Disease, Invasion, and Breaching in Curse of the Starving Class

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Although it is not a symbolic drama whose meaning
lies only in the interaction of its symbols, neither is
Curse of the Starving Class a truly realistic drama,
in which the audience is meant to empathize with
the characters as real people. Critic Stephen J.
Bottoms identifies Shepard’s style, or school, as
‘‘grotesque realism’’ and writes that ‘‘the action of
Curse veers wildly between a range of clashing
generic styles, from kitchen sink banality to exaggerated
melodrama, and from broad comedy to
ritualized symbolism, thwarting any attempt to read
into it a unified depiction of a stable or unified real
world.’’ With the style of the play ‘‘veering wildly’’
as it does, viewers latch onto the stable elements of
the play—the symbols, the images, the motifs.
Through these motifs, Shepard attempts to convey
the power of the play.

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The play is structured, in its images and symbols,
on the difference between inside and outside
and on the dangers inherent in letting things from
the outside begin to inhabit the inside. David J.
DeRose writes about the play:

[It] is about violation and invasion; about the all-toosudden
invasion of a once-rural farming community
by sprawling suburban housing developments; about
the poisonous violation of one’s physical being by
invisible biological ’curses’ like genetic conditioning,
microscopic germs, maggots, even menstruation; about
the impersonal invasion of uncontrollable socio-economic
forces into the family unit; and about the
terrifying violation of a house at night by a drunken
father who smashes down the front door, leaving
home and family vulnerable to even further violation.

Weston explicitly states the theme in his first
appearance, wanting to know ‘‘Is this the inside or
the outside?’’ when he sees the lamb in the kitchen.
Each main character, each event, each symbol carries
with it this tension between a barrier and an
invader attempting to breach it.

The play opens on an image of a breached
defense. The family’s front door lies in shards on the
floor, and Wesley is picking up the pieces, hoping to
rebuild the family’s symbolic gate for keeping out
the outsiders. But their conversation reveals to us
that even before this happened, the difference between
outside and inside was already perverted: the
door was locked to keep one of the family members
out. The body, the house, was itself already weakened
before the play begins, being infested with

Once the door is broken down, though, anything
can come it, and does. Weston returns, drunk,
and brings anger and spite to the house. Taylor, the
true agent of disease, comes in and infects Ella,
recruiting her to help him. Ellis enters and brings
money in exchange for the house but then takes that
back. Finally, the motiveless violence of Emerson
and Slater walk in like an opportunistic infection
that takes advantage of an already weakened body.
Images of such infections run through the play, from
Emma’s description of the family’s curse as being
‘‘in the blood’’ to the maggots that have taken up
residence in the lamb’s body.

Food, along with the theme of hunger and
starving, also works with this theme of inside/outside.
All of the family seem obsessed with food:
Ella offers Wesley bacon and bread, Emma is giving
a presentation on frying chickens, Wesley stares in
the empty refrigerator, and (after his conversion)
Weston stocks the refrigerator full of food. The
family denies they are of the ‘‘starving class,’’ but
the dearth of food in the house gives the lie to their
claim. Just after finding an empty refrigerator, Emma
yells, ‘‘Eat my socks!’’ Finally, in an act intended as
a last stand against hunger, Wesley butchers the
lamb that has represented both the family and Wesley
himself. This butchering, which Wesley intended as
a practical act, turns out to be useless and redundant,
since Weston has already bought food. Killing the
lamb becomes just another violent act committed as
a result of the curse.

Ella and Weston, although cursed in different
ways, both unwittingly facilitate the breakdown of
the house. (The word ‘‘house’’ here needs to be
understood both literally and figuratively, as in
Greek tragedy or Poe’s ‘‘Fall of the House of
Usher.’’) Weston, of course, literally breaks the
house, smashing the door. He also injects his drunken,
violent self into the kitchen and lodges himself
there. But in the third act, he seems to have shaken
off the curse. He cleans himself up, purchases food
for the family (the lack of food is another symptom
of this ‘‘curse of the starving class’’), and takes care
of the lamb, which represents the family itself. But
even though Weston seems to have left his curse
behind, Wesley has now come into his birthright
and will see the family destroyed. Ella breaks down
the barriers of inside/outside the family in a different
way, inviting an outside (Taylor) in and helping
him take the family’s house. Not coincidentally, she
also has sex with him, bringing something from
inside the marriage and giving it to an outsider.

Emma’s disease is of a different sort, or sorts.
When we first see her, her mother is lecturing her on
the dangers of her first menstrual period (which she
calls ‘‘the curse‘‘). Her mother tells her that her
menstruation is not just her insides escaping but that
it also can contribute to an invasion from the outside.
‘‘You should never go swimming when that
happens,’’ she says. ‘‘The water draws it out of
you.’’ But Emma’s more dangerous infection or
curse is her infection by popular media images. She
dreams of scenes from action films and wants to be a
mechanic or ride off on her horse or flee to Mexico
like ‘‘that guy’’ who wrote The Treasure of the
Sierra Madre
or live a life of crime. The men who
arrive at the end of the play and (apparently) kill her,
Slater and Emerson, seem to have emerged from her
movie-spawned fantasies.

Of all of the characters, this outside/inside
tension most profoundly affects Wesley. In the
course of the play, he comes into his manhood; he
grows into the curse and takes it on as his birthright,
just as his father resolves to leave it behind. But
throughout the play, Wesley is struggling to keep
the inside inside and the outside outside. He tries to
build a new door, he erects an enclosure on stage for
the lamb, he does and says different kinds of things
when in the kitchen (onstage) and out of the kitchen

But he cannot withstand the pressure on him,
and his strange syntactic choices in his first monologue
exemplify this. In that speech, he begins by
narrating the events of the previous night in the past
tense: ‘‘I listened like an animal . . . I could feel the
space around me.’’ Then he switches abruptly to the
present: ‘‘I picture him sitting. What’s he doing?’’
Finally, the speech ends as Wesley seemingly loses
his grip on grammar, using only the present participial
forms of verbs: ‘‘Woman screaming . . . Dad
crashing away . . . ignition grinding.’’ Modes of
narration (past, present, nongrammatical) mix as his
ability to narrate ‘‘normally’’ breaks down. He is
trying to fight off an irresistible force whose nature
we do not yet know. But we soon see examples of
his bizarre behavior, his breaching of the border
between what should be inside and what should be
outside, when he urinates on Emma’s poster and,
later, when he comes on stage utterly naked.

