Curse of the Starving Class
SAM SHEPARD 1977
Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class at first reading is a very strange play. The playwright seems not to have been able to decide whether he wanted to write a realistic social protest play or a symbolic drama, and the characters also are at times little more than stock types from gangster movies. But a closer look at this play reveals that it is a very sophisticated drama that seeks to link deep archetypal themes of human suffering and fate to very specific and contemporary political and social issues. The family whose plight is dramatized are indeed beset by a curse about which they can do nothing, but Shepard refuses to specify what that curse is. The play is clearly a symbolic drama, but it is no allegory; the symbols are used more for their resonance and imagistic power than for any one-to-one correspondence with the themes of the play. The play is fragmented, decentered, at times incoherent. Parts of it seem lifted from B-grade movies; other parts seem like Greek tragedy barely altered. In this pastiche lies the play’s power.
One of the most famous playwrights in contemporary America, Sam Shepard’s fame comes in part from what some critics have called a “self-made myth.” Shepard is tall, dark, and handsome; he is rough and rugged; he is a brilliant and successful writer and actor who has been romantically linked
with a glamorous movie star for years. After many years of struggle in the theatre, Shepard finally gained a great deal of note for his work in films in the 1980s, and the American public at large became familiar with this man who seems to have been born already on his way to being an American icon.
Shepard’s family background and upbringing place him solidly in the narrative of the American artist of modest circumstances who completely remakes himself. Shepard was born Sam Shepard Rogers VII on November 5, 1943, at Fort Sheridan, a military base, in Illinois. Shepard’s family lived on army bases until 1955, when they finally settled in Southern California. In Duarte, Shepard worked on the family’s avocado farm and raised ranch animals (one year raising the grand champion yearling ram at the Los Angeles County Fair). In 1961, after graduating from high school, he enrolled in a junior college but dropped out after one year, joining the Bishop’s Company theatre troupe.
When the Bishop’s Company arrived in New York and left again, Shepard stayed, got a job as a waiter at the Village Gate jazz club, and officially changed his name. At this point, he also started writing plays, and in 1964, the bohemian center St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery was the venue for two of his plays: Cowboys and Rock Garden. These plays received a favorable review from the Village Voice, which encouraged Shepard to continue writing. The following year, Shepard saw six of his plays produced in small theatres in New York, and in 1966, Shepard became the first playwright to receive three Obie Awards in one year (winning for Chicago, Icarus’ Mother, and Red Cross.
The late 1960s saw Shepard’s career accelerate dramatically. In 1967, he was finally able to quit his day job (he was still waiting tables) when he received fellowships from Yale and the University of Minnesota and a Rockefeller Grant. Four of his plays were produced that year, and he also began work in film, writing a screenplay and working with Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni on Antonioni’s movie Zabriskie Point (released in 1969). As the decade closed, Shepard was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, joined a rock band (the Holy Modal Bounders), received two more Obie Awards, and married actress O-Lan Johnson.
In the 1970s, Shepard began to achieve fame to accompany the successes he enjoyed in the 1960s. He and his family (now including a son) moved to London in 1971, where he continued writing plays that are produced in London, New York, and even Edinburgh. After publishing a book of poems and prose, Hawkmoon, in 1973, Shepard and his family returned to California in 1974. Shepard began working with the Magic Theatre in San Francisco in 1975; this theatre became his primary venue. In 1977, Shepard wrote and won an Obie Award for Curse of the Starving Class, and even published a book about his tour with Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan. He won a Pulitzer for Buried Child in 1979. He was also acting more frequently in films in this period, appearing in Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven, Resurrection, and Raggedy Man by 1981.
True fame came to Shepard by the early 1980s. Although he continued to write very successful plays, including True West, Fool for Love, and A Lie of the Mind, he also wrote successful screenplays—the most notable being Paris, Texas, which won the Palme d’Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival. At this time he also appeared in films such as The Right Stuff, Baby Boom, and Country. In 1982, Shepard fell in love with and began living with the actress Jessica Lange. Today, he is still with Jessica Lange; in 1984, he was officially divorced from O-Lan. Shepard continues to write and act in films, and his plays continue to be produced all over the United States.
The play opens on Wesley, who is loading broken pieces of the family’s front door into a wheelbarrow. His mother, Ella enters, and Wesley and she talk about the events of the night before. Wesley embarks upon a long monologue narrating the events of the previous night before leaving, at which point Ella begins talking to nobody in particular about the start of menstruation. As she speaks, her daughter, Emma enters and joins the conversation in progress. When Ella asks what Emma is carrying, Emma tells her that they are the materials for her 4-H demonstration on how to cut up a frying chicken, and then she immediately starts looking for her chicken in the refrigerator. Emma decides that Ella boiled her chicken and storms out.
Wesley re-enters and starts yelling to the offstage Emma about her chicken. The three of them begin arguing about whether they are the starving class, while Wesley urinates on Emma’s chart. Emma then yells down that she is going to take the horse and leave. Later, when Wesley and Ella talk, Ella tells him that she is going to sell the house and use the money to go to Europe. Wesley leaves and Emma returns, covered in mud from being dragged by the horse. Emma tells Ella of her dream of going to Mexico and becoming a mechanic.
Taylor enters and talks with Emma, who calls him creepy. Taylor explains that selling is in Ella’s best financial interests. Wesley enters, sets up a small fenced enclosure in the kitchen, exits, and reenters with a lamb. The three of them converse tensely until Ella enters. Emma leaves; then Taylor and Ella leave for a “business meeting.” Wesley is left on stage, talking to the lamb, when Weston’s voice is heard outside. He enters, drunk, and begins yelling at his son, Wesley. He has brought a bag of artichokes that he bought while visiting his worthless desert property. The curtain falls as Wesley and Weston discuss how to rid the lamb of the maggots that are infesting its digestive tract.
The curtain opens on Wesley again, who this time is building a new front door for the house. Emma is with him, and the two of them discuss the potential sale of the house and Ella’s relationship with Taylor. Wesley describes the suburbanization going on around them as a “zombie invasion” and tells her he dreams of going to Alaska. Weston stumbles in, even drunker, and wants to know where Ella is. He tells the children that he has found a buyer for the house, and Emma leaves abruptly. Weston and Wesley discuss the “poison” that Weston feels has infected him all of his life. When Wesley tells him that Ella is thinking of selling the house, Weston explodes and threatens to kill her and Taylor. After this outburst he passes out.
When Weston comes to, he starts up again where he left off, rejecting Wesley’s suggestions that they plant avocados on their land. Mumbling about his experience flying planes in the Second World War, he passes out again. Ella re-enters with groceries and throws the artichokes on the floor. She tells Wesley that she knows about Weston’s foolish purchase of desert land sight unseen, and Wesley deduces that it was Taylor who sold him the land. As Wesley and Ella argue, Ella speaks of the curse she sees operating on the family.
Ellis enters, laughing at the passed-out Weston who is slumped on the kitchen table. He pulls out the $1500 that he owes Weston for the purchase of the house, and Ella tells Wesley to throw him out. As Ellis talks to them, they learn that Weston owes money to some “pretty hard fellas.” Wesley offers to take the money to those men, but Ella forbids it. Taylor appears and tells Ella that he has the final draft of the deed of sale. Taylor is in disbelief, and Ellis threatens him. Taylor argues that Weston is legally incompetent to sell the house and boasts that he has “corporations” and “executive management” behind him.
While he is fulminating, Sgt. Malcolm enters and informs the family that Emma has been arrested for riding her horse through the Alibi Club and shooting up the bar. Taylor leaves, and Wesley yells at the policeman to arrest him for being a confidence man. Ellis grabs the money back from Wesley (feeling that now he is owed for the damage to his bar), and the act closes as Ella agrees to come to the police station to pick up Emma.
Weston in new clean clothes and the lamb in its enclosure are on stage, and Weston is telling the lamb his story about castrating lambs and throwing their testes onto a roof for an eagle to eat. Wesley appears, bloodied, and tells Weston that he has tried to get the money back. Weston tells Wesley that he got up early and took a walk around the house and Page 96 | Top of Articledecided he wanted to stay, so he cleaned up, bought food, made a huge breakfast, and did all of the laundry. Inviting Wesley to have some breakfast, he tells him (as Wesley walks off) that he is reconsidering the idea of planting avocados. Ella enters, asks why the lamb is back in the kitchen, and tells Weston that she has been at the jail, visiting Emma. Weston tries to be civil to Ella, but she starts screaming at him. He tells her to take a nap on the table because “it’ll do wonders” for her. She climbs up and stretches out on it as Wesley, completely naked, enters. He picks up the lamb and carries it off.
