Six Degrees of Separation is a 1990 play written by John Guare that premiered at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center on 16 May, 1990, directed by Jerry Zaksand starring Stockard Channing. The production transferred to the Vivian Beaumont Theater for its Broadway debut on 8 November 1990.
Background and inspiration
Six Degrees of Separation
explores the existential premise that everyone in the world is connected to everyone else in the world by a chain of no more than six acquaintances, thus, "six degrees of separation
The plot of the play was inspired by the real-life story of David Hampton, a con man who managed to convince a number of people in the 1980s that he was the son of actor Sidney Poitier. After the play became a dramatic and financial success, Hampton was tried and acquitted for harassment of Guare; he felt he was due a share of the profits that he ultimately never received.
A confidence man
, Paul, shows up at the home of art dealers Flan and Ouisa Kittredge who live overlooking Central Park
in New York City, bearing a stab wound. He claims to be the friend of their children at Harvard University
and he calls them, looking for assistance. They are trying to sell a landscape by Paul Cezanne
and now have this wounded stranger in their home. Paul claims he is in New York to meet his father, who is directing a film version of the Broadway musical Cats.
Paul continues to charm them with his story, except that what they don't know is that the story is false: Paul is not a Harvard student but obtained their name and phone number through another male student he had seduced. Eventually Paul uses their home for a gay encounter with a hustler but is caught in flagrante delicto.
The police are called and Paul is arrested.
Ejected from the Kittredges' home, Paul starts up another con against a sensitive young man named Rick and his live-in girlfriend named Elizabeth. The young couple is new to the big city and, based on Paul's con, invites him to live with them until he gets everything sorted out with his fictional wealthy father. While the trio become good friends, with Paul spinning a tale of being estranged from his racist father, the girlfriend tells Rick not to lend Paul any money. One night Paul takes Rick out on the town, and seduces him in order to get the money. Later that night, Rick tells Elizabeth that Paul is gone, that he has all their money, and that he and Paul had sex. In a fit of fury, she cruelly suggests that Rick's father had always questioned his son's sexuality. Soon afterwards Rick commits suicide.
In desperation, Paul calls the Kitteredges for assistance. Partly due to strained relations with her children, Ouisa finds herself feeling emotionally attached to Paul, hoping to be able to help him in some way despite the fact that he has victimized them. Over a protracted and laborious phone call, he agrees to give himself up to the police; however, during the arrest, he and the couple are separated. Despite their efforts—Ouisa's more than Flan's—his fate is unresolved, except for a possibly tragic end. Towards the end of the play, in a climactic moment of reflection, she delivers the play's most famous monologue:
I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find that extremely comforting, that we're so close, but I also find it like Chinese water torture that we're so close because you have to find the right six people to make the connection. It's not just big names—it's anyone. A native in a rain forest, a Tierra del Fuegan, an Eskimo. I am bound—you are bound—to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people. It's a profound thought: how Paul found us; how to find the man whose son he claims to be, or perhaps is, although I doubt it. How everyone is a new door, opening into other worlds.
A strong influence on the play is the novel The Catcher in the Rye
by J.D. Salinger
. There are some very overt references to it, as when the protagonist explains the thesis paper he has just written on The Catcher In The Rye
to the family who takes him in for the night. There are also more subtle allusions
made both in the script and in the cinematography
of the film version, such as when various characters begin to take on Holden Caulfield
-esque characteristics and attitudes.
After the transfer from the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater to the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Courtney B. Vance stepped into the role of Paul and Robert Duncan McNeill played Rick. Kelly Bishop moved into the lead role of Ouisa later in the show's run, and Laura Linney made her Broadway debut as a replacement for the role of Tess.
Guare adapted the play for film released in 1993 directed by Fred Schepisi
with Stockard Channing
(reprising her role), Donald Sutherland
, Sir Ian McKellen
, and Will Smith
Awards and nominations
- Guare, John (1990). Six Degrees of Separation: A Play. First edition, New York: Random House.
- Salinger, J. D. (1951). The Catcher in the Rye. First edition, Boston: Little, Brown.