Wesley does this because of the ‘‘curse’’ that
lies on the family. This family was doomed from the
beginning, for an intruder older than any character
in the play has already fixed their fate. This ‘‘curse,’’
as Ella calls it, is carried inside the men like a
disease and infects them from the inside until it
destroys them. Emma describes Weston’s curse:

‘‘. . . a short fuse they call it. Runs in the family. His
father was just like him. And his father before him.
Wesley is just like Pop, too. Like liquid dynamite. . .
Nitroglycerine. In the blood.’’ In the second act,
Weston himself tells Wesley that he remembers the
‘‘poison’’ starting to act in him: ‘‘I saw myself
infected with it. . . I saw me carrying it around. His
poison in my body. You think that’s fair?’’ Ella says
that the curse infests the men’s body even to the
molecular level. ‘‘It goes back and back to tiny cells
and genes,’’ she says. ‘‘To atoms. To tiny little
swimming things making up their minds without us.’’
These quotes bear significant resemblance to one of
Shepard’s statements about his attraction to Greek
tragedy: he said that the plays evoke ‘‘emotional
states, these forces [that] go so far back that they go
right to the birth of man. And we’re still living in the
shadow of these things.’’

The inside, then, betrays the body itself, and
this betrayal is foreordained. There is nothing Weston,
or Wesley, can do about it. The fatalism of Weston’s
story of the lambs and the eagle resonates here, for
there are no winners in Weston’s view: the lambs
are castrated, and the eagle and cat kill each other. In
the family’s life, just as Weston changes himself
and symbolically joins the family again, Wesley
takes on his old role, acting as disrupter and killing
the lamb that, because of Weston’s care for it, has
come to represent the family. The curse operates

The social commentary of the play, its inclusion
of the theme of suburbanization and urban
sprawl, is another manifestation of the theme of
infection from inside. Taylor does not use brute
force (as do Emerson and Slater) to relieve the
family of their land; he insinuates himself inside the
family in order to accomplish this. His goal is to buy
their land so that he can develop a suburb, but in the
process, he contributes to the destruction of the
family by seducing Ella and earning Weston’s rage
(for selling him worthless land). The suburb comes
into being and destroys the farmland, not because of
governmental order, but because the farmers themselves
allow it to happen by selling their land. They,
the insiders, invite the outsiders in and allow them
to destroy the body (here understood as the stretches
of farmland that once characterized southern California).
They invite in the ‘‘zombie invasion,’’ as
Wesley calls it.

Curse of the Starving Class is a strange play. It
isn’t quite realistic, but it isn’t quite purely symbolic
either. Should we be emotionally affected by it? Is it
a social protest play? Shepard denies that he is
interested in writing social commentary; at other
times, he has stated that his plays of this period were
influenced by the classic Greek tragedies, which
sought to elicit ‘‘pity and fear,’’ in Aristotle’s
words, from audiences. Is it for this that he includes
stock characters, clearly taken from B-grade gangster
movies? Is this why he makes the characters so
erratic, moving, in a beat, from hollering rage to
calm? Is this why, in a word, the play constantly
makes the audience aware that it is watching a play
but at the same time succeeds in genuinely emotionally
reaching that audience?

Source: Greg Barnhisel, Critical Essay on Curse of the
Starving Class
, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group,
2002. Barnhisel teaches writing and directs the Writing
Center at the University of Southern California.

Shepard’s Family Trilogy and the Conventions of Modern Realism

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Curse of the Starving Class displays its schematic
organisation by dividing up most of its text among
four principal family member/speakers in a artifi-
cially symmetrical scheme—Weston/Wesley; Ella/
Emma. This contrived conflation of names suggests,
early in the play, that the text relates the
younger figures to the older; and, as the play progresses,
we see certain ways in which the children
replicate or substitute for their parents. In general,
Curse voices and reiterates a process in which selfidentification
takes the form of assuming aspects of
the identity of another. The text also voices resistance
to that process. The language suggests that the
assimilation of the physical traits or behaviour of
the older by the younger is either an inevitable or
natural process of inheritance, a logical transfer of
some substance from one person to another: the
physical image of the father reproduced in the body
of the son, the poison of the father inherited by the
son, the curse of menstrual blood inherited by the

Curse of the Starving Class brings the problematic
father to the foreground even though, at one
provocative moment, the mother works with the
idea of her son as the replication of her father rather
than her husband in a moment that relates to the son/
grandfather connection of Buried Child. The text
demands that the actor playing Wesley urinate on
the charts that the character, Emma, has prepared
for an oral presentation, revealing his penis to the
audience, in an exhibitionistic gesture the stage
directions place ‘downstage’. While this act also
clarifies the hostility of the relationships among the
family structure, the incident functions primarily to
display the son’s circumcised penis that Ella will
soon identify as identical to that of her father. Here
she focuses upon her dream of Wesley as the replica
of her father:

Why aren’t you sensitive like your Grandfather was? I
always thought you were just like him, but you’re not
are you? . . . Why aren’t you? You’re circumcised just
like him. It’s almost identical in fact.

This statement implies that the father, Weston,
is not circumcised, and this indirect suggestion
works to undermine or complicate the several processes
in which Wesley attempts to present himself
as the replica of his father.

Weston narrates a significant action in which
he removes his clothing, refreshes or purifies himself
in a cleansing bath, and walks naked through his
house in a deliberate celebration of his reconstituted
identity. In Wesley’s attempt to incorporate the
identity of his father, he acts out what Weston only
tells us about. That is, the text of this play presents
the father’s action in the less ‘present’ form of
narration and demands that the son enact the sequence,
in a scene that displays his body to the
audience. Consequently, the imitation has more
theatrical substance—both in its dramatised presence
and exhibitionist quality than the original
narration that exists only as speech.

