more thoughts on Six Degrees

One of the reasons Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation may be relevant today is the way in which these well-heeled liberal types assuage their guilt by being entranced by and supporting Paul, who pretends to be Sidney Poitier’s son but who describes a kind of globe-trotting upbringing (Rome, Paris, Swiss boarding schools) that they themselves desire. “Oh good,” they say to themselves, “this black kid can have all these things, so we really have come a long way.” One can see nods towards support for Obama from the same sector — he’s the black man they can relate to. It’s a resonance without substance, though. I doubt one could make the case theatrically that Obama is con man like Paul, despite what the fringes of the right would say.

Or maybe this is an opportunity for those absent conservatives to make an appearance.

Six Degrees of Separation at the Old Globe

I saw Six Degrees of Separation, by John Guare at the Old Globe theater in Balboa Park. I think it’s a testament to the death of the playwright that his name does not appear on the cover of the program. The play centers around a small group (mainly one couple) of wealthy Manhattan liberal elites, all of whose kids go to Harvard or Dartmouth (or MIT, as it turns out). It is based on a true incident in which a young man “who said he was a Harvard student and the son of the actor Sidney Poitier gained entrance to their homes, dined with them, borrowed money…” The Globe’s production is good, although the pacing is ponderous at times (in a way that caters to the white elite who are probably their subscriber base). The main bones I have to pick are with the script itself.

The fundamental problem with the play itself is how it (fails to) deal with race (adequately). The character of Paul, the con man who dupes all of these self-indulgent celebrity-obsessed rich white people, remains inscrutable because Guare cannot truly fathom why he did what he did beyond Ouisa’s claim that he “wanted to be us.” The play works admirably as a skewering of liberal sentiments, from the doctor’s about face (“matinee-idol” to “crack-addict”) to Ouisa’s white guilt hand-wringing over Paul’s end. However, by making Paul’s motives unknowable to the other characters, he remains unknowable to us. Paul’s blackness is a foil against which the others play (and wreck themselves), but Guare cannot land a truly damning hit because he never makes Paul a real person. Thus the play’s message becomes a genteel “look how ridiculously puffed up these people are” as opposed to a pointed “white liberals harbor a kind of internalized racism that trivializes black people.”

The interview with the director reveals an additional source of the “dodging-the-question” aesthetic that permeated this production:

JACK: Are Ouisa and Flan the heirs of radical chic? Do you think if Paul were white — would they have fallen so hard?
TRIP: That’s a great question. I think if he were white and the son of Robert Redford, you know what I mean? I think that part of what it is — is the attraction of fame an notoriety and all that kind of stuff. Paul is such an interesting character because I think he’s someone who desperately wants everyone to love him but also is incapable…

In some cases, to “humanize” in the theater is to “avoid unpleasant truths.” And now, 20 years later, we’re still running away from them.

Professorial Hotness

Via Crooked Timber (where else?) comes a report of a paper on RateMyProfessor that looks at the Hotness of profs across different fields. It’s a bit weird to me that all of Engineering gets lumped into one category (but Marketing gets its own?), but at least its a mite above Computer Science. At Berkeley the CS people emphasize that they are in their own “division” — they want to create a distance from the EE country cousins I guess. Of course, there it’s Computer Sciences — would more science make them hotter or notter?

When you’re at the bottom of the chart you take solace in small things. Even the Math folks are hotter than us! It must be the sarongs.

Concert Bleg : Franz Joseph Haydn’s The Creation

I’m singing with the Bach Collegium San Diego in this concert coming up next month (coincidentally the same week as ITA — fun fun!) If you live in the San Diego area, I encourage you to come!

Franz Joseph Haydn THE CREATION 1798

Sung in English with a newly edited text by Paul McCreesh

A collaboration between the Chorus of the Bach Collegium San Diego and the San Diego Chamber Orchestra

Ruben Valenzuela, conductor

Soloists
Anne-Marie Dicce soprano
John Polhamus bass

Monday 9 February 2009 at 7:30pm
Sherwood Auditorium (Museum of Contemporary Art)
700 Prospect Street, La Jolla 92037

Tuesday 10 February 2009 at 7:30pm
The Del Mar Country Club
6001 Clubhouse Drive, Rancho Santa Fe 92091

Friday 13 February 2009 at 7:30pm
St Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego
2728 6th Avenue, San Diego 92103

We begin the new year with a performance of Haydn’s monumental oratorio The Creation to mark the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death. The Creation is often considered Haydn’s greatest work through its bold use of orchestral color, adventurous harmony, exceptional rhythmic and melodic inventiveness, and overall unity with an almost operatic vividness and power. Tickets available online.

a little brainteaser

Here’s a little problem that Halyun brought up in group meeting today — a little googling showed that it’s a Putnam prep problem, but I won’t hold that against it. The problem is “Determinant Tic-Tac-Toe.” This is like regular Tic-Tac-Toe except that Player One puts a “1” in the square and Player Two puts a “0.” The grid forms a 3×3 matrix (call it $A$), and Player Two wants to make $\det(A) = 0$, whereas Player One wants to make $\det(A) \ne 0$. Player One gets to move first. Is there a winning strategy for either player? What if both players can place arbitrary real numbers? What about a general $n \times n$ grid?