Everyone on this planet is just six degrees away from total lunacy.
By Randall Short
Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark Photo Editor: Martha Maristany
"People used to tell me, 'Oh, your plays are so kooky,' "John Guare says. The lanky, fifty‑three‑year‑old playwright-creator of scripts in which Marilyn Monroe has sex with U.S. presidents from George Washington to Richard M. Nixon; one of the New York Public Library's stone lions comes to life and devours a hapless secretary; and a disturbed young man makes plans to assassinate the Pope during his 1961 visit to Queens‑pauses for a moment. He tugs affectionately at the ears of the pug pups grunting contentedly in his lap. "When House of Blue Leaves was produced in 1971, the stuff about the Pope caused everyone to regard me as this fantastically inventive eccentric. I mean‑'How do you think these things up, John?' Ten years later, I was coming out of the Dramatists Guild's offices one hot spring afternoon. I looked up at the news zipper on Times Tower in Times Square, and the headline was two words: POPE SHOT. Forget about fantasy,” he says. “The trouble with writing plays is that daily reality keeps taking steps with which one's feeble imagination can barely keep up."
His admirers might see it the other way around. These days, reality seems finally to have caught up with the fecund, subversive imagination of John Guare. And so, increasingly, have audiences. Since the sixties, when his first one‑acts were produced Off‑Off‑Broadway, Guare's surreal, witty lyricism and his perceptive takes on a peculiarly American variety of angst‑the longing to define oneself in terms of fame, celebrity, stardom-have made him a name to reckon with.
Now, though, he's poised on the brink of wider recognition. Six Degrees of Separation, Guare's critically acclaimed current hit, has been packing New York City's Lincoln Center for more than a year and is a safe bet for Best Play at the Tony Awards this month. It is also about to be made into a film, directed by Fred (The Russia House) Schepisi from Guare's screenplay, that will star Stockard Charming as a woman forced to reassess her life when a young black con artist pretending to be a family friend and the son of Sidney Poitier appears at her Fifth Avenue apartment.
Renown, Guare admits, is nice enough; it gets people paying attention to what you've written. Still, it's obvious that he could hardly care less about strutting around in the mantle of Great American Playwright. One of the few ‑exceedingly modest- nods to his current success appears on a bookshelf in the pleasantly jumbled apartment on lower Fifth Avenue he shares with his wife, Adele Chatfield‑Taylor, president of the American Academy in Rome. It's a framed New York Times crossword puzzle featuring his name among the answers.
It isn't that he's blasé about all that's happened. When he talks about playwriting, it's easy to envision him as a fourteen‑year‑old kid from Jackson Heights so enthralled by the theater that he sat down at his portable Royal (the typewriter he still uses) with a paperback Six Great Modern Plays and typed out an only slightly altered version of Chekhov's The Three Sisters with a dream cast in mind: Geraldine Page, Kim Stanley and Joanne Woodward. "Joshua Logan had just done a play called The Wisteria Trees, which was The Cherry Orchard down South, and I thought, that's how you become a playwright‑you adapt the classics for neurotic southern ladies. In my play Vershinin was Vernon; Irina, Irene; and every time they said 'To Moscow!' I replaced it with 'To New Orleans!' I could hear them saying the lines as I typed ‑Geraldine, Kim, Joanne." Eyebrows up. "It was just thrilling."
Guare pursued his adolescent passion to its logical conclusion and graduated in 1963 from the Yale School of Drama with an MFA.
Soon, his loopy, comic voice made him, together with Lanford Wilson and Sam Shepard, one of the darlings of New York City's then‑burgeoning Off‑Off Broadway movement. By 1973, the commercial success of his Tony‑winning musical adaptation of The Two Gentlemen of Verona for Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival left Guare financially independent. Any competent Hollywood screenwriter could tell you what comes next in this particular scenario. "Everything had soured. For the first time in my life I had money and freedom, and I didn't know what to do," he says. "I wanted a fresh start."
The fresh start resulted in the so‑called "Nantucket" plays (Lydie Breeze, Gardenia and Women and Water), in which old family stories about his immigrant forebears provided the inspiration for a multipart chronicle describing the rise and fall of a nineteenth‑century Utopian community. (A fourth play in the series, Bulfinch's Mythology, is in the works.)
Reaction to the Nantucket cycle has been mixed. Some critics feel Guare traded his strongest asset‑his dead‑on ear for New York City street talk‑for a too general analysis of the origins of American corruption. But Guare defends the plays vigorously. "They liberated me to deal with ideas. Before, I didn't know how to demonstrate ideas dramatically without making them sound preachy." (His favorite playwright is Ibsen, in whose work, he notes, "the poetry comes not from the words but the structure.") "It was tough work and it got me into deep water, which is the only way you learn to swim. After writing those plays I believed that I could hold the stage for an hour and a half with something as abstract as a meditation on the imagination."
He is talking, of course, about Six Degrees of Separation, his triumphal return to the no-place‑but‑in‑New‑York‑City‑could‑this‑happen material that fueled his first successes. If his early plays in this vein are pure fantasy, the later, more ambitious ones begin with actual incidents and elaborate them poetically. (The balancing act involved suggests the famous description of Horowitz playing certain Chopin preludes: left hand plodding along, right hand dreaming.) And if the theme of Guare's work has been the need for people to find their true selves in the fantasy mirror of another person, the incident that partly inspired Six Degrees could hardly have provided a more perfect real‑life confirmation of the theme‑a John Guare story just waiting for the playwright to find it.
"I was working on a production in London in 1983," he recalls, "when Osborn and Inger Elliott called me up to say, 'The damndest thing happened to us the other day.'" (The former editor‑in‑chief of Newsweek and his wife, who founded China Seas, a distinguished textile company, opened their apartment to who? He pretended to be who? How do you think these things up, John?) "Somebody sent me a clipping from the New York papers about a kid whose hustle was pretending to be Sidney Poitier's son. I filed it away. That's that, right? So in August 1989 I was working on another play, but I couldn't make any progress with it‑these other speeches about this very peculiar incident just kept appearing, forcing themselves onto the typewriter. It was then I realized a new play was coming. It was written very quickly, straight through in a couple of weeks, without my ever having sat down to prepare. I find it frightening and amazing how much of my work goes on in the deep unconscious."
The rest of us can only be grateful. "I was watching the ten o'clock news on Saturday," Guare observes, apropos of nothing in particular, "and the lead story was about some soldiers in the Gulf. They were bored, had nothing to do but wait around. The camera showed them putting down their rifles and taking out" ‑pause‑ "saxophones. They'd brought their saxophones to the war. They formed a little Glenn Miller‑style orchestra and started playing 'In the Mood'‑da da da, da da da‑while another group of soldiers joined arms and did a kick line in full camouflage in the sand. Then they packed up and marched back into the desert.
"Our brains," he says, "don't have sufficient pockets to store this stuff. What I, what any dramatist, tries to do is find some little trail through the maze of information that we're given every day. Mrs. Hussein, I hear, had been skiing on the slopes at Saint Moritz while her husband was back home firing missiles. Is it true? And why not? And why not?" The smile broadens. The eyes widen. A playwright (maybe even a Great American Playwright) is at work.