The language of the play—and its visual display
of the narrative field, the space in which the
story plays itself out—works both to incorporate the
presence of the father and to dislocate that image.
The play opens with the son’s narrative recitation of
the destructive arrival and abrupt departure of the
father as an event in the immediate past; the text
clarifies that the father’s presence is periodic rather
than continuous; and the text removes his ownership
of the land and distances him as the sexual
partner of his wife, replacing him with a surrogate
lover. Wesley’s actions attempt to appropriate and
displace the presence of the father and in this
assimilation to lose his own identity.

Shepard’s problematising of the father figure is
conventional. In all of Chekhov’s major works, the
father’s absence contributes to the deteriorating
state of the immediate environment: for example, in
The Cherry Orchard, the death of Ranesvskaya’s
husband, the man whom she married from outside
her class, allows the transgressive behaviour that
accelerates the decline of the estate and its purchase
by the former peasant, Lopahin. Nora’s independence
is drained by her father’s behaviour toward
her in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House; and in Rosmersholm,
Rebekka’s recognition that Dr. West, the mentor
with whom she had a sexual relationship, was
actually her natural father, disallows her relationship
with Rosmer. The problematic father becomes
a staple of American realism as evidenced by Long
Day’s Journey, All My Sons, Death of a Salesman
and The Glass Menagerie. We even see this figure
in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in the representation
of the illusory father’s weakness. The patriarchs
of Shepard’s trilogy continue to play out this

In more obvious instances of self-consciousness,
Curse of the Starving Class displays an overt
symbolism that extends the kind of metaphoric use
of scene and objects that characterises the texts of
Ibsen and Chekhov. First of all, the centrality of the
refrigerator to which the inhabitants of this house go
again and again, seeking nourishment that will abate
their appetite, gives this object, in repeated use, a
kind of inconographic value. The refrigerator is
both a failing source of nourishment and the repository
for the inadequate nourishment the parents
provide for themselves and their children. The function
of this rather banal and obvious symbol is not as
significant to this discussion as the blatancy of its
use. The lamb provides a more typical symbolic use
of a material object. Here the performed text presents
a familiar symbol of Judeo-Christian theology:
the Pascal lamb sacrificed in the Passover as a
substitute for the firstborn son, as that figure is
articulated by the Hebrew Bible and transformed in
the New Testament into the image of the Christ
himself, the lamb or son of God, sacrificed to atone
for the sins of all mankind. The complex conflation
of lamb, firstborn son, and the symbolic sacrifice of
Isaac, which is reified in the Christian passion and
the relationship between human father and son and
Divine Father and Son—all these resonances amplify
the living stage property of the maggot-infested
lamb that Wesley nurtures and eventually
sacrifices as he acts out his imitation of his father.
These images also inform Weston’s monologue in
which he describes the fight between the tom cat
and eagle that takes place while he castrates sheep.
For our purposes, the mythic signficance isn’t as
important as the ways in which the text operates to
incorporate this material, to formulate a self-conscious
image of the self as a son who is the victim of
the dominating presence or residual authority or
constraining identity of the father. Ella assists Wesley
in that project as she prompts him to re-tell his
father’s story of the self-destructive hostility of
eagle and cat that in combat and death merge into
each other to form ‘one whole thing’. The unity
here, of course, is the merging of mutually selfdestructive
acts, a unity that does not provide a
figure that successfully integrates the various elements
of Curse into cohesive narrative structure.
That refusal to spell out a coherence extends the
inconclusive resolution of modern realism—typi-
fied in Ghosts’ refusal to reveal whether Fru Alving
gives the fatal sedative to Oswald in the immediate
future. The problematic nature of this story’s assertion
of wholeness, in combination with the theatrical
shock of the explosion that denotes the destruction
of the Packard and the apparent death of the
young girl, aligns with the final shocking images
that terminate many of the texts of modern realism:
Treplev’s suicide, Hedda’s suicide, Julie’s murder/
suicide, the figure of the bound Captain in The Father.

Shepard’s text merges images that are, clearly,
highly resonant cultural artifacts, with the conventional
representation of problematic sons who are
caught within the coordinates of a role determined
by their father’s identity. Shifting among the conventional
schemes of modern realism and the selfconscious
invocation of mythical parallels, Curse of
the Starving Class
attempts to identify the father as
both castrator and wastrel and tries to identify the
son as both inadequate substitute for the father, and
as the failed redeemer of familial guilt through his
performance of a ritual sacrifice. In an ambiguous
transfer of sexual roles, the menstruating young
woman enacts her father’s prodigality, and in being
blown-up in his Packard, wired to murder him,
becomes his surrogate.

True West removes the figure of the father
completely except for the ways in which his character
is embodied in the language and interaction of
the antithetical sons. As a presence in the embedded
narrative, however, the father of True West becomes
a signficant figure, a physically and mentally disabled
man in deliberate self-exile, pursuing his selfsufficient
but self-destructive course. Here True
exercises a structural convention that is a
particularly American variant of dramatic realism:
the opposition of two brothers caught in a triangular
relationship with a father. Consider, for example,
the competitive brothers in O’Neill’s Beyond the
who, like Austin and Lee, exchange roles;
the sequence of paired brothers in the plays of
Arthur Miller; the ambivalent affection and hostility
that marks the relationship of Jamie and Edmund in
Long Day’s Journey into Night. In True West the
convention provides a structure in which the playwright
may display the negotiation that takes place
between the brothers as they attempt to define
themselves through their difference or likeness to
the absent and problematic father.

Shepard conflates the paradigmatic relationship
of brothers with the convention of the external
figure who invades the scene and attempts to dispossess
the inhabitant(s). Here that space gains
resonance because its comforting, if banal, dimensions
belong to the mother. However, the psychic
territory over which these men do battle focuses
more upon the father than the mother. Lee, apparently
less connected to the ‘real’ world than his
educated brother, acts out a role that, in itself, seems
to enact his father’s failed western mythology. Ironically,
Austin himself trades upon a more selfconscious
fictionalising; and, to compound the irony,
Lee is able to market his mythologising more successfully
than Austin in the negotiation with Saul
Kimmer, the Hollywood producer—although he
depends upon Austin’s mediation of plot/myth into
scenario/text. In True West the embedded narrative
includes the ostensible biographies of its principals,
the Ivy League university student opposed to the
nomad—but the primary embedded narrative becomes
the scenario of Lee’s western drama, the
compressed text-within-the-text.

