneyPoitierSydney Poitier

One of the most significant African-American actors of this century, Poitier became a major film star in the 1950s in films like No Way Out, Blackboard Jungle and The Defiant Ones. In the 1960s, during the years of the Civil Rights struggle, his career took on increased social significance as he starred in the film version of Lorraine Hansbury’s award-winning play, Raisin in the Sun, and the southern police drama In the Heat of the Night (1967) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey. He won a Best Actor Oscar for his work in Lilies of the Field.

Mr. Poitier has six daughters, no sons.

The “Six Degrees” phenomenon

Even if you’re not sure exactly what the concept means, you’ve probably heard of it. The most prominent pop culture manifestation of the idea is that party game for movie junkies, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” the rules of which are fairly simple: name any other actor in the history of film and connect him or her to Kevin Bacon through the movies they’ve appeared in. For example, silent film star Mary Pickford is separated from Bacon by only three degrees–Pickford was in Screen Snapshots with Clark Gable, who was in Combat America with Tony Romano who, thirty five years later, was in Starting Over. . . with Kevin Bacon.

But, according to a recent article in The New Yorker, Kevin only ranks 668th for “connect-edness” among actors. (The top fifteen includes Robert Mitchum, Gene Hackman, Donald Sutherland, Rod Steiger, Shelley Winters and Burgess Meredith.) But it’s when the concept is extended to the world outside of the movies that things really gets interesting. The Italian physicist Guglielmo Marconi surmised that, even without his invention of the wireless radio, every person on the planet was already connected by 5.83 persons. In the late 1960s research on Marconi’s idea used a chain letter and some pretty sophisticated statistical analysis to explore the web of connections and discovered something interesting: “Six degrees of separation doesn’t simply mean that everyone is linked to everyone else in just six steps. It means that a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those few.”

Who is your Significant Connection? Who do you KNOW that can get you out of the Great Cloud of Unrelatedness and into Where It’s (Presumably) Happening? And doesn’t this all imply that every relationship, however seemingly insignificant, is important to your place in this world? If what Ouisa says in the play is true and “you have to find the right six people to make the connection,” between you and the rest of the human universe, can you afford to severe a single link–or fail to reach out and make new ones?

Sources used in preparing this preview:

Gladwell, Malcolm. “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg.” The New Yorker. January 11, 1999.

The material in this preview was prepared by Six Degrees director, Professor Bud Coleman, Brandt Mason, assistant to the director and Tom Joyner, graduate assistant for publicity for the Department of Theatre and Dance.