The Play (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Curse of the Starving Class begins with Wesley, in sweatshirt and jeans, tossing pieces of a door into a wheelbarrow. It is morning. Center stage is a table, downstage a refrigerator and stove. Suspended in air, left and right, are faded curtains. Ella, in curlers, wearing a bathrobe, is angry with Weston for having broken the door during the night, but brightens at finding bread and bacon in the refrigerator. As she cooks, Wesley recounts the night’s events, making car sounds as he pushes the wheelbarrow off. Ella talks about menstruation as Emma, who is having her first period, enters. Wearing a 4-H Club uniform, Emma carries charts illustrating how to cut up a chicken. Finding the chicken she butchered for her demonstration gone, she storms off. While Ella eats her breakfast, Wesley urinates on Emma’s charts. Returning, Emma asks, “What kind of a family is this?”
The play presents a seemingly bizarre family and a series of events involving the sale of its home, but actually pointing to the disintegration of the family. The Tates live on a farm where they formerly raised sheep and grew avocados. Weston, once a pilot, is now an alcoholic heavily in debt. Taylor, a land developer, is courting Ella. The refrigerator is the focal point of the action; each member of the family is obsessed with its emptiness. Emma runs away, only to return covered with mud, thrown by her horse. Taylor arrives for his luncheon date with Ella; the children...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
The use of the artichokes in Curse of the Starving Class suggests both the realistic and mythic aspects of Shepard’s dramatic strategy. They are realistic as stage properties, but the sheer quantity Weston brings home is obsessive, imparting a meaning beyond their food value. So many artichokes seem bizarre in a household where there is never enough to eat. The set similarly incorporates both realistic and mythic elements. The play’s action demands a working refrigerator and a working stove, yet there are no walls to define the kitchen, and the “ruffled, red-checked curtains” that are “suspended in midair” do little to confirm a concrete reality.
The property requirements suggest a realistic, if not a naturalistic play. Among other things, in act 1, Sam Shepard calls for the table and chairs, the refrigerator and stove, the remains of the broken door, the wheelbarrow, the duffel, the bag full of artichokes, and the live lamb and the collapsible pen. At the end of the play, the skinned lamb carcass symbolically suggests the sacrifice of Wesley, or perhaps Emma, to a malevolent force. Shepard makes similar realistic and mythic use of costumes; the clothes in which Weston is first seen also “fit” Wesley.
The conventions of dialogue in the play again present this mixture. Acts 1 and 2 both begin with characters engaged in simple question-and-answer conversations which serve to provide expository information necessary to an...
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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,...
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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...
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Compare and Contrast
• 1970s: Oil and gas shortages precipitate an energy crisis in the United States. Cars line up for gasoline, and President Ford appoints an ‘‘energy czar’’ to head U.S. energy policy efforts. As the crisis ends, both politicians and the public realize that these ‘‘shortages’’ were created arti- ficially by oil-producing countries and oil companies in order to boost profits.
Today: The U.S. again faces an energy crisis, but this time the shortages and exorbitant prices affect electricity. California suffers from ‘‘rolling blackouts,’’ and the major population centers of the East Coast are warned about similar blackouts or brownouts. President George W. Bush proposes an energy policy that stresses greater production, but many citizens mistrust this policy because of Bush’s and Vice-President Dick Cheney’s ties to oil companies and the energy industry.
• 1970s: In Los Angeles, suburbanization continues unabated. The central city suffers while middle-class people flee to suburbs that sprawl ever farther into what was once farmland.
Today: After riots, fires, a major earthquake, landslides, and flooding, Los Angeles continues to grow. However, many people move back into the central city to work in the burgeoning entertainment industry.
• 1970s: With the ‘‘first wave’’ of feminism, women begin demanding equal treatment by the law and by their...
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Topics for Further Study
• Research the different ways in which plays go from being written to being produced in America. Who writes plays? What different kinds of plays are there? What is community theatre? Regional theatre? What does a ‘‘Broadway play’’ mean? What is the difference between Broadway, off-Broadway, and off-off-Broadway? Who pays for each kind of play to be produced?
• Divide into groups as a class, with each group directing a section of one of the acts of Curse of the Starving Class. Pay attention to the property list provided and find those items. Dress the characters as Shepard specifies. As you watch the play, think about other ways the groups could have directed the scenes and how that would have changed the understanding of the play.
• The history of southern California—the transformation of a hostile land into a farming paradise and then into suburbia—in many ways mirrors the history of the United States as a whole, and Curse of the Starving Class alludes to many of the currents in that history. Research the history of Los Angeles and its suburbs, focusing on how irrigation caused the desert to bloom and on how this farmland attracted migrants from the American South and Southwest and from Mexico.
• Sam Shepard is not only a playwright and screenwriter but he has also become a noted actor. See some of his movies (good candidates include Days of Heaven, Country, and The Right Stuff) and...
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• Curse of the Starving Class was adapted as a film in 1994 by Shepard and Bruce Beresford and produced by Breakheart Films. In addition, playwright Sam Shepard is himself an actor and can be seen in over a dozen wide-release films (many with his longtime partner Jessica Lange), including Country, Places in the Heart, and The Right Stuff.
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What Do I Read Next?
• Buried Child (1978) is the second of Shepard’s ‘‘family trilogy.’’ It examines many of the same themes as does Curse of the Starving Class. In 1978, the play won the Pulitzer Prize for the best American play of the year. The trilogy ends with True West, the story of two brothers.
• Many of the plays of the German playwright Bertolt Brecht use techniques of pastiche and the undermining of naturalism to achieve an effect on the viewer. Brecht’s theories about drama and how drama can have a social impact were very influential among American playwrights (Shepard included) in the 1960s. Some of Brecht’s bestknown plays include The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Mother Courage and Her Children, Galileo, The Threepenny Opera, and The Good Woman of Szechwan.
• Mike Davis’s City of Quartz (1990) is an extremely detailed and provocative study of the history of Los Angeles. His argument is that every aspect of L.A.—from the organization of the police department to the zoning laws to the design of park benches—was designed with the intention of isolating the wealthy from the large masses of poor and minority people.
• The classic story of poor rural people moving to California is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The Joad family, impoverished farmers from Oklahoma, pack up their truck and move to find work in California, only to discover that the earthly...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
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....
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Cohn, Ruby. “The Word Is My Shepard.” In New American Dramatists, 1960-1980. New York: Grove, 1982.
DeRose, David J. Sam Shepard. New York: Twayne, 1992.
Kauffmann, Stanley. “What Price Freedom?” The New Republic 178 (April 8, 1978): 24-25.
King, Kimball. Sam Shepard: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1988.
Marranca, Bonnie, ed. American Dreams: The Imagination of Sam Shepard. New York: Performing Arts Journal, 1981.
Oumano, Ellen. Sam Shepard: The Life and Work of an American Dreamer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986.
VerMeulen, Michael. “Sam Shepard: Yes, Yes, Yes.” Esquire 93 (February, 1980): 79-86.
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