In summary, I would describe this group of
three related texts as a theatrical attempt to articulate
the processes of exorcising the presence of the
father, and assimilating his energy by appropriating
self-consciously both the aesthetic conventions of
realism, and the archetypal paradigms in which we
perceive the relationships of father and son. One of
the difficulties of reading dramatic texts with the
perspectives of psychoanalytic theory is the diffi-
culty in separating the archetypal from the conventional.
Reading the Ibsen canon, with the insistent
repetition of the sexual triad that remains constant
throughout its variety of theatrical modes, it is
possible to see the ways in which theatrical convention
serves an idiosyncratic and obsessive central
drama. The combination of Ibsen’s idiosyncrasy
and the materialist demand for contemporary detail
forged many of the conventions that shape the
realist project. Shepard both uses those conventions
and ironically foregrounds their artifice in a curious
explication of familial relationships that seem to
me, at this point, more conventional than archetypal,
more self-conscious than unconscious, more public
than private, more aesthetic than psychological,
more theatrical than autobiographical.

Source: Charles R. Lyons, ‘‘Shepard’s Family Trilogy and
the Conventions of Modern Realism,’’ in Rereading Shepard,
edited by Leonard Wilcox, St. Martin’s Press, 1993, pp. 125–29.

The Father, the Son, and The Holy Ghostly

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In Curse of the Starving Class, it is not just the
father’s ghost who refuses to die but also a family
curse, an inherited predisposition toward violence, a
‘‘nitroglycerine of the blood’’ that flows through
the son’s veins as it does through the father’s. Like
the unseen forces at work on Shepard’s earlier
characters, this blood curse, transmitted from generation
to generation by ‘‘tiny cells and genes,’’ is a
powerful yet invisible force, imposing itself upon
the characters in the play without their consent.
And, without their consent, it turns them against
each other, so that the curse of Shepard’s ‘‘starving
class’’ family is to be forever locked in battle:
clinging to each other for life, yet fighting to
the death.

Curse of the Starving Class starts in the wake of
an act of domestic violence. The play opens to the
family’s teenage son, Wesley, cleaning up the pieces
of a broken door. The previous night, his father,
Weston, had arrived home drunk to find that the
door to the house had been locked against him by his
wife, Ella. In an intoxicated rage, Weston battered
down the door with his body, then disappeared. The
next morning, as Ella enters the kitchen setting of
the play to make herself some breakfast (there is
nothing in the house to eat but bacon and bread),
Wesley describes the events of the previous night as
he experienced them from his bed. Wesley’s sensory-
specific monologue, similar to those of Shepard’s
early plays, creates a heightened sense of the physical
and emotional invasion of his being by his
father’s violence. He is an open receiver, sensing
the ‘‘space around me like a big, black world,’’ and
aware that ‘‘any second something could invade
me. Some foreigner. Something undescribable.’’
What invades Wesley’s being is the sound of his
father smashing down the door to the house and the
terror of knowing he is vulnerable to the same
violence: ‘‘Man cursing. Man going insane. Feet
and hands tearing. Head smashing. Man yelling.
Shoulder smashing. Whole body crashing. Woman
screaming. Mom screaming. Mom screaming for
police’’. Weston’s violent attack upon his own
home and his terrorizing of his wife and family are
both literal and symbolic destruction of the protective
circle of the family. He not only violates their
safety, but by virtue of his absence as father and
protector, he leaves them open to attack and invasion
from others. Wesley is particularly sensitive to
this sense of defenselessness, for he clearly wants to
open himself to his father, but in so doing, he risks
devastating emotional violation.

Both thematically and theatrically, Curse of the
Starving Class
contains images of violation and
invasion by hostile, uncombatable forces. The play
is about the all-too-sudden invasion of a small
Southern California ranching community by the
suburban sprawl of housing developments and superhighways;
about the violation of one’s physical
being by poisonous ‘‘curses’’ such as genetic conditioning,
microscopic germs, bloodlines, violence,
even menstruation; about the impersonal invasion
of uncontrollable socioeconomic forces into the
family unit; and about the terrifying violation of a
family home at night by a drunken father who
smashes down the front door, leaving house and
family vulnerable to even further violation.

The stage setting itself is an image of the
violation of the home and family: kitchen furniture
is set against a stark, open stage. There are no doors,
no walls, only red-checked curtains suspended in
midair to suggest the farmhouse windows. The first
image one sees on this exposed kitchen set is
Wesley filling a wheelbarrow (a piece of outdoor
equipment) with the shattered remains of the door to
the house, the only barrier between family and
outside world. Any sense of interiority or of the
domestic comfort of the home is immediately undermined.
When the father, Weston, eventually
returns midway through the play, he finds a live
lamb in his kitchen. He ponders aloud this lack of
differentiation between the interior and the exterior:
‘‘Is this the inside or the outside? This is
inside, right? This is the inside of the house. Even
with the door out it’s still the inside. (to lamb)
Right? (to himself) Right.’’ The home—including
the comforting reality the word home conventionally
suggests—has been left exposed by the dissolution
of the family and the estrangement of the
mother and the father. It cannot be repaired. Even
when Wesley builds a new door in an act symbolic
of his desire to keep the family intact, strangers walk
straight onto the stage and into the family kitchen.

Those strangers appear as the result of Weston’s
and Ella’s individual attempts to sell the house and
the farm without the other’s knowledge. Ella has
been dealing with Taylor, a slick attorney who has
made her sexual seduction part of their business
transaction. Weston has cut a deal with a sleazy bar
owner, Ellis, who intends to turn the home into a
steak house. Weston, it turns out, needs the money
to pay off some heavy debts he has run up with
local thugs.