Ella falls asleep on the table and Wesley, dressed in Weston’s old clothes, enters. He tells Weston that he butchered the lamb for food, but Weston yells at him and shows him the newly stocked refrigerator. Wesley tells Weston that his creditors are going to kill him. Weston considers fleeing to Mexico, and Wesley muses about finding Taylor to get the money for the desert land back. Weston exits and Emma enters. Wesley tells her, when she asks if he is going to take over the role of “Daddy Bear,” that he feels himself becoming his father, that as he put on Weston’s clothes, he could feel something “growing on” him. Emma picks up Ella’s pocketbook, steals from it, and then tells Wesley that she is going to begin a life of crime. As Ella calls her name out in a dream, Emma quickly leaves.
Ella wakes up, and a huge explosion offstage follows upon this. Emerson and Slater enter, laughing and holding the bloody carcass of the lamb. They say that they blew up Weston’s car. They menace the family a little and leave. Wesley and Ella talk about Weston’s eagle story as the play ends.
Ella is the mother of the family in Curse of the Starving Class. As the play opens, she and Wesley are both surveying the chunks of the door broken down by her husband Weston. Where Wesley seems angry with her for provoking Weston to anger, Ella holds that the incident was entirely Weston’s fault. She quickly changes topics, though, and throughout the play she continues to switch her moods and attention immediately, as if she wants nothing to affect her very deeply. She tends to ignore the things going on immediately around her. It is clear, though, by the way she will just as quickly return to a topic, that she is simply trying to keep things under the surface.
The play, as it proceeds, provides insight into Ella’s true desires. She has very little affection or even respect for her husband. Without her husband’s knowledge, she is seeking to sell her house (with the help of the lawyer Taylor) and dreams of using the money to go to Europe. Although she clearly does not love her husband in the time depicted in the play, in the third act we see her interact with Weston almost kindly and tenderly, and as the play closes, she recalls the story about the lambs that Weston tells—in fact, she tells Wesley that the story “just went right through me.”
Ellis is the owner of the Alibi Club, the bar where Weston spends his time. He is greedy and seeks to take advantage of the family. He comes to the house to claim it; Weston has signed the deed over to him for $1500, and even though Weston is an alcoholic and was drunk when he signed the agreement, Ellis is unwilling to nullify their agreement. Even though it is Weston’s choice to drink the way he does, Wesley and Ella clearly resent Ellis for being the man who is immediately responsible for his drinking. Eventually, while Ellis is in the house, he is told that Emma has shot up his bar, and he reclaims the money from Wesley and leaves. In the symbolic structure of the play, Ellis represents the greed of the petty business owner and the tendency of people to take unfair advantage of each other. However, like most of the villains in this play, Ellis is a very two-dimensional character, seemingly taken directly from B-grade movies of the 1930s and 1940s.
Emerson is a small man to whom Weston owes money. He appears, with Slater, at the end of the play, when he blows up Weston’s car. He is menacing and laughs at the family’s plight. Even more than Ellis, he (and his partner Slater) is a character of no depth, taken directly from gangster movies. Their entrance is unnecessary, their incessant giggling is both funny to the audience and entirely gratuitous, and the bloody slaughtered lamb they hold is so obviously and clumsily symbolic that Shepard almost appears to be making fun of the audience’s desire for an ending that ties up the symbolism of the play.
Emma is Weston and Ella’s daughter and Wesley’s sister. Emma is probably about thirteen or fourteen years old, and as the play opens, she is just beginning to menstruate (which is another echo of the “curse” of the title). At first glimpse, she is the model of the good American farm girl, raising chickens for the 4-H and dressed in her uniform. However, her character is much darker and stranger, compelled by forces much deeper than her understanding. She wants out of the household and dreams of riding the family’s horse, going to Mexico, and becoming a mechanic. In the middle of the play, offstage, she rides her horse through the Alibi Club and shoots the place up with a rifle. At the end of the play, in a bizarre speech that seems to have been taken directly from a bad gangster movie, she announces that she has decided on a life of crime and ostensibly leaves the house and steals the car, which immediately is blown up by Emerson and Slater. Whether or not she is killed in this incident is never revealed, but, as she is not meant to be a realistic character, whether she survives or not isn’t particularly important.
The family turmoil of the play and the disjointedness of the family’s life is reflected in her behavior—bizarre, violent, antisocial, seemingly motivated by images she has seen on television and in action films. In her desire to flee her doomed dreams and her propensity to violence, she embodies the family “curse,” the “nitroglycerine of the blood” alluded to in the play.
Sergeant Malcolm comes to the house in the second act to inform the family that he has arrested Emma for shooting up the Alibi Club. He is entirely a plot device, without any depth of character.
Slater is Emerson’s partner. He is the follower of the two and enters holding the skinned lamb. Like Emerson, he is a stock character from a gangster film with no depth.
Taylor is a lawyer retained by Ella in her efforts to sell the house. He also seems to have seduced Ella as part of their business agreement. We learn that he has also sold worthless desert land to Weston, and as a result, Weston attempts to get his money back from the transaction. On one level of symbolism, Taylor represents the real-estate developers and
speculators who caused the rapid suburbanization of southern California farmland in the 1940s and 1950s; more generally, he represents the incursions of predatory capitalism into the lives of the poor and working classes. However, on the deep symbolic level, on which this play also operates, Taylor is simply another manifestation of the “curse” under which this family labors. Like Ellis, Emerson, and Slater, Taylor is another entity that injects itself inside the family, causing it to hemorrhage and die.
Wesley is the son of Weston and Ella. He is approximately seventeen years old (although his age is never specified) and angry about his situation in life. He dreams of leaving the family and going to Alaska. Whereas his mother, influenced by romantic notions, seeks to flee to the ancient countries of Europe and his sister, influenced by thriller films, wants to lose herself in Mexico or in the one-gasstation towns of southern California, Wesley wants to find another new frontier. His family, presumably, has sought out this frontier of southern California, a frontier that is disappearing rapidly. But because of the “curse” on the family, he must seek out the new and uninhabited.
Wesley is also the most physical character in the play. As the curtain opens, he is engaged in physical labor (putting the broken pieces of the door into a wheelbarrow) and in a shocking scene soon after, he drops his pants and urinates on his sister’s Page 98 | Top of Article4-H project. Immediately after this, he complains about being hungry and is associated closely with the maggot-infested lamb that he brings into the kitchen. His physicality is strong and at times disturbing. Wesley also introduces one of the most important themes into the play: the theme of germs and infections. In the first act, when his mother tells him to take the lamb outside, he tells his sister that she is afraid of “Germs. The idea of germs. Invisible germs mysteriously floating around in the air. Anything’s a potential carrier.”
Weston is the father of Emma and Wesley. He is a violent alcoholic who resents the poverty of his family, and as a result, he spends his time drinking at the Alibi Club. He has become involved with gangsters and owes them a great deal of money. To solve his money problems, he sells his house to Ellis. Suffering from his family curse, he is violent and even threatens to kill Taylor and his wife when he learns that they are plotting to sell the house. He has had a previous dealing with Taylor in which he bought a piece of property from him. During the play, he discovers that the land he bought is worthless.
Like Wesley, Weston grew up on a farm, and he reminisces about this with Wesley. In fact, in the first two acts, Weston tends to live in the past, telling stories about his upbringing and about his experiences in the war. But when the third act opens, Weston has changed dramatically, it seems: he is dressed in new clean clothes and has sobered up; he is folding the laundry and talking to the lamb. He begins making, not destroying, a home and even tells Wesley that he has plans to turn their land into an avocado orchard. But there is a ring of strangeness to his story, for he is telling the lamb his story about castrating lambs and throwing their bloody testicles up on a roof. In the symbolic structure of the play, he represents the man cursed to his fate, whose efforts to secure his house or body from outside invaders will always be thwarted.
