Six Degrees of Separation (play)

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Six Degrees of Separation
Original poster by James McMullan
Written by John Guare
Characters Ouisa
Doctor Fine
Trent Conway
Date premiered May 16, 1990
Place premiered Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
New York City
Original language English
Genre Drama
Setting New York City

Six Degrees of Separation is a play written by John Guare that premiered in 1990.

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 and robber who managed to convince a number of people in the 1980s that he was the son of actor Sidney Poitier. The writer John Guare was a friend of Inger McCabe Elliott and her husband Osborn Elliott. In October 1983 Hampton came to the Elliott's New York apartment and they allowed him to spend the night. The next morning Inger Elliott found Hampton in bed with another man and later called the police. The Elliotts told Guare about the story and it inspired him to write the play years later.[1]

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.[2]

Plot synopsis[edit]

A young black man named Paul shows up at the home of art dealer Flan Kittredge and his wife Ouisa, who live overlooking Central Park in New York City. Paul has a minor stab wound from an attempted mugging, and says he's a friend of their children at Harvard University. The Kittredges are trying to sell a painting by Paul Cézanne 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, though, in reality, it is all a lie: Paul is not a Harvard student but obtained details on the Kittredges from another male student he had seduced. Eventually Paul uses their home for an encounter with a hustler, but is caught in flagrante delicto. The police are called, but Paul escapes.

Soon after, Paul starts up another con against a sensitive young man named Rick and his live-in girlfriend, Elizabeth. The young couple are new to the big city and, based on Paul's con, invite him to live with them until he gets everything sorted out with his wealthy father—who Paul tells them is Flan Kittredge. 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 Kittredges 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:

Cultural influences[edit]

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[3] to the family who takes him in for the night.[4] 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.


The play premiered Off-Broadway at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, on May 16, 1990. The production transferred to the Vivian Beaumont Theater for its Broadway debut on November 8, 1990. The production closed on January 5, 1992 after 485 performances. Directed by Jerry Zaks, the cast featured Stockard Channing as Ouisa, John Cunningham as Flan, and James McDaniel as Paul. After the transfer from the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater to the Vivian Beaumont Theater, Courtney B. Vance assumed the role of Paul and Robert Duncan McNeill played Rick.[5] Swoosie Kurtz and 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.

The production was a finalist for the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.[6]

Channing reprised her role in the London première in 1992 at the Royal Court Theatre, with Paul Shelley as Flan and an early appearance by Adrian Lester as Paul. In 2010, the play was revived at the Old Vic theatre in London starring Lesley Manville as Ouisa.[7]

A 1995 production at Canadian Stage in Toronto, Ontario starred Fiona Reid as Ouisa, Jim Mezon as Flan and Nigel Shawn Williams as Paul.[8] Both Williams and Reid won Dora Mavor Moore Awards for their performances, Williams as Outstanding Performance by a Male in a Principal Role – Play and Reid as Outstanding Performance by a Female in a Principal Role – Play.[9]

Film adaptation[edit]

Guare adapted the play for a film released in 1993 directed by Fred Schepisi with Stockard Channing reprising her role as Ouisa Kittredge, Donald Sutherland, Ian McKellen, Anthony Michael Hall and Will Smith.


Jane Kathleen Curry (Assistant Professor of Theater at Wake Forest University) commented that "Guare has attained a degree of celebrity, largely due to the success of the stage and screen versions of Six Degrees of Separation. Indeed, the phrase "six degrees of separation" has circulated widely in the popular culture..."[10]

Awards and nominations[edit]

  • 1991 New York Drama Critics' Circle Best Play
  • 1991 Tony Award Direction of a Play (Zaks)
  • 1991 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Director of a Play (Zaks)
  • 1993 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play

See also[edit]


  1. ^ New York Mag The Story of David Hampton accessed 7-27-2015
  2. ^ Larrt McShane (19 July 2003). "Six Degrees' Inspiration Hampton Dies". The Associated Press. Retrieved 2008-08-17. 
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ Colin L. Ryono (2008). "Six Degrees of Separation". Colin's Movie Monologue Page. Retrieved 2008-08-31. 
  5. ^ "'Six Degrees of Separation' Broadway", accessed November 13, 2015
  6. ^ "Pulitzer Prize for Drama", accessed November 13, 2015
  7. ^ Billington, Michael. "Review. 'Six Degrees of Separation'" The Guardian, 19 January 2010
  8. ^ "Theatre Notes". Toronto Star, January 12, 1995.
  9. ^ "Dora Winners". Toronto Star, June 27, 1995.
  10. ^ Curry, Jane Kathleen. "Life and Career", John Guare: A Research and Production Sourcebook, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002, ISBN 0313312524, p.13

Further reading[edit]

  • Guare, John (1990). Six Degrees of Separation: A Play (First ed.). New York: Random House. ISBN 0-679-40161-X. 
  • Salinger, J. D. (1951). The Catcher in the Rye (First ed.). Boston: Little, Brown. ISBN 0-316-76953-3. 
  • Wolfe, Graham. (2012). “Doorways and Blank Spaces: Intertextual Connection in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation.” Intertextual Exchanges in American Drama. Eds. Drew Eisenhauer and Brenda Murphy. Jefferson: McFarland. 217–231.

External links[edit]