The peculiar characterization of these intrusive
strangers, with their threatening appearance and
cold, criminal attitudes, is completely foreign to the
domestic setting of the play and realistic characterizations
of the family members. In a review of the
original London production, Charles Marowitz noted
that ‘‘these outside characters . . . waft on in a style
peculiar to themselves with no reference to the
ongoing, naturalistically pitched main situation’’
(Marowitz). Wesley draws attention to this peculiarity
when he describes the forces at work upon his
family as a zombie invasion: ‘‘It’s a zombie invasion.
Taylor is the head zombie. He’s the scout for
the other zombies. He’s only a sign that more
zombies are on their way. They’ll be filing through
the door pretty soon’’. Taylor is the first ‘‘zombie’’
to stroll unannounced into the kitchen, but others
follow, including two moronic hired thugs, Emerson
and Slater. These unannounced entrances become
increasingly bizarre and threatening, climaxing
with the offstage explosion of Weston’s car
(with his daughter, Emma, in it) as Emerson and
Slater enter, giggling hysterically ‘‘as though they’d
pulled off a Halloween stunt,’’ holding out the
carcass of a slaughtered lamb.

Watching these otherworldly characters burst
onto the stage of this domestic drama is like watching
the intersection of one plane of reality with
another. Their sudden appearance is as alien and
disruptive as that of Cody’s cowboy brothers at the
end of Geography of a Horse Dreamer or the
business-suited men at the end of Cowboys #2. But,
in Curse of the Starving Class, these figures resound
with both theatrical and thematic significance. On
the one hand, these characters are like the intrusive
figures of Shepard’s earliest plays: theatrical manifestations
of the self’s exposure to a world so
strange as to unfix permanently one’s preconceptions
of reality. But they are also grounded in
Shepard’s personal experience as a teenager in
Duarte, California. The lawyers and thugs represent
the developers and real-estate hustlers who exploited
Los Angeles’s postwar population boom by
literally wiping out the tiny farming communities
that lay east of the city in the Central Valley. As
superfreeways and mass housing developments began
to spread into the rich farmland, small communities
like the one in which Shepard grew up were
literally wiped out of existence as fast as buildings
could be erected and roads constructed. Postmodern
America, with its shopping malls and fast-food
chains, rapidly made the rural life-style of Shepard’s
‘‘starving class’’ family obsolete.

Shepard has repeatedly claimed that such socially
significant interpretations of his plays are not
within his field of concern as a dramatist: ‘‘I’m not
interested in the American social scene at all,’’
Shepard has said of his family plays. ‘‘It totally
bores me’’. Turning to the family for inspiration,
Shepard hoped to ‘‘start with something personal
and see how it follows out and opens to something
bigger’’. The ‘‘something bigger’’ Shepard pursued
was not the social relevance he had courted with
American pop culture plays like Operation Sidewinder
but rather the archetypal ‘‘mythic emotions’’
that classic tales of the family had evoked in
ancient Greek tragedy. According to Shepard, his
family plays are intended to strike a more universal
chord; by self-consciously using the term curse, for
instance, and employing images of hereditary violence
to suggest a link between his own ‘‘starving
class’’ family and such infamous family lines as
those dramatized in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Shepard
attempted to raise his domestic melodrama to the
level of modern myth and to tap the collective
contents of our repressed mythic consciousness.

Shepard employs an intricate network of images
in Curse of the Starving Class to establish a
mythic subtext in the shape of unseen forces infecting
the characters and determining their fates. As in
earlier plays, those forces can take on physical
manifestations. For instance, long before the broader,
hereditary nature of the title’s curse is hinted at, a
more immediate ‘‘curse’’ arises: Emma is stricken
with her first menstrual period, the ‘‘curse’’ of
womanhood. Her mother, Ella, warns against sanitary
napkins purchased in gas stations: ‘‘You don’t
know whose quarters go into those machines. Those
quarters carry germs . . . spewing germs all over
those napkins’’.

Ella’s maternal warning is the first of many
images related to microscopic forces at work in the
lives of the characters. Later, when Wesley brings a
maggot-infested lamb into the kitchen, concern is
again expressed over the presence of ‘‘invisible
germs mysteriously floating around in the air’’. It is
Ella who ties the power of such microscopic presences
to the ancient curse of fate and heredity that
condemns the family to repeated acts of violence
and self-destruction:

Do you know what it is? It’s a curse. I can feel it. It’s
invisible but it’s there. It’s always there. It comes onto
us like nighttime. Every day I can feel it. Every day I
can see it coming. And it always comes. Repeats
itself. It comes even when you do everything to stop it
from coming. Even when you try to change it. And it
goes back. Deep. It goes back and back to tiny cells
and genes. To atoms. To tiny little swimming things
making up their minds without us. Plotting in the
womb. Before that even. In the air. We’re surrounded
with it. It’s bigger than government even. It goes
forward too. We spread it. We pass it on. We inherit it
and pass it down, and then pass it down again. It goes
on and on like that without us.

Shepard once said that Greek tragedy evokes
‘‘emotional states, these forces . . . [that] go so far
back that they go right to the birth of man. And
we’re still living in the shadow of these things’’. In
Curse, Shepard injects mythic dimensions into the
lives of his characters through the presence of a
biological fatalism, determined by forces ‘‘making
up their minds without us,’’ continuing into the
future ‘‘on and on like that without us.’’ The characters
find themselves helpless in the grasp of an
inexplicable presence in their lives: ‘‘It comes even
when you do everything to stop it from coming.’’