The Disappearing Frontier
Shepard’s work, from his first play Cowboys to his most recent scripts, is suffused with images of cowboys, frontiersmen, and pioneers. When he was asked by a Theatre Quarterly interviewer in 1974 why he wrote about cowboys, Shepard replied:
Cowboys are really interesting to me—these guys, most of them really young, about sixteen or seventeen, who decided they didn’t want to have anything to do with the East Coast, with that way of life, and took on this immense country, and didn’t have any real rules.
Shepard’s fascination with images from the Western frontier also derives from his sense that something great and important in the American character has disappeared.
In Curse of the Starving Class, the unnamed family on which the play centers are all affected by their unidentifiable sensation that a frontier has disappeared. They live in southern California, a place that was initially a true frontier and then in the depression became the land of dreams for poor migrants from the Dust Bowl and the South. But it, too, is changing, going from being some of the richest farmland in the United States to becoming the suburban sprawl of Los Angeles. Each of the characters responds to this differently. Ella wants none of it; she seeks to sell the house and use the money to go to Europe (the very opposite of a frontier). Weston is lost, beaten-down, and drunk, and he has sought to buy more land on an even more remote frontier—the desert. The children both romanticize the frontier. Emma sees herself as a character in a movie, pumping gas and fixing cars at a remote town far from civilization, while Wesley (like his father, perhaps?) still seeks for the real frontier: Alaska.
Although Shepard has denied that he is trying to write social protest plays, Curse of the Starving Class reads like one. In this play, the frontier disappears because of predatory capitalism (represented largely by Taylor, the lawyer who wants to buy the family’s house in order to create a suburb and who sells Weston worthless land). But capitalism and greed also work on a much more personal level to ruin the family. Ellis knows that Weston is a drunk and is not responsible for his own actions; nonetheless, he is happy to keep making money off his drinking and to take advantage of Weston by buying his house. The frontier, a land where a man could take his fate in his own hands and be the master of his destiny, is entirely gone in this play, replaced by the “curse” that marks this family and the “starving class” to which they belong.
In a way, Curse of the Starving Class is an updating of one of the oldest extant play cycles, Aeschylus’ Oresteia. That trilogy, written in the fifth century B.C.E., tells the story of the house of the Greek hero Agamemnon, who brought a curse upon his family by sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia in order to obtain favorable winds for his army’s voyage to Troy. In the ten years he is gone at the Trojan War, his wife Clytemnestra takes up with another man, and upon Agamemnon’s return, she and her lover murder her husband. Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, must avenge his father’s death. The cycle of violence cannot end—murder must answer murder—until the gods themselves intervene.
The family of Curse of the Starving Class seems similarly doomed. They suffer under a “curse” that is peculiar to them, not just to their class. Ella says in the second act that this curse is “invisible but it’s there. It’s always there. It comes onto us like nightmare.” At other points, characters refer to the curse as a germ, as an infection, and as nitroglycerin in the blood. The curse dooms them to violence, poverty, and self-destruction, and the result is always to explode the enclosing structure of the family. Weston’s drunkenness breaks the family apart and, literally, damages the integrity of the house itself when he breaks down the door. Ella sleeps with the lawyer who is trying to take their house away. Emma, when she figuratively becomes a woman (has her first menstrual period), undertakes a life of crime and violence.
But it is Wesley who is the real emblem of the curse. At the start of the play, in a long monologue, he narrates his father’s rage of the previous night. In this monologue, he switches between first and third person, as if he were watching things happen to him from the outside. Food, the symbol of a healthy family, is literally pissed on by him when he urinates on his sister’s chart of how to cut up a frying chicken. And at the end of the play, after Weston has sobered up and decided to return to the family, Wesley changes into Weston’s old filthy clothes and butchers the lamb that is, in part, the symbol of the fragility of the family. As he reaches manhood, the curse takes hold of him, and he is compelled to behave in a way that ensures the destruction of himself and of his family.
Curse of the Starving Class uses symbolism a great deal, but Shepard uses it in a jarring way. His symbols—the lamb, the broken door, the refrigerator, the old car—jump out at the viewer and almost announce “I am a symbol!” But Shepard uses them less as true symbols than as evocative images. This play cannot be “decoded” as an allegory in which we can reduce the refrigerator to a representation of spiritual hunger, the lamb to a representation of sacrifice and innocence, and the door to a representation of the barrier between the family and the outside world. These objects are indeed symbolic, but they are meant to hit the audience with their power. It is shocking to see a live lamb on stage and even more shocking to see it bloody and dead; similarly, the centrality of the refrigerator to every scene and the constant opening and closing of its door reminds us of the theme of hunger and starving, but Shepard refuses to nail down its meaning for us.
The symbols work together to undermine the realism of the play. Realism, a style of drama that seeks to represent the world on the stage just as it is in real life, was out of favor in the 1960s, the decade in which Shepard began writing. Symbolic dramas were popular, and Shepard wrote those kinds of plays in his early career. With Curse of the Starving Class, Shepard moved more toward realism, to the social dramas of such classic realists as Ibsen. But Shepard retains the symbolic structure of his earlier plays. These people are not meant to be accurate representations of real people, nor are we meant to believe that this family had a lamb, brought it inside, and then butchered it. Like the stock gangsters whose entrance signals the end of the play, these symbols break down the illusion of reality. The drama is here to create an impact: whereas the realistic story of the family appeals to our minds and emotions, the symbols affect us on a subconscious level.
Closely connected to the symbolic structure of the play is its use of motif, or a recurring image. Two motifs, very near each other in meaning, recur throughout Curse of the Starving Class: images of inside/outside and images of disease and sickness. Obviously, these two motifs are related to each other, for disease is the intrusion of an entity that should be kept outside the body. Shepard, though, does not define the family’s curse just as a disease, though; this “curse” is more historical and supernatural, like the curses that afflicted the great families of Greek tragedy.
The first motif almost overwhelms the play with its omnipresence. The play opens on an image of the breakdown of the barrier between outside and inside, the shattered front door that allows all sorts of undesirable elements to enter the house. As the play continues we constantly see this theme emphasized: conversations in the kitchen are conducted in a normal tone of voice, but conversations between one person in the kitchen and another person outside the room are almost always furious screaming matches; the refrigerator’s constant opening and shutting reminds us that “inside” is an empty place; even the lamb, when brought onstage by Wesley, is placed into a small penned enclosure. Inside has become a hollow, void place to the family, and as a result, they want out—Ella to Europe, Emma to Mexico, Wesley to Alaska, Weston to an alcoholic stupor.
Disease and sickness, and images of a poison circulating through the blood, complement the motif of inside/outside. The curse on the family is described by both women as something that breeds internally in Weston and Wesley and is inevitable. Also inevitable, and also treated as a “curse,” is Emma’s menstruation (which is another image of the inside escaping to the outside). Ella warns Emma that swimming during her period could kill her. Even the lamb suffers from an invasion of a harmful force in its body: maggots have infested its digestive tract. When the body’s defenses fail and intruders are allowed to breed inside the body, the play tells us, the body will soon fall to those forces that threaten it.
As a country whose greatest natural resource has always been its seemingly endless supply of land and space, the United States settlement and development has generally followed the same pattern. New land—Plymouth Rock, California, Alaska,
or anywhere in between—is settled and cleared for farming or industry by rugged individualist pioneers; more people move near that newly desirable land, and towns spring up; the towns grow so big and encroaching that the rugged individualists feel crowded by city life (or are unable, economically, to survive) and move on to find new frontiers.
California, especially southern California, is perhaps the best laboratory to examine this development. When the Spanish first explored the area of Los Angeles and the San Gabriel and San Fernando Valleys, the region was arid, almost desert. Largescale irrigation beginning in the late nineteenth century “made the desert bloom,” and soon the area (along with the Imperial and Central Valleys) was America’s richest farmland, producing citrus fruits, melons, berries, even lettuce and other water hungry crops. The agriculture drew refugees from the Dust Bowl states during the Great Depression, and poor people thronged to southern California. At the same time, land speculators were buying the land of Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, and Riverside counties and preparing it for residential development. Advertising in newspapers around the country, they encouraged people to come to “Sunny California!” to retire or simply to flee the frigid northern climates or unhealthy cities of the East. Los Angeles grew dramatically in the middle of the twentieth century, becoming one of America’s largest cities.
