Sunday Pages: "Six Degrees of Separation"
A play by John Guare
Soon after moving to New York City after college, I somehow managed to score free tickets for the Arthur Miller 80th birthday tribute at Town Hall. This would have been late October of 1995.
A lot of luminaries were there, paying tribute to the legendary author of “Death of a Salesman.” Edward Albee spoke. So did David Mamet. Sam Waterston and Dianne Wiest did a scene from “The Crucible.” (They were too quiet for some of the attendees, I remember, who obnoxiously yowled for them to speak up.) The evening had “the air of a heavyweight event,” as the New York Times later put it.
I recall being struck by a feeling of awe, peculiar to large artistic centers like New York, that a wet-behind-the-ears schmendrick like me could find himself, quite by chance, in the presence of so much greatness. I mean: Arthur Freakin’ Miller! He wrote the Great American Play and was a tireless political activist who was president of PEN and lived to be 80 and was beloved enough to have all these luminaries come pay homage to him and was married to Marilyn Monroe. It was hard for me, not yet 23 years old, to imagine a better writerly life than his.
The least famous playwright on the program that day was the one I was most curious about. Like me, John Guare went to Georgetown, a school better known for lawyers and politicians than creative types. Like me, he took the great playwright and director Donn B. Murphy’s playwriting class. He was a big deal in the theater world on campus.
“Six Degrees of Separation,” his signature work, debuted in 1990. The film, starring Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing, came out in 1993, while I was at Georgetown. The following summer, I saw Marlo Thomas in a revival of the play at the National Theater in Washington. So I was very curious to see Guare and hear what he had to say.
He was dapper, John Guare, in a smart suit that was more art dealer than playwright. He had cool glasses. He spoke with an awesome New York accent. He had great stage presence, and he was really funny. I don’t remember what he said, but I do recall that he went on a bit too long and stole the show. His remarks were so good, and apparently so close to what Miller himself planned to say, that when the Man of the Hour finally appeared on stage, he quipped, “John Guare has purloined my speech!” With the wry deployment of that archaic word, purloined, Arthur Miller seized the mantle right back from his fellow New York playwright.
“Six Degrees of Separation” is best known for its concept of all of us being six degrees removed from any other person on the planet—and, thus, as the basis for the drinking game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. It’s a long one-act, smart and propulsive, in which multiple characters address the audience directly, and is full of fascinating meditations on art, fame, creativity, and the death of the imagination.
The plot is based on something that really happened to some friends of Guare’s: a young Black man, Paul, arrives at the Central Park West apartment of a wealthy (and whiter than white) art dealer and his wife, Flan and Ouisa. Paul says he is the son of the actor Sidney Poitier. He has been mugged, and he’s lost his wallet, all his money—and, worst of all, his manuscript, a meditation on The Catcher in the Rye. Could they help him, please?
They are dazzled by Paul, who is so smart, so charming, so compelling. They want to help him. But they are also dazzled by the idea of helping Sidney Poitier. “Let’s not be starfuckers,” Ouisa says at one point, but that’s exactly what they are. (Also: a prominent art dealer in the early 90s is probably already helping Russian mob guys launder money, but that’s neither here nor there.)
For this week’s “Sunday Pages,” I wanted to share my favorite monologue from the Guare play. About two-thirds of the way through, Flan the art dealer talks to the audience directly, telling us about his dream:
This is what I dreamt. I didn’t dream so much as realize this. I felt so close to the paintings. I wasn’t just selling them like pieces of meat. I remembered why I loved paintings in the first place—what had got me into this—and I thought—dreamed—remembered—how easy it is for a painter to lose a painting. He can paint and paint—work on a canvas for months and one days he loses it—loses the structure—loses the sense of it—you lose the painting.
When the kids were little, we went to a parents’ meeting at their school, and I asked the teacher why all her students were geniuses in the second grade? Look at the first grade. Blotches of green and black. Look at the third grade. Camouflage. But the second grade—your grade. Matisses everyone. You’ve made my child a Matisse. Let me study with you. Let me into second grade! What is your secret? And this is what she said: “Secret? I don’t have any secret. I just know when to take their drawings away from them.”
I dreamt of color. I dreamt of our son’s pink shirt. I dreamt of pinks and yellows and the new van Gogh that MOMA got and the “Irises” that sold for 53.9 million and, wishing a van Gogh were mine, I looked at my English hand-lasted shoes and thought of van Gogh’s tragic shoes. I remembered me as I was. A painter losing a painting.
I have “Six Degrees of Separation” on the brain this week for two reasons, both related to the Oscars. First, Sidney Poitier died this past year, and he was the first person honored in the 2022 “In Memoriam” segment. Second, the young actor who played Paul in the 1993 film adaptation of the play was a rapper who in 1993 was starring in a popular sit-com; this small film was his first dramatic role, he nailed it, and his success playing Paul paved the way for him to win the Academy Award for Best Actor last week.
We have now come full circle. Paul has become Flan. For what is Will Smith if not a painter losing a painting?
Photo credit: MGM/UA. Channing and Sutherland in the film.