The new dramatic agenda Shepard sets for
himself with Curse of the Starving Class is not one
he easily assumes. In spite of the sophistication of
imagery, the domestic setting and story, and the
dominant surface realism of Curse, the play shows
definite signs of a strain between the heightened
theatrical reality of many of Shepard’s earlier plays
and his new intentions as a family dramatist. Putting
aside Shepard’s use of such disparately drawn characters
as Emerson and Slater to reinforce the theme
of invasion, one is still left with numerous disturbing
and incongruous images and events that appear
to have no connection to Shepard’s thematic intentions
but are instead the vestiges of an earlier stage

Within Shepard’s family plays, the mixture of
surface realism and a heightened sense of a theatrical
presence lurking beyond that realism led one
critic to comment ‘‘one feels the need for a word
such as ‘Lnova-realism’ to describe the style into
which Shepard’s plays have settled’’. His stage
actions and images are not just real, they are
‘‘suprareal’’—in the sense that, when set against
the created fictional ‘‘reality’’ of the play, they
become overwhelmingly vivid and material. Curse
of the Starving Class
opens, for instance, with a
string of typically Shepardesque non sequiturs that
transform the stage reality into a series of perpetual
presents. Wesley and his mother, Ella, are discussing
Weston’s drunken appearance of the night before
when Wesley suddenly launches into an extended
monologue in which he recounts the previous
night’s events. Just as suddenly, he leaves the stage
and Ella starts speaking to the empty space. She
appears to be rehearsing the lecture she will give to
some (unidentified) girl who is having her first
menstrual period. Perhaps a minute into this lecture,
Ella’s daughter, Emma, enters. Ella ‘‘talks to her as
though she’s just continuing the conversation’’.
Emma responds, in turn, as though she has been
present for the entire speech.

While some productions of the play might
attempt to smooth the jagged edges of these individual
moments and create a realistic narrative line,
this sequence of events is far too bizarre to overlook,
especially at the beginning of the play. Some
directors have blocked the mother-daughter scene
as though Ella is aware of Emma’s presence just
offstage and well within earshot. But Shepard’s
stage directions indicate no such assumption, stressing
that Ella ‘‘speaks alone’’ at the beginning of the
speech and that Emma does not enter, nor is she
heard offstage, until later. The causal and temporal
reality of the scene are thus unfixed, and the sequence
of events resembles a description of schizophrenic
reality: ‘‘an experience of isolated, disconnected,
discontinuous material signifiers which fail
to link into a coherent sequence’’.

But to what end? Neither Wesley’s transfixing
monologue nor Emma’s dreamlike materialization
in the middle of her mother’s discourse serves to
reinforce any apparent dramatic or thematic intention
on Shepard’s part. Such irrational, discontinuous
images are without context in this play, seeming
to exist for their own sake as unqualified material
images. The same is true of Shepard’s startling use
of the unqualified physical presence of the actor
playing Wesley.

Early in the play, this actor must, without
warning or explanation, unzip his pants and urinate
on Emma’s 4-H club charts. Later, he is required to
walk naked onto the stage, again without warning,
and scoop a live lamb into his arms, carrying it off.
Linked to the unexpectedness and inexplicability of
his actions, the purely physical reality of the actor—
either exposing his genitals to urinate or entering
naked—is so strong that the created illusion of his
character and the fictional stage reality are shattered.
Such physical nudity creates a heightened
stage reality: there is no such thing as a naked
‘‘character’’ on stage. When the actor sheds his
clothing, he sheds the illusion of character, of acting,
and brings a new level of physical immediacy
or ‘‘suprapresence’’ to the stage. This effect is
intensified by the presence of the live lamb. The
unqualified existence of the animal—that is, its
immediate physical presence without the created
pretense of character or performance—is far more
‘‘real’’ than the fictional reality of the play. The
image of the naked actor scooping the live lamb into
his arms and carrying it offstage transcends the
realm of scripted reality in favor of the suprareal.

Had these events occurred in just about any
Shepard play previous to this one, they would have
been equally shocking perhaps, but they would also
have been an integral, vital part of Shepard’s phenomenological
stage consciousness. However, in
Curse of the Starving Class, Shepard is both telling
a conventional story and introducing sustained characters
and a narrative discourse into his writing. If
he is ‘‘dramatizing a condition,’’ as Robert Corrigan
might suggest, that condition is the thematically
anchored state of invasion in which the characters
find themselves. If these instances of heightened
reality have any relation to that condition, it is only
to intensify the physical and psychic discomfort
suggested by the presence of a pervasive curse and
of microscopic physical forces. They add, in John
Glore’s words, ‘‘a tone of foreboding anxiety’’ by
virtue of their ‘‘erratic disruption of a surface realism’’.
More likely, though, is that Shepard, trying to
find his way through a full-length domestic drama
for the first time in his career, turned without
thinking to the techniques of a stage aesthetic that
had been part of his highly intuitive modus operandi
for more than 10 years.

The stories that open and close Curse of the
Starving Class
indicate the direction Shepard’s drama
is to take from this point on in his career. The play
begins, as mentioned earlier, with Wesley’s vivid
account of the violent events from the previous
night. The story is extremely sensory-specific, allowing
the stillness and silence of the night to
stretch the perceptual boundaries of the boy in his
bed, and allowing the sense of sound to become
acute, dominating all other experience. The telling
of the story is a solo riff, in which Wesley steps out
of the action of the play to create a moment, much
like those in Shepard’s early plays, in which the
incantatory power of the language takes the audience
beyond the confines of the stage.

By contrast, the final story of the play is far
more literary, intended as far less of a visceral
experience and more of a metaphorical comment on
the events of the play. Weston begins the story at the
top of the third act, and Ella finishes it as she stares
at the gutted lamb that Emerson and Slater have
dropped in the middle of her floor. Weston tells of a
day he was castrating lambs and of an eagle that
began swooping down out of the sky to grab the
testes as Weston threw them over his shoulder onto
the roof of a small shed. Each time the eagle would
snatch the testes up in his talons, Weston would
jump involuntarily to his feet, yelling, ‘‘with this icy
feeling up my backbone’’. When Ella tells what she
claims is the same story at the play’s conclusion, she
describes a substantially different course of events
in which the eagle accidentally scoops up a cat and
carries it off into the sky: ‘‘And they fight. They
fight like crazy in the middle of the sky. That cat’s
tearing his chest out, and the eagle’s trying to drop
him, but the cat won’t let go because he knows if he
falls he’ll die . . . And they come crashing down to
the earth. Both of them come crashing down. Like
one whole thing’’. This story, so clearly a metaphor
for the self-destructive way in which the family
members cling most desperately to those with whom
they fight most savagely (namely themselves), ends
the play on a powerful but dramatically conventional
note. Wesley’s incantatory monologue is the
last of its kind in Shepard’s family plays, and Ella’s
heavily laden metaphor is the first of many that
Shepard will employ in the plays that follow. Yet,
with each successive family play, Shepard’s use of
such traditional literary and dramatic conventions
increases as his talents as a realistic dramatist grow.
With each new play he also makes a greater effort to
forcibly subjugate his highly theatrical intuition—
the trademark of the ‘‘old Shepard’’—to his new
dramatic strategies and thematic concerns as a family

Source: David J. DeRose, ‘‘The Father, the Son, and The
Holy Ghostly
,’’ in Sam Shepard, Twayne Publishers, 1992,
pp. 90–99.

