Curse of the Starving Class

by Sam Shepard

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Critical Context

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Curse of the Starving Class, an Obie Award winner in 1977, has generally been taken to mark a change in Sam Shepard’s writing for the theater. The first of his plays to move toward a realistic presentation of family life, it was followed by a series of works with similar concerns: the Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child (pr. 1978, pb. 1979) and True West (pr. 1980, pb. 1981), Fool for Love (pr., pb. 1983), and A Lie of the Mind (pr. 1985, pb. 1986). In all these plays, there is a concern for realistic detail, but at the same time there is the mythic quality that marked Shepard’s earlier work. Interestingly, characters resembling those who are only minor in Curse of the Starving Class—the hit men, Emerson and Slater, or Ellis, the owner of the Alibi Club—play more prominent roles in plays such as The Tooth of Crime (pr. 1972, pb. 1974) and Geography of a Horse Dreamer (pr., pb. 1974). However, if Shepard has lost some of the avant-garde quality of his earlier work, he retains his ongoing concern with American themes and myths.

With Curse of the Starving Class and the plays that follow it, Shepard proved himself a major figure in the American theater. These plays place him in one of the major traditions of American drama. Seen in the context of the American family as it is presented in such plays as George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s You Can’t Take It with You (pr. 1936) or Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace (pr. 1941), the Tates hardly seem bizarre at all. Early reviewers noted the resemblance of Curse of the Starving Class to Jack Kirkland’s Great Depression hit Tobacco Road (pr. 1933). Shepard’s characters are portrayed with a seriousness and an ironic humor characteristic of many American plays. Moreover, the structure of family life in the United States is a major concern in the work of playwrights as diverse as Eugene O’Neill, Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Edward Albee. To remark upon such similarities of tradition is to observe that Sam Shepard is a playwright squarely in the American vein.

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Critical Overview