Wesley Tate, the young son of a lower-middle-class, rural California family. Feeling strong ties to his family and to the land, Wesley maintains the farm after the others have given up. He sees the sale of the land to real estate developers as having significance far greater than the loss of a mere house. At times, Wesley loses patience with his family members, as evidenced by his lack of sympathy for his sister’s ruined 4-H project, to which he responds by urinating on her charts and suggesting that his sister do something truly useful. He is also contemptuous of his mother’s attorney friend, to whom he is very rude and accusatory. Although Wesley does not get along with his father, he does feel certain responsibilities toward his family. He cleans up the mess left after one of his father’s frequent drunken binges and begins to replace the door the old man has beaten down. Wesley also is aware of some inherited traits, especially his father’s passionate temper. Failing to experience the rebirth of spirit his father prescribes, Wesley dons his father’s discarded old clothes. Wesley and his mother are the only family members left at the end of the play.
Ella Tate, Wesley’s mother. Coming from a higher-class background, Ella feels like an outsider among the members of her own family. She feels abandoned by her husband and fears that he might try to kill her in one of his drunken rages. Ella insensitively cooks the chicken that her daughter plans to use in an important 4-H project. She also fills her young daughter’s mind with an obsession about germs and with false information about the girl’s physical maturity. Longing for the more prestigious lifestyle of the rich, Ella has become involved with an attorney and plans to sell the property and run away to Europe. After returning from jail to visit her daughter, Ella sleeps on the kitchen table. When she awakes, both her husband and her daughter have left, but, confused by Wesley’s attire, she repeatedly calls her son by her husband’s name.
Emma Tate, Wesley’s sister. Outspoken and rebellious, Emma reaches physical maturity on the day the play takes place. She is outraged that her mother has cooked the chicken she has raised and prepared for her 4-H project, so she begins to make plans to run away to Mexico. Emma, who is somewhat loyal to her father, does not like her mother’s attorney friend and tells him so. Emma is arrested for riding her horse through the bar her father frequents and shooting the place full of holes. She is released, however, when she makes sexual overtures to the police sergeant. Resolved to embark on a life of crime, Emma takes money and car keys from her mother’s purse and leaves just before the car explodes.
Weston Tate, Wesley’s father. An alcoholic with a violent temper, Weston is unable to hold a steady job, continues to drive even though his license has been revoked, and is in debt to some rough characters. He secretly sells the property to the owner of the Alibi Club for fifteen hundred dollars. When the family refrigerator is empty, Weston simply buys a bag of artichokes. After passing out on the kitchen table, Weston awakes with a sense of being reborn. He uncharacteristically bathes and shaves, discards his dirty old clothes, and does the laundry and cooks breakfast for the family. Although Weston decides to stay and work the farm, Wesley reminds him that he is still in trouble and encourages him to...
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flee to Mexico.
Taylor, an attorney who speculates in real estate. Taylor has already cheated Weston out of five hundred dollars by selling him a worthless piece of desert real estate; now he is taking advantage of his intimate relationship with Ella to purchase the Tate property without the permission of Weston, whom Taylor has had declared mentally incompetent.
Ellis, the owner of the Alibi Club. Wearing a shiny yellow shirt, tight pants, shiny shoes, many rings, and a gold necklace, Ellis is a burly man whose arms are covered with tattoos. Ellis has taken advantage of Weston’s drunkenness and indebtedness to purchase the Tate property for a mere fifteen hundred dollars.
Emerson, a small man who, by blowing up the Tates’ car, reminds Weston of the consequences of not paying his debts.
Slater, the man who accompanies Ellis on his threatening visit.
Sergeant Malcolm, a highway patrol officer who notifies Ella that Emma has been arrested. He will take no action against the other criminals, however, because that is not within his jurisdiction.
Ella 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 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 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 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.
Malcolm 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 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 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 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 4-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 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.