Sam Shepard and the Dysfunctional American Family: Therapeutic Perspectives

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2231

Shepard captures the promise and failures of a
family, the humor, beauty and bleakness that characterize
a group of people trying to live together.
His plays are not solely comments on family desolation,
but on the family spirit that continues to assert
itself to survive.

The Tate family is losing its cohesiveness. It is
‘‘starving’’ for emotional connectedness and a sense
of identity and purpose. The family members barely
operate as a group except for a place to sleep and
eat—and even those most primary and elemental
functions of the family can no longer be counted on.
Sleeping occurs in a disorganized fashion (in the
car, on the table), and eating occurs with no predictable
pattern. Even the front door is broken down,
leaving them open to invasions from the external
world. Caring is expressed in an off-hand manner.
When there is no food in the house, the father brings
home a bag of artichokes; in an attempt to care for a
sick animal the son brings a lamb with maggots into
the kitchen.

The family seems unable to provide its members
with meaning and context for rites of passage
such as Emma’s first menstruation. The father describes
his own inability to grapple with the transitions
in life, ‘‘the jumps.’’ The only way to find
personal purpose is through escape fantasies—sell
the land, go to Europe, ride off on a horse. In one
hopeful moment, the father exclaims that what he
has been searching for is right ‘‘inside this house’’
but family members are unable to join him in his
new-found optimism.

Shepard has said that in writing family plays he
entered into ‘‘the earthquake zone.’’ He said, ‘‘You
got to or you end up writing diddlybop plays.’’ He
tried to be honest in his writing. His primary theme
is the inescapability of the mysterious family bond.
Like other American family plays such as Tennessee
Williams’ The Glass Menagerie or Eugene
O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, there is
considerable tension among family members but
here the tension is more overt. The characterizations
achieve a passionate and uniquely American rowdyism.
Shepard’s families have an amazing capacity
to tolerate eccentric behavior. It has been said
that Shepard sees the nuclear family as a war zone
where blood (heredity) begets blood (homicide).

The Tate family is no match for a Sheparddepicted
raging consumer society where material
goods are valued above land and people. Malicious
20th-century encroachment is one of Shepard’s
social activist themes; the New West of suburbs,
freeways, color T.V.’s, and modern shopping developments
contributes to a breakdown of personal
relationships, and worship of the new trivializes the
past. With the past forgotten, the present takes on
a transcendent immediacy because in a rapidly
changing consumer-oriented society, goals become
meaningless. Shepard suggests that the American
underclass, uprooted and exploited, suffers the

Even though Shepard glorifies the frontier (Old
West) and its concomitant individualism, he also
has an attachment to 1960s-style politics with its
dread of the ‘‘system’’ and its pastoral ideals. In
Shepard there has always been this tug-of-war between
radical ideals and conservatism. This provides
a source of dramatic tension in his writing that
is never fully resolved.

Additionally, Curse illustrates common interfamilial
issues that may be characterized as follows:

1. Differentiation
A basic concern of Shepard’s characters is the
struggle for individuation in the face of constraining
family ties. This is a universal issue but in a family
as bereft and isolated as the Tates, individuation is
nearly impossible. Attempts to save the self are
associated with fantasies of flight or escape that
often end in destruction—alcoholism, selling the
ranch, ‘‘zombie’’ cities, explosions. The family
does not have a cohesive structure to assist its
members in defining their identities. Even the
names—Weston, Wesley, Emma, Ella—contribute
to a lack of differentiation and an uncertainty as to
who is who. Each person is struggling to make a
mark and sometimes it is in competition with or at
the expense of another.

In the Shepard play, Action, the main character
describes the continuing struggle to be a separate
self while yearning to be in a family.

‘‘Just because we’re surrounded by four walls and a
roof doesn’t mean anything. It’s still dangerous. The
chances of something happening are just as great.
Anything could happen. Any move is possible. I’ve
seen it. You go outside. The world’s quiet. White.
Everything resounding. Not a sound of a motor. Not a
light. You see into the house. You see the candles.
You watch the people. You can see what it’s like
inside. The candles draw you. You get a cold feeling
being outside. Separated. You have an idea that being
inside it’s cosier. Friendlier. Warmth. People. Conversation.
Everyone using a language. Then you go
inside. It’s a shock. It’s not like how you expected.
You lose what you had outside. You forget that there
even is an outside. The inside is all you know. You
hunt for a way of being with everyone. A way of
finding how to behave. You find out what’s expected
of you. You act yourself out.’’

2. Boundaries
The Tate family frequently violates traditional
psychological boundaries—marital, parental, sibling,
personal, or the family group as distinct from
the outside world. The boundary theme starts at the
play’s opening with the mother admonishing the
son for attempting to clean up debris from the front
door that was broken down by the father. The gate
between the family and the world outside has been
destroyed and the son is not allowed to restore it.
There is uncertainty about who is in and out of the
family and who is performing what roles and tasks
within the family system. Boundary diffusion is
reflected in Wesley’s comment, ‘‘like any second
something could invade me. Some foreigner. Something
undescribable’’. Generally, the greater the
family boundary ambiguity, the greater the individual
and family dysfunction.