But the people who came to Los Angeles did not want to live in the same kinds of overcrowded cities many of them had left back East. They wanted large houses, cars, two-car garages, front and back yards. But with the millions of people who now lived there, there simply was not enough room in the Page 102 | Top of Articlecity. The speculators and developers then began building subdivisions in the areas immediately surrounding the city. Ever more land was needed, and the developers set their sights to the farmlands surrounding the city. City-dwellers seeking lower taxes, lower crime rates, and less congestion came to these suburbs. “Urban sprawl” came to Los Angeles.
Today, Los Angeles is one of the largest urban conglomerations in the world. Some population geographers see the U.S. cities of Los Angeles and San Diego and the Mexican city of Tijuana as one immense “megalopolis,” a mega-city with tens of millions of inhabitants. The open spaces that once separated them have largely disappeared; similarly, the farmland that once was the area’s largest economic resource has long since given way to other industries. Caught up in this are families such as the one in Curse of the Starving Class, whose land is coveted by subdivision developers like Taylor. In the play, as in the real world, these families were often taken advantage of, selling their land for well below market rates and finding themselves with nowhere to go and little money to sustain them.
Curse of the Starving Class is not only the first play of what is known as the “family trilogy” (the two other plays in that trilogy are Buried Child and True West), it also stands as the initial play of the second phase of Shepard’s career. A very prolific playwright, Shepard saw numerous of his plays produced in most years from the time of his first play (1965) to 1978, the year of Curse of the Starving Class. This start of the second phase of his career is often interpreted as a move away from radical experimentation toward a greater inclusion of “realism,” or the kind of theatre that attempts to portray on stage things as they actually are in the world, both in terms of the construction of the play and in its content. Charles R. Lyons, in his essay “Shepard’s Family Trilogy and the Conventions of Modern Realism,” writes that these plays “break with Shepard’s earlier dramatic writing by implementing several of the conventions of dramatic realism.” However, Lyons argues, Shepard never becomes a true “realist.” Rather, he just “borrows” realism but does so in such a way that it “complicates the strategies of dramatic realism” and “fragment[s] the possibility of narrative unity with significant disjunctions, interstices, and inconsistencies.”
Critics of the play’s initial productions noted its dark tone and, often, its similarity to the play The Cherry Orchard by the nineteenth-century Russian playwright Chekhov. Reviewing the 1978 production of the play at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre in New York (not the original production; it was first put on in 1977 in London), Douglas Watt of the New York Daily News called the play “a bitter farce, a desolate tragicomedy variation on a favorite theme of the author’s, the stifling of the American spirit by unseen, unknown forces gobbling up the land and the soul of its people in the name of progress.” Richard Eder, writing for the New York Times about the same production, compliments Shepard’s “images of considerable power” and “style that oscillates between realism and savage fantasy” and feels that the play “reads well” but was not constructed to actually be staged. In the New York Post, Clive Barnes was impressed by the raw power of the play but thought that the play was “probably too muddled and too indirect to compensate for the fever-heat of its passion.”
Other reviewers shared these same ambivalent sentiments. Howard Kissel of Women’s Wear Daily was caught up in the weirdness of the play but felt the ending fell short: the “concluding images seem contrived, manipulative and self-indulgent.” Stanley Kaufmann, writing for the New Republic, called Shepard “phenomenal” and “the best” playwright in America under forty but argued that in this play, Shepard showed more talent than careful craftsmanship: “it contains so much, yet ultimately it is not enough.” John Beaufort of the Christian Science Monitor praised the power of the imagery but concluded that the play was “in the main unpleasant” and that “there is little nourishment in this case history of the spiritually starved.” And, reviewing the earlier London production of the play, John Lahr wrote in the Village Voice that “there is not enough work in” Shepard’s script because “the play leaves too much unexplored. The characters don’t show; they tell.”
Recent critical opinion on this play has elevated its reputation. The strange and jarring play is now understood as an oscillation between realism and symbolism, and both critics and audiences, by now familiar with Shepard’s method, accept the play’s violent language and mordant tone.
Barnhisel teaches writing and directs the Writing Center at the University of Southern California. In this essay, he examines themes of disease, invasion, and breaching in Curse of the Starving Class.
Although it is not a symbolic drama whose meaning lies only in the interaction of its symbols, neither is Curse of the Starving Class a truly realistic drama, in which the audience is meant to empathize with the characters as real people. Critic Stephen J. Bottoms identifies Shepard’s style, or school, as “grotesque realism” and writes that “the action of Curse veers wildly between a range of clashing generic styles, from kitchen sink banality to exaggerated melodrama, and from broad comedy to ritualized symbolism, thwarting any attempt to read into it a unified depiction of a stable or unified real world.” With the style of the play “veering wildly” as it does, viewers latch onto the stable elements of the play—the symbols, the images, the motifs. Through these motifs, Shepard attempts to convey the power of the play.
The play is structured, in its images and symbols, on the difference between inside and outside and on the dangers inherent in letting things from the outside begin to inhabit the inside. David J. DeRose writes about the play:
[It] is about violation and invasion; about the all-too-sudden invasion of a once-rural farming community by sprawling suburban housing developments; about the poisonous violation of one’s physical being by invisible biological ‘curses’ like genetic conditioning, microscopic germs, maggots, even menstruation; about the impersonal invasion of uncontrollable socio-economic forces into the family unit; and about the terrifying violation of a house at night by a drunken father who smashes down the front door, leaving home and family vulnerable to even further violation.
Weston explicitly states the theme in his first appearance, wanting to know “Is this the inside or the outside?” when he sees the lamb in the kitchen. Each main character, each event, each symbol carries with it this tension between a barrier and an invader attempting to breach it.
The play opens on an image of a breached defense. The family’s front door lies in shards on the floor, and Wesley is picking up the pieces, hoping to rebuild the family’s symbolic gate for keeping out the outsiders. But their conversation reveals to us that even before this happened, the difference between outside and inside was already perverted: the
door was locked to keep one of the family members out. The body, the house, was itself already weakened before the play begins, being infested with termites.
Once the door is broken down, though, anything can come it, and does. Weston returns, drunk, and brings anger and spite to the house. Taylor, the true agent of disease, comes in and infects Ella, recruiting her to help him. Ellis enters and brings money in exchange for the house but then takes that back. Finally, the motiveless violence of Emerson and Slater walk in like an opportunistic infection that takes advantage of an already weakened body. Images of such infections run through the play, from Emma’s description of the family’s curse as being “in the blood” to the maggots that have taken up residence in the lamb’s body.
Food, along with the theme of hunger and starving, also works with this theme of inside/outside. All of the family seem obsessed with food: Ella offers Wesley bacon and bread, Emma is giving a presentation on frying chickens, Wesley stares in the empty refrigerator, and (after his conversion) Weston stocks the refrigerator full of food. The family denies they are of the “starving class,” but the dearth of food in the house gives the lie to their claim. Just after finding an empty refrigerator, Emma yells, “Eat my socks!” Finally, in an act intended as a last stand against hunger, Wesley butchers the lamb that has represented both the family and Wesley himself. This butchering, which Wesley intended as a practical act, turns out to be useless and redundant, since Weston has already bought food. Killing the lamb becomes just another violent act committed as a result of the curse.
Ella and Weston, although cursed in different ways, both unwittingly facilitate the breakdown of the house. (The word “house” here needs to be understood both literally and figuratively, as in Greek tragedy or Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher.”) Weston, of course, literally breaks the house, smashing the door. He also injects his drunken, violent self into the kitchen and lodges himself there. But in the third act, he seems to have shaken off the curse. He cleans himself up, purchases food for the family (the lack of food is another symptom of this “curse of the starving class”), and takes care Page 105 | Top of Articleof the lamb, which represents the family itself. But even though Weston seems to have left his curse behind, Wesley has now come into his birthright and will see the family destroyed. Ella breaks down the barriers of inside/outside the family in a different way, inviting an outside (Taylor) in and helping him take the family’s house. Not coincidentally, she also has sex with him, bringing something from inside the marriage and giving it to an outsider.
