Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 598
Curse of the Starving Class is not only the first play of what is known as the ‘‘family trilogy’’ (the two other plays in that trilogy are Buried Child and True West), it also stands as the initial play of the second phase of Shepard’s career. A very prolific playwright, Shepard saw numerous of his plays produced in most years from the time of his first play (1965) to 1978, the year of Curse of the Starving Class. This start of the second phase of his career is often interpreted as a move away from radical experimentation toward a greater inclusion of ‘‘realism,’’ or the kind of theatre that attempts to portray on stage things as they actually are in the world, both in terms of the construction of the play and in its content. Charles R. Lyons, in his essay ‘‘Shepard’s Family Trilogy and the Conventions of Modern Realism,’’ writes that these plays ‘‘break with Shepard’s earlier dramatic writing by implementing several of the conventions of dramatic realism.’’ However, Lyons argues, Shepard never becomes a true ‘‘realist.’’ Rather, he just ‘‘borrows’’ realism but does so in such a way that it ‘‘complicates the strategies of dramatic realism’’ and ‘‘fragment[s] the possibility of narrative unity with significant disjunctions, interstices, and inconsistencies.’’
Critics of the play’s initial productions noted its dark tone and, often, its similarity to the play The Cherry Orchard by the nineteenth-century Russian playwright Chekhov. Reviewing the 1978 production of the play at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre in New York (not the original production; it was first put on in 1977 in London), Douglas Watt of the New York Daily News called the play ‘‘a bitter farce, a desolate tragicomedy variation on a favorite theme of the author’s, the stifling of the American spirit by unseen, unknown forces gobbling up the land and the soul of its people in the name of progress.’’ Richard Eder, writing for the New York Times about the same production, compliments Shepard’s ‘‘images of considerable power’’ and ‘‘style that oscillates between realism and savage fantasy’’ and feels that the play ‘‘reads well’’ but was not constructed to actually be staged. In the New York Post, Clive Barnes was impressed by the raw power of the play but thought that the play was ‘‘probably too muddled and too indirect to compensate for the feverheat of its passion.’’
Other reviewers shared these same ambivalent sentiments. Howard Kissel of Women’s Wear Daily was caught up in the weirdness of the play but felt the ending fell short: the ‘‘concluding images seem contrived, manipulative and self-indulgent.’’ Stanley Kaufmann, writing for the New Republic, called Shepard ‘‘phenomenal’’ and ‘‘the best’’ playwright in America under forty but argued that in this play, Shepard showed more talent than careful craftsmanship: ‘‘it contains so much, yet ultimately it is not enough.’’ John Beaufort of the Christian Science Monitor praised the power of the imagery but concluded that the play was ‘‘in the main unpleasant’’ and that ‘‘there is little nourishment in this case history of the spiritually starved.’’ And, reviewing the earlier London production of the play, John Lahr wrote in the Village Voice that ‘‘there is not enough work in’’ Shepard’s script because ‘‘the play leaves too much unexplored. The characters don’t show; they tell.’’
Recent critical opinion on this play has elevated its reputation. The strange and jarring play is now understood as an oscillation between realism and symbolism, and both critics and audiences, by now familiar with Shepard’s method, accept the play’s violent language and mordant tone.