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.
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,...