Emma’s disease is of a different sort, or sorts. When we first see her, her mother is lecturing her on the dangers of her first menstrual period (which she calls “the curse”). Her mother tells her that her menstruation is not just her insides escaping but that it also can contribute to an invasion from the outside. “You should never go swimming when that happens,” she says. “The water draws it out of you.” But Emma’s more dangerous infection or curse is her infection by popular media images. She dreams of scenes from action films and wants to be a mechanic or ride off on her horse or flee to Mexico like “that guy” who wrote The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or live a life of crime. The men who arrive at the end of the play and (apparently) kill her, Slater and Emerson, seem to have emerged from her movie-spawned fantasies.
Of all of the characters, this outside/inside tension most profoundly affects Wesley. In the course of the play, he comes into his manhood; he grows into the curse and takes it on as his birthright, just as his father resolves to leave it behind. But throughout the play, Wesley is struggling to keep the inside inside and the outside outside. He tries to build a new door, he erects an enclosure on stage for the lamb, he does and says different kinds of things when in the kitchen (onstage) and out of the kitchen (offstage).
But he cannot withstand the pressure on him, and his strange syntactic choices in his first monologue exemplify this. In that speech, he begins by narrating the events of the previous night in the past tense: “I listened like an animal... I could feel the space around me.” Then he switches abruptly to the present: “I picture him sitting. What’s he doing?” Finally, the speech ends as Wesley seemingly loses his grip on grammar, using only the present participial forms of verbs: “Woman screaming... Dad crashing away... ignition grinding.” Modes of narration (past, present, nongrammatical) mix as his ability to narrate “normally” breaks down. He is trying to fight off an irresistible force whose nature
we do not yet know. But we soon see examples of his bizarre behavior, his breaching of the border between what should be inside and what should be outside, when he urinates on Emma’s poster and, later, when he comes on stage utterly naked.
Wesley does this because of the “curse” that lies on the family. This family was doomed from the beginning, for an intruder older than any character in the play has already fixed their fate. This “curse,” as Ella calls it, is carried inside the men like a disease and infects them from the inside until it destroys them. Emma describes Weston’s curse:
“... a short fuse they call it. Runs in the family. His father was just like him. And his father before him. Wesley is just like Pop, too. Like liquid dynamite... Nitroglycerine. In the blood.” In the second act, Weston himself tells Wesley that he remembers the “poison” starting to act in him: “I saw myself infected with it... I saw me carrying it around. His poison in my body. You think that’s fair?” Ella says that the curse infests the men’s body even to the molecular level. “It goes back and back to tiny cells and genes,” she says. “To atoms. To tiny little swimming things making up their minds without us.” These quotes bear significant resemblance to one of Shepard’s statements about his attraction to Greek tragedy: he said that the plays evoke “emotional states, these forces [that] go so far back that they go right to the birth of man. And we’re still living in the shadow of these things.”
The inside, then, betrays the body itself, and this betrayal is foreordained. There is nothing Weston, or Wesley, can do about it. The fatalism of Weston’s story of the lambs and the eagle resonates here, for there are no winners in Weston’s view: the lambs are castrated, and the eagle and cat kill each other. In the family’s life, just as Weston changes himself and symbolically joins the family again, Wesley takes on his old role, acting as disrupter and killing Page 106 | Top of Articlethe lamb that, because of Weston’s care for it, has come to represent the family. The curse operates unimpeded.
The social commentary of the play, its inclusion of the theme of suburbanization and urban sprawl, is another manifestation of the theme of infection from inside. Taylor does not use brute force (as do Emerson and Slater) to relieve the family of their land; he insinuates himself inside the family in order to accomplish this. His goal is to buy their land so that he can develop a suburb, but in the process, he contributes to the destruction of the family by seducing Ella and earning Weston’s rage (for selling him worthless land). The suburb comes into being and destroys the farmland, not because of governmental order, but because the farmers themselves allow it to happen by selling their land. They, the insiders, invite the outsiders in and allow them to destroy the body (here understood as the stretches of farmland that once characterized southern California). They invite in the “zombie invasion,” as Wesley calls it.
Curse of the Starving Class is a strange play. It isn’t quite realistic, but it isn’t quite purely symbolic either. Should we be emotionally affected by it? Is it a social protest play? Shepard denies that he is interested in writing social commentary; at other times, he has stated that his plays of this period were influenced by the classic Greek tragedies, which sought to elicit “pity and fear,” in Aristotle’s words, from audiences. Is it for this that he includes stock characters, clearly taken from B-grade gangster movies? Is this why he makes the characters so erratic, moving, in a beat, from hollering rage to calm? Is this why, in a word, the play constantly makes the audience aware that it is watching a play but at the same time succeeds in genuinely emotionally reaching that audience?
Source: Greg Barnhisel, Critical Essay on Curse of the Starving Class, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Charles R. Lyons
In the following essay excerpt, the author discusses Shepard’s merging of archetypal familial relationship paradigms with the realism associated with his style.
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Source: Charles R. Lyons, “Shepard’s Family Trilogy and the Conventions of Modern Realism,” in Rereading Shepard,
edited by Leonard Wilcox, St. Martin’s Press, 1993, pp. 125–29.
David J. DeRose
In the following essay, the author discusses Shepard’s creation of an “intricate network” of elements to create a “mythic subtext” of forces infecting the lives of his characters.
In Curse of the Starving Class, it is not just the father’s ghost who refuses to die but also a family curse, an inherited predisposition toward violence, a “nitroglycerine of the blood” that flows through the son’s veins as it does through the father’s. Like the unseen forces at work on Shepard’s earlier characters, this blood curse, transmitted from generation to generation by “tiny cells and genes,” is a powerful yet invisible force, imposing itself upon the characters in the play without their consent. And, without their consent, it turns them against each other, so that the curse of Shepard’s “starving class” family is to be forever locked in battle: clinging to each other for life, yet fighting to the death.
Curse of the Starving Class starts in the wake of an act of domestic violence. The play opens to the family’s teenage son, Wesley, cleaning up the pieces of a broken door. The previous night, his father, Weston, had arrived home drunk to find that the door to the house had been locked against him by his wife, Ella. In an intoxicated rage, Weston battered down the door with his body, then disappeared. The next morning, as Ella enters the kitchen setting of the play to make herself some breakfast (there is nothing in the house to eat but bacon and bread), Wesley describes the events of the previous night as he experienced them from his bed. Wesley’s sensory-specific monologue, similar to those of Shepard’s early plays, creates a heightened sense of the physical and emotional invasion of his being by his father’s violence. He is an open receiver, sensing the “space around me like a big, black world,” and aware that “any second something could invade me. Some foreigner. Something undescribable.” What invades Wesley’s being is the sound of his father smashing down the door to the house and the terror of knowing he is vulnerable to the same violence: “Man cursing. Man going insane. Feet and hands tearing. Head smashing. Man yelling. Shoulder smashing. Whole body crashing. Woman screaming. Mom screaming. Mom screaming for police”. Weston’s violent attack upon his own home and his terrorizing of his wife and family are
both literal and symbolic destruction of the protective circle of the family. He not only violates their safety, but by virtue of his absence as father and protector, he leaves them open to attack and invasion from others. Wesley is particularly sensitive to this sense of defenselessness, for he clearly wants to open himself to his father, but in so doing, he risks devastating emotional violation.
Both thematically and theatrically, Curse of the Starving Class contains images of violation and invasion by hostile, uncombatable forces. The play is about the all-too-sudden invasion of a small Southern California ranching community by the suburban sprawl of housing developments and superhighways; about the violation of one’s physical being by poisonous “curses” such as genetic conditioning, microscopic germs, bloodlines, violence, even menstruation; about the impersonal invasion of uncontrollable socioeconomic forces into the family unit; and about the terrifying violation of a family home at night by a drunken father who smashes down the front door, leaving house and family vulnerable to even further violation.
The stage setting itself is an image of the violation of the home and family: kitchen furniture is set against a stark, open stage. There are no doors, no walls, only red-checked curtains suspended in midair to suggest the farmhouse windows. The first image one sees on this exposed kitchen set is Wesley filling a wheelbarrow (a piece of outdoor equipment) with the shattered remains of the door to the house, the only barrier between family and outside world. Any sense of interiority or of the domestic comfort of the home is immediately undermined. When the father, Weston, eventually returns midway through the play, he finds a live lamb in his kitchen. He ponders aloud this lack of differentiation between the interior and the exterior: “Is this the inside or the outside? This is inside, right? This is the inside of the house. Even with the door out it’s still the inside. (to lamb) Right? (to himself) Right.” The home—including the comforting reality the word home conventionally suggests—has been left exposed by the dissolution of the family and the estrangement of the mother and the father. It cannot be repaired. Even when Wesley builds a new door in an act symbolic of his desire to keep the family intact, strangers walk straight onto the stage and into the family kitchen.