3. Marital Disintegration and Parental

Shepard depicts two basic themes critical to
family therapy—marital disintegration and parental
ineffectiveness. The marital relationship portrayed
in Curse is minimally existent, and at best is characterized
by hostile undermining. There is no sense of
marital sanctity—children and con men are invited
by each marital partner to conspire against the other.
The parents are almost never on stage together in a
conscious state, and the only time siblings unite is in
joint escape fantasies. The parents’ lack of communication
affects the whole family. It appears that
characters are often unaware of what the other is
saying because they rarely comment on what has
been said. The breakdown of dialogue reflects in
dramatic form the inability to sustain interpersonal

Yet, a closer look reveals Shepard’s perception
and instinct about marriage. The spouses do communicate
with each other, only they send messages
through their children. There is a symmetry between
spouses as they separately engage in identical plans
to sell the ranch. They are so close that Ella can
‘‘smell’’ Weston’s skin through the front door.
Shepard captures the tensions inherent in marriage.
Weston and Ella have remained together because
family bonds are not easily broken and emotional
distancing is easier or more comfortable than severing
the bonds.

Shepard’s characterization of the parent-child
relationship reflects similar tensions. The parenting
function has been partially assimilated by the children.
The parents seem unable to either provide for
their children or exert authority over them. At times
it appears to be outright neglect, yet there are
glimpses of intended caring. We have an illustration
of adolescent conflict—the daughter’s need to break
the family bond alongside her need to stay connected.
She acts erratically after learning that her
parents are separately trying to sell the ranch (all
that holds them together). Is her behavior a desperate
attempt to unite the parents in an act of authority
or caretaking?

4. Uprootedness and Family Isolation
Shepard has a keen sense of a family that is
unconnected to a community. His families seem
adrift, disconnected from the moorings of religion,
neighborhood, or extended family. Family members
are not sure why they are where they are and
constantly entertain fantasies of moving on. This
may be Shepard’s indictment of contemporary American
society but there have always been families like
this—disorganized families that seem unable to
develop or support relationships that enhance their
lives as a group or as individuals.

Shepard’s characters do not relate to society;
there is no world outside; they cannot see beyond
their own mental states. They react rather than
interact. Allegorically, the family that sees no way
out of its situation turns on itself, and its members
tear each other apart like the eagle and the cat. The
only positive connection with the larger world is
Emma’s 4H involvement and this is thwarted by
family members—her mother boils the chicken
Emma has bred for demonstration and her brother
urinates on her 4-H posters.

5. Family Identity, Goals, and Moral

Reiss and Oliveri have established the importance
of understanding a family’s belief system or
operating paradigm as a way of interpreting its
attitudes and behavior. Shepard’s Tates seem to
view themselves as failures, exploited and isolated,
controlled by elements outside themselves, and
destined to live out a ‘‘curse’’ passed on by former
generations. There is no prevailing sense of unity or
cohesion, and while much of the play takes place in
the kitchen, people come and go randomly. The one
attempt by Weston to insert hope and direction into
the family is rejected, especially by Wesley, who
has accepted the family belief that it is too late to
start over. The father’s new sense of purpose, based
on his feeling of connectedness, does not fit with the
family’s operating paradigm.

Another reflection by Shepard of the difficulty
of family transitions comes through Weston’s voice:
‘‘The jumps. I couldn’t figure out the jumps. From
being born, to growing up, to dropping bombs, to
having kids, to hittin’ bars, to this’’. The father did
not have for himself, nor is he able to pass on to his
children, an ability to integrate the transitions between
life events and stages. These transitions or
‘‘jumps’’ that mark a family’s progression through
the life cycle are usually facilitated through ritual
and ceremony that mark change, place an event in
context, and promote growth. Ella’s weak attempt
to address the onset of her daughter’s menstrual
cycle, clearly a rite of passage, is an example. More
important than her mother’s giving her incorrect
and frightening information is that the subject is cut
off and dropped.

A family’s belief system influences both its
conduct and the rituals it creates to deal with normal
events and events that require change. Recognizing
the significance of ritual, Imber-Black and her associates
have developed an approach to families that
creates new, alternative, and useful behavior patterns.
The vulnerability that Shepard’s characters
feel is a dramatic portrayal of the lack of family

6. Intergenerational Legacies
Shepard acknowledges the power of past generations
on current family attitudes and behaviors.
Weston Tate has been ‘‘poisoned’’ by his father,
and Wesley the son feels himself becoming like
his father. Family members feel biologically and
psychologically determined. One established legacy
is that Weston’s father lived ‘‘apart’’ even
though he was ‘‘right among them.’’ Weston’s
alcoholism allows the same behavior in this generation
of the Tate family. Each family member lives
apart although they are right among each other—
they need distance or they fear being engulfed.

Shepard deliberately appropriates mythical material
to formulate his images of fathers and sons. The
principal energy in the text actually works to articulate
an image of the male characters as sons rather
than fathers. Weston’s authority role is highly undermined
because his presence is periodic rather
than continuous. The play works both to incorporate
and dislocate the parents’ presence, particularly the
father’s. Wesley appropriates aspects of Weston’s
identity, but in the end proves to be an inadequate

There is less exploration of the female past in
this family. We know nothing of Ella’s family
origin and the psychological legacy she passes on to
Emma. One might assume that Shepard is writing
from personal experience which is why we see male
generational patterns explicated more clearly in
his plays.

Finally, there is a legacy of menace and an
anger even during the play’s punchy comic sections.
The menace is palpable.

‘‘Do you know what this is? It is a curse. I can feel it.
It’s invisible but it’s there. It’s always there. It comes
onto us like nighttime. Every day I can feel it. Every
day I can see it coming. It always comes. Repeats
itself. It comes even when you do everything to stop it
from coming. Even when you try to change it. . . . It
goes forward too. We spread it. We pass it on. We
inherit it and pass it down and then pass it down again.
It goes on and on like that without us’’.

Source: Landy F. Sparr, Susan S. Erstling, and James K.
Boehnlein, ‘‘Sam Shepard and the Dysfunctional American
Family: Therapeutic Perspectives,’’ in American Journal of
, Vol. XLIV, No. 4, 1990, pp. 568–72.

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Critical Overview