Curse of the Starving Class

by Sam Shepard

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1160

Act I
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.

Act II
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 decided 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.

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