Those strangers appear as the result of Weston’s and Ella’s individual attempts to sell the house and the farm without the other’s knowledge. Ella has been dealing with Taylor, a slick attorney who has made her sexual seduction part of their business transaction. Weston has cut a deal with a sleazy bar owner, Ellis, who intends to turn the home into a steak house. Weston, it turns out, needs the money to pay off some heavy debts he has run up with local thugs.
The peculiar characterization of these intrusive strangers, with their threatening appearance and cold, criminal attitudes, is completely foreign to the domestic setting of the play and realistic characterizations of the family members. In a review of the original London production, Charles Marowitz noted that “these outside characters... waft on in a style peculiar to themselves with no reference to the ongoing, naturalistically pitched main situation” (Marowitz). Wesley draws attention to this peculiarity when he describes the forces at work upon his family as a zombie invasion: “It’s a zombie invasion. Taylor is the head zombie. He’s the scout for the other zombies. He’s only a sign that more zombies are on their way. They’ll be filing through the door pretty soon”. Taylor is the first “zombie” to stroll unannounced into the kitchen, but others follow, including two moronic hired thugs, Emerson and Slater. These unannounced entrances become increasingly bizarre and threatening, climaxing with the offstage explosion of Weston’s car (with his daughter, Emma, in it) as Emerson and Slater enter, giggling hysterically “as though they’d pulled off a Halloween stunt,” holding out the carcass of a slaughtered lamb.
Watching these otherworldly characters burst onto the stage of this domestic drama is like watching the intersection of one plane of reality with another. Their sudden appearance is as alien and disruptive as that of Cody’s cowboy brothers at the end of Geography of a Horse Dreamer or the Page 111 | Top of Articlebusiness-suited men at the end of Cowboys #2. But, in Curse of the Starving Class, these figures resound with both theatrical and thematic significance. On the one hand, these characters are like the intrusive figures of Shepard’s earliest plays: theatrical manifestations of the self’s exposure to a world so strange as to unfix permanently one’s preconceptions of reality. But they are also grounded in Shepard’s personal experience as a teenager in Duarte, California. The lawyers and thugs represent the developers and real-estate hustlers who exploited Los Angeles’s postwar population boom by literally wiping out the tiny farming communities that lay east of the city in the Central Valley. As superfreeways and mass housing developments began to spread into the rich farmland, small communities like the one in which Shepard grew up were literally wiped out of existence as fast as buildings could be erected and roads constructed. Postmodern America, with its shopping malls and fast-food chains, rapidly made the rural life-style of Shepard’s “starving class” family obsolete.
Shepard has repeatedly claimed that such socially significant interpretations of his plays are not within his field of concern as a dramatist: “I’m not interested in the American social scene at all,” Shepard has said of his family plays. “It totally bores me”. Turning to the family for inspiration, Shepard hoped to “start with something personal and see how it follows out and opens to something bigger”. The “something bigger” Shepard pursued was not the social relevance he had courted with American pop culture plays like Operation Sidewinder but rather the archetypal “mythic emotions” that classic tales of the family had evoked in ancient Greek tragedy. According to Shepard, his family plays are intended to strike a more universal chord; by self-consciously using the term curse, for instance, and employing images of hereditary violence to suggest a link between his own “starving class” family and such infamous family lines as those dramatized in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Shepard attempted to raise his domestic melodrama to the level of modern myth and to tap the collective contents of our repressed mythic consciousness.
Shepard employs an intricate network of images in Curse of the Starving Class to establish a mythic subtext in the shape of unseen forces infecting the characters and determining their fates. As in earlier plays, those forces can take on physical manifestations. For instance, long before the broader, hereditary nature of the title’s curse is hinted at, a more immediate “curse” arises: Emma is stricken with her first menstrual period, the “curse” of womanhood. Her mother, Ella, warns against sanitary napkins purchased in gas stations: “You don’t know whose quarters go into those machines. Those quarters carry germs... spewing germs all over those napkins”.
Ella’s maternal warning is the first of many images related to microscopic forces at work in the lives of the characters. Later, when Wesley brings a maggot-infested lamb into the kitchen, concern is again expressed over the presence of “invisible germs mysteriously floating around in the air”. It is Ella who ties the power of such microscopic presences to the ancient curse of fate and heredity that condemns the family to repeated acts of violence and self-destruction:
Do you know what it is? It’s a curse. I can feel it. It’s invisible but it’s there. It’s always there. It comes onto us like nighttime. Every day I can feel it. Every day I can see it coming. And it always comes. Repeats itself. It comes even when you do everything to stop it from coming. Even when you try to change it. And it goes back. Deep. It goes back and back to tiny cells and genes. To atoms. To tiny little swimming things making up their minds without us. Plotting in the womb. Before that even. In the air. We’re surrounded with it. It’s bigger than government even. It goes forward too. We spread it. We pass it on. We inherit it and pass it down, and then pass it down again. It goes on and on like that without us.
Shepard once said that Greek tragedy evokes “emotional states, these forces... [that] go so far back that they go right to the birth of man. And we’re still living in the shadow of these things”. In Curse, Shepard injects mythic dimensions into the lives of his characters through the presence of a biological fatalism, determined by forces “making up their minds without us,” continuing into the future “on and on like that without us.” The characters find themselves helpless in the grasp of an inexplicable presence in their lives: “It comes even when you do everything to stop it from coming.”
The new dramatic agenda Shepard sets for himself with Curse of the Starving Class is not one he easily assumes. In spite of the sophistication of imagery, the domestic setting and story, and the dominant surface realism of Curse, the play shows definite signs of a strain between the heightened theatrical reality of many of Shepard’s earlier plays and his new intentions as a family dramatist. Putting aside Shepard’s use of such disparately drawn characters as Emerson and Slater to reinforce the theme Page 112 | Top of Articleof invasion, one is still left with numerous disturbing and incongruous images and events that appear to have no connection to Shepard’s thematic intentions but are instead the vestiges of an earlier stage aesthetic.
Within Shepard’s family plays, the mixture of surface realism and a heightened sense of a theatrical presence lurking beyond that realism led one critic to comment “one feels the need for a word such as ‘Lnova-realism’ to describe the style into which Shepard’s plays have settled”. His stage actions and images are not just real, they are “suprareal”—in the sense that, when set against the created fictional “reality” of the play, they become overwhelmingly vivid and material. Curse of the Starving Class opens, for instance, with a string of typically Shepardesque non sequiturs that transform the stage reality into a series of perpetual presents. Wesley and his mother, Ella, are discussing Weston’s drunken appearance of the night before when Wesley suddenly launches into an extended monologue in which he recounts the previous night’s events. Just as suddenly, he leaves the stage and Ella starts speaking to the empty space. She appears to be rehearsing the lecture she will give to some (unidentified) girl who is having her first menstrual period. Perhaps a minute into this lecture, Ella’s daughter, Emma, enters. Ella “talks to her as though she’s just continuing the conversation”. Emma responds, in turn, as though she has been present for the entire speech.
While some productions of the play might attempt to smooth the jagged edges of these individual moments and create a realistic narrative line, this sequence of events is far too bizarre to overlook, especially at the beginning of the play. Some directors have blocked the mother-daughter scene as though Ella is aware of Emma’s presence just offstage and well within earshot. But Shepard’s stage directions indicate no such assumption, stressing that Ella “speaks alone” at the beginning of the speech and that Emma does not enter, nor is she heard offstage, until later. The causal and temporal reality of the scene are thus unfixed, and the sequence of events resembles a description of schizophrenic reality: “an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link into a coherent sequence”.
But to what end? Neither Wesley’s transfixing monologue nor Emma’s dreamlike materialization in the middle of her mother’s discourse serves to reinforce any apparent dramatic or thematic intention on Shepard’s part. Such irrational, discontinuous images are without context in this play, seeming to exist for their own sake as unqualified material images. The same is true of Shepard’s startling use of the unqualified physical presence of the actor playing Wesley.
Early in the play, this actor must, without warning or explanation, unzip his pants and urinate on Emma’s 4-H club charts. Later, he is required to walk naked onto the stage, again without warning, and scoop a live lamb into his arms, carrying it off. Linked to the unexpectedness and inexplicability of his actions, the purely physical reality of the actor—either exposing his genitals to urinate or entering naked—is so strong that the created illusion of his character and the fictional stage reality are shattered. Such physical nudity creates a heightened stage reality: there is no such thing as a naked “character” on stage. When the actor sheds his clothing, he sheds the illusion of character, of acting, and brings a new level of physical immediacy or “suprapresence” to the stage. This effect is intensified by the presence of the live lamb. The unqualified existence of the animal—that is, its immediate physical presence without the created pretense of character or performance—is far more “real” than the fictional reality of the play. The image of the naked actor scooping the live lamb into his arms and carrying it offstage transcends the realm of scripted reality in favor of the suprareal.
Had these events occurred in just about any Shepard play previous to this one, they would have been equally shocking perhaps, but they would also have been an integral, vital part of Shepard’s phenomenological stage consciousness. However, in Curse of the Starving Class, Shepard is both telling a conventional story and introducing sustained characters and a narrative discourse into his writing. If he is “dramatizing a condition,” as Robert Corrigan might suggest, that condition is the thematically anchored state of invasion in which the characters find themselves. If these instances of heightened reality have any relation to that condition, it is only to intensify the physical and psychic discomfort suggested by the presence of a pervasive curse and of microscopic physical forces. They add, in John Glore’s words, “a tone of foreboding anxiety” by virtue of their “erratic disruption of a surface realism”. More likely, though, is that Shepard, trying to find his way through a full-length domestic drama for the first time in his career, turned without Page 113 | Top of Articlethinking to the techniques of a stage aesthetic that had been part of his highly intuitive modus operandi for more than 10 years.
The stories that open and close Curse of the Starving Class indicate the direction Shepard’s drama is to take from this point on in his career. The play begins, as mentioned earlier, with Wesley’s vivid account of the violent events from the previous night. The story is extremely sensory-specific, allowing the stillness and silence of the night to stretch the perceptual boundaries of the boy in his bed, and allowing the sense of sound to become acute, dominating all other experience. The telling of the story is a solo riff, in which Wesley steps out of the action of the play to create a moment, much like those in Shepard’s early plays, in which the incantatory power of the language takes the audience beyond the confines of the stage.
By contrast, the final story of the play is far more literary, intended as far less of a visceral experience and more of a metaphorical comment on the events of the play. Weston begins the story at the top of the third act, and Ella finishes it as she stares at the gutted lamb that Emerson and Slater have dropped in the middle of her floor. Weston tells of a day he was castrating lambs and of an eagle that began swooping down out of the sky to grab the testes as Weston threw them over his shoulder onto the roof of a small shed. Each time the eagle would snatch the testes up in his talons, Weston would jump involuntarily to his feet, yelling, “with this icy feeling up my backbone”. When Ella tells what she claims is the same story at the play’s conclusion, she describes a substantially different course of events in which the eagle accidentally scoops up a cat and carries it off into the sky: “And they fight. They fight like crazy in the middle of the sky. That cat’s tearing his chest out, and the eagle’s trying to drop him, but the cat won’t let go because he knows if he falls he’ll die... And they come crashing down to the earth. Both of them come crashing down. Like one whole thing”. This story, so clearly a metaphor for the self-destructive way in which the family members cling most desperately to those with whom they fight most savagely (namely themselves), ends the play on a powerful but dramatically conventional note. Wesley’s incantatory monologue is the last of its kind in Shepard’s family plays, and Ella’s heavily laden metaphor is the first of many that Shepard will employ in the plays that follow. Yet, with each successive family play, Shepard’s use of such traditional literary and dramatic conventions increases as his talents as a realistic dramatist grow. With each new play he also makes a greater effort to forcibly subjugate his highly theatrical intuition—the trademark of the “old Shepard”—to his new dramatic strategies and thematic concerns as a family dramatist.
Source: David J. DeRose, “The Father, the Son, and The Holy Ghostly,” in Sam Shepard, Twayne Publishers, 1992, pp. 90–99.
Landy F. Sparr, Susan S. Erstling, and James K. Boehnlein
In the following essay excerpt, the authors discuss a variety of common interfamilial themes in Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class.
Shepard captures the promise and failures of a family, the humor, beauty and bleakness that characterize a group of people trying to live together. His plays are not solely comments on family desolation, but on the family spirit that continues to assert itself to survive.
The Tate family is losing its cohesiveness. It is “starving” for emotional connectedness and a sense of identity and purpose. The family members barely operate as a group except for a place to sleep and eat—and even those most primary and elemental functions of the family can no longer be counted on. Sleeping occurs in a disorganized fashion (in the car, on the table), and eating occurs with no predictable pattern. Even the front door is broken down, leaving them open to invasions from the external world. Caring is expressed in an off-hand manner. When there is no food in the house, the father brings home a bag of artichokes; in an attempt to care for a sick animal the son brings a lamb with maggots into the kitchen.
The family seems unable to provide its members with meaning and context for rites of passage such as Emma’s first menstruation. The father describes his own inability to grapple with the transitions in life, “the jumps.” The only way to find personal purpose is through escape fantasies—sell the land, go to Europe, ride off on a horse. In one hopeful moment, the father exclaims that what he has been searching for is right “inside this house” but family members are unable to join him in his new-found optimism.
Shepard has said that in writing family plays he entered into “the earthquake zone.” He said, “You got to or you end up writing diddlybop plays.” He tried to be honest in his writing. His primary theme
is the inescapability of the mysterious family bond. Like other American family plays such as Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie or Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, there is considerable tension among family members but here the tension is more overt. The characterizations achieve a passionate and uniquely American rowdyism. Shepard’s families have an amazing capacity to tolerate eccentric behavior. It has been said that Shepard sees the nuclear family as a war zone where blood (heredity) begets blood (homicide).
The Tate family is no match for a Shepard-depicted raging consumer society where material goods are valued above land and people. Malicious 20th-century encroachment is one of Shepard’s social activist themes; the New West of suburbs, freeways, color T.V.’s, and modern shopping developments contributes to a breakdown of personal relationships, and worship of the new trivializes the past. With the past forgotten, the present takes on a transcendent immediacy because in a rapidly changing consumer-oriented society, goals become meaningless. Shepard suggests that the American underclass, uprooted and exploited, suffers the repercussions.
Even though Shepard glorifies the frontier (Old West) and its concomitant individualism, he also has an attachment to 1960s-style politics with its dread of the “system” and its pastoral ideals. In Shepard there has always been this tug-of-war between radical ideals and conservatism. This provides a source of dramatic tension in his writing that is never fully resolved.
Additionally, Curse illustrates common interfamilial issues that may be characterized as follows:
A basic concern of Shepard’s characters is the struggle for individuation in the face of constraining family ties. This is a universal issue but in a family as bereft and isolated as the Tates, individuation is nearly impossible. Attempts to save the self are associated with fantasies of flight or escape that often end in destruction—alcoholism, selling the ranch, “zombie” cities, explosions. The family does not have a cohesive structure to assist its members in defining their identities. Even the names—Weston, Wesley, Emma, Ella—contribute to a lack of differentiation and an uncertainty as to who is who. Each person is struggling to make a mark and sometimes it is in competition with or at the expense of another.
In the Shepard play, Action, the main character describes the continuing struggle to be a separate self while yearning to be in a family.
“Just because we’re surrounded by four walls and a roof doesn’t mean anything. It’s still dangerous. The chances of something happening are just as great. Anything could happen. Any move is possible. I’ve seen it. You go outside. The world’s quiet. White. Everything resounding. Not a sound of a motor. Not a light. You see into the house. You see the candles. You watch the people. You can see what it’s like inside. The candles draw you. You get a cold feeling being outside. Separated. You have an idea that being inside it’s cosier. Friendlier. Warmth. People. Conversation. Everyone using a language. Then you go inside. It’s a shock. It’s not like how you expected. You lose what you had outside. You forget that there even is an outside. The inside is all you know. You hunt for a way of being with everyone. A way of finding how to behave. You find out what’s expected of you. You act yourself out.”
The Tate family frequently violates traditional psychological boundaries—marital, parental, sibling, personal, or the family group as distinct from the outside world. The boundary theme starts at the play’s opening with the mother admonishing the son for attempting to clean up debris from the front door that was broken down by the father. The gate between the family and the world outside has been destroyed and the son is not allowed to restore it. There is uncertainty about who is in and out of the family and who is performing what roles and tasks Page 115 | Top of Articlewithin the family system. Boundary diffusion is reflected in Wesley’s comment, “like any second something could invade me. Some foreigner. Something undescribable”. Generally, the greater the family boundary ambiguity, the greater the individual and family dysfunction.
3. Marital Disintegration and Parental Ineffectiveness
Shepard depicts two basic themes critical to family therapy—marital disintegration and parental ineffectiveness. The marital relationship portrayed in Curse is minimally existent, and at best is characterized by hostile undermining. There is no sense of marital sanctity—children and con men are invited by each marital partner to conspire against the other. The parents are almost never on stage together in a conscious state, and the only time siblings unite is in joint escape fantasies. The parents’ lack of communication affects the whole family. It appears that characters are often unaware of what the other is saying because they rarely comment on what has been said. The breakdown of dialogue reflects in dramatic form the inability to sustain interpersonal relationships.
Yet, a closer look reveals Shepard’s perception and instinct about marriage. The spouses do communicate with each other, only they send messages through their children. There is a symmetry between spouses as they separately engage in identical plans to sell the ranch. They are so close that Ella can “smell” Weston’s skin through the front door. Shepard captures the tensions inherent in marriage. Weston and Ella have remained together because family bonds are not easily broken and emotional distancing is easier or more comfortable than severing the bonds.
Shepard’s characterization of the parent-child relationship reflects similar tensions. The parenting function has been partially assimilated by the children. The parents seem unable to either provide for their children or exert authority over them. At times it appears to be outright neglect, yet there are glimpses of intended caring. We have an illustration of adolescent conflict—the daughter’s need to break the family bond alongside her need to stay connected. She acts erratically after learning that her parents are separately trying to sell the ranch (all that holds them together). Is her behavior a desperate attempt to unite the parents in an act of authority or caretaking?
4. Uprootedness and Family Isolation
Shepard has a keen sense of a family that is unconnected to a community. His families seem adrift, disconnected from the moorings of religion, neighborhood, or extended family. Family members are not sure why they are where they are and constantly entertain fantasies of moving on. This may be Shepard’s indictment of contemporary American society but there have always been families like this—disorganized families that seem unable to develop or support relationships that enhance their lives as a group or as individuals.
Shepard’s characters do not relate to society; there is no world outside; they cannot see beyond their own mental states. They react rather than interact. Allegorically, the family that sees no way out of its situation turns on itself, and its members tear each other apart like the eagle and the cat. The only positive connection with the larger world is Emma’s 4H involvement and this is thwarted by family members—her mother boils the chicken Emma has bred for demonstration and her brother urinates on her 4-H posters.
5. Family Identity, Goals, and Moral Purpose
Reiss and Oliveri have established the importance of understanding a family’s belief system or operating paradigm as a way of interpreting its attitudes and behavior. Shepard’s Tates seem to view themselves as failures, exploited and isolated, controlled by elements outside themselves, and destined to live out a “curse” passed on by former generations. There is no prevailing sense of unity or cohesion, and while much of the play takes place in the kitchen, people come and go randomly. The one attempt by Weston to insert hope and direction into the family is rejected, especially by Wesley, who has accepted the family belief that it is too late to start over. The father’s new sense of purpose, based on his feeling of connectedness, does not fit with the family’s operating paradigm.
Another reflection by Shepard of the difficulty of family transitions comes through Weston’s voice: “The jumps. I couldn’t figure out the jumps. From being born, to growing up, to dropping bombs, to having kids, to hittin’ bars, to this”. The father did not have for himself, nor is he able to pass on to his children, an ability to integrate the transitions between life events and stages. These transitions or “jumps” that mark a family’s progression through the life cycle are usually facilitated through ritual and ceremony that mark change, place an event in Page 116 | Top of Articlecontext, and promote growth. Ella’s weak attempt to address the onset of her daughter’s menstrual cycle, clearly a rite of passage, is an example. More important than her mother’s giving her incorrect and frightening information is that the subject is cut off and dropped.
A family’s belief system influences both its conduct and the rituals it creates to deal with normal events and events that require change. Recognizing the significance of ritual, Imber-Black and her associates have developed an approach to families that creates new, alternative, and useful behavior patterns. The vulnerability that Shepard’s characters feel is a dramatic portrayal of the lack of family cohesion.
6. Intergenerational Legacies
Shepard acknowledges the power of past generations on current family attitudes and behaviors. Weston Tate has been “poisoned” by his father, and Wesley the son feels himself becoming like his father. Family members feel biologically and psychologically determined. One established legacy is that Weston’s father lived “apart” even though he was “right among them.” Weston’s alcoholism allows the same behavior in this generation of the Tate family. Each family member lives apart although they are right among each other—they need distance or they fear being engulfed.
Shepard deliberately appropriates mythical material to formulate his images of fathers and sons. The principal energy in the text actually works to articulate an image of the male characters as sons rather than fathers. Weston’s authority role is highly undermined because his presence is periodic rather than continuous. The play works both to incorporate and dislocate the parents’ presence, particularly the father’s. Wesley appropriates aspects of Weston’s identity, but in the end proves to be an inadequate substitute.
There is less exploration of the female past in this family. We know nothing of Ella’s family origin and the psychological legacy she passes on to Emma. One might assume that Shepard is writing from personal experience which is why we see male generational patterns explicated more clearly in his plays.
Finally, there is a legacy of menace and an anger even during the play’s punchy comic sections. The menace is palpable.
“Do you know what this is? It is a curse. I can feel it. It’s invisible but it’s there. It’s always there. It comes onto us like nighttime. Every day I can feel it. Every day I can see it coming. It always comes. Repeats itself. It comes even when you do everything to stop it from coming. Even when you try to change it.... It goes forward too. We spread it. We pass it on. We inherit it and pass it down and then pass it down again. It goes on and on like that without us”.
Source: Landy F. Sparr, Susan S. Erstling, and James K. Boehnlein, “Sam Shepard and the Dysfunctional American Family: Therapeutic Perspectives,” in American Journal of Psychotherapy, Vol. XLIV, No. 4, 1990, pp. 568–72.
Barnes, Clive, “Shepard’s Starving Class Offers Much Food for Thought,” in New York Post, March 3, 1978.
Beaufort, John, “Off-Broadway: Tale of a Blighted Family,” in Christian Science Monitor, March 3, 1978.
Bottoms, Stephen J., The Theatre of Sam Shepard: States of Crisis, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
DeRose, David J., Sam Shepard, Twayne, 1962.
Eder, Richard, “Theatre: The Starving Class,” in New York Daily News, March 3, 1978, p. C4.
Hart, Lynda, Sam Shepard’s Metaphorical Stages, Greenwood Press, 1987.
Kaufmann, Stanley, “What Price Freedom?” in New Republic, April 8, 1978, pp. 24–25.
Kissel, Howard, Review of Curse of the Starving Class, in Women’s Wear Daily, March 3, 1978.
Lahr, John, “A Ghost Town of the Imagination,” in Village Voice, July 25, 1977, pp. 61–62.
Lyons, Charles R., “Shepard’s Family Trilogy and the Conventions of Modern Realism,” in Rereading Shepard, edited by Leonard Wilcox, St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
Watt, Douglas, “In the End, Emptiness,” in New York Daily News, March 3, 1978.
DeRose, David J., Sam Shepard, Twayne, 1992.
Part of the immensely useful Twayne’s U.S. Authors Series, this book provides a concise introduction to Shepard’s life, short descriptions of almost all of his works up to States of Shock, and discussions of the themes and techniques that characterize Shepard’s work as a whole.
Randall, Phyllis R., “Adapting to Reality: Language in Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class,” in Sam Shepard: A Casebook, edited by Kimball King, Garland, 1988.
Randall argues here that, although Curse of the Starving Class is indeed a more realistic play than the works that preceded it, Shepard retains a use of language in this play that “we do not ordinarily associate with realistic drama.”