Curse of the Starving Class Analysis

Sam Shepard

The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Curse of the Starving Class begins with Wesley, in sweatshirt and jeans, tossing pieces of a door into a wheelbarrow. It is morning. Center stage is a table, downstage a refrigerator and stove. Suspended in air, left and right, are faded curtains. Ella, in curlers, wearing a bathrobe, is angry with Weston for having broken the door during the night, but brightens at finding bread and bacon in the refrigerator. As she cooks, Wesley recounts the night’s events, making car sounds as he pushes the wheelbarrow off. Ella talks about menstruation as Emma, who is having her first period, enters. Wearing a 4-H Club uniform, Emma carries charts illustrating how to cut up a chicken. Finding the chicken she butchered for her demonstration gone, she storms off. While Ella eats her breakfast, Wesley urinates on Emma’s charts. Returning, Emma asks, “What kind of a family is this?”

The play presents a seemingly bizarre family and a series of events involving the sale of its home, but actually pointing to the disintegration of the family. The Tates live on a farm where they formerly raised sheep and grew avocados. Weston, once a pilot, is now an alcoholic heavily in debt. Taylor, a land developer, is courting Ella. The refrigerator is the focal point of the action; each member of the family is obsessed with its emptiness. Emma runs away, only to return covered with mud, thrown by her horse. Taylor arrives for his luncheon date with Ella; the children treat him rudely. Wesley sets up a folding enclosure and puts a sick lamb inside. Ella and Taylor leave together, and Emma runs off again.

Wesley exits at the sounds of his father’s approach. Weston, slightly drunk, is a big man; he wears baggy pants, tennis shoes, an overcoat, and a baseball cap. Addressing the lamb, he sets a duffel and a grocery bag on the table. Wesley returns as Weston fills the refrigerator with artichokes he bought in the desert. Property he had there has proved worthless, so he decides to sell the family’s home. Telling Wesley how to treat the maggot-infested lamb, Weston dumps his laundry from the duffel onto the table for Ella to wash.

Act 2 begins with the sounds of hammering. The lights come up on Wesley, building a new door, and Emma, in a Western shirt, jodhpurs, and riding boots, making new charts for her demonstration. The...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The use of the artichokes in Curse of the Starving Class suggests both the realistic and mythic aspects of Shepard’s dramatic strategy. They are realistic as stage properties, but the sheer quantity Weston brings home is obsessive, imparting a meaning beyond their food value. So many artichokes seem bizarre in a household where there is never enough to eat. The set similarly incorporates both realistic and mythic elements. The play’s action demands a working refrigerator and a working stove, yet there are no walls to define the kitchen, and the “ruffled, red-checked curtains” that are “suspended in midair” do little to confirm a concrete reality.

The property requirements suggest a realistic, if not a naturalistic play. Among other things, in act 1, Sam Shepard calls for the table and chairs, the refrigerator and stove, the remains of the broken door, the wheelbarrow, the duffel, the bag full of artichokes, and the live lamb and the collapsible pen. At the end of the play, the skinned lamb carcass symbolically suggests the sacrifice of Wesley, or perhaps Emma, to a malevolent force. Shepard makes similar realistic and mythic use of costumes; the clothes in which Weston is first seen also “fit” Wesley.

The conventions of dialogue in the play again present this mixture. Acts 1 and 2 both begin with characters engaged in simple question-and-answer conversations which serve to provide expository information necessary to an...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Urban Sprawl
As a country whose greatest natural resource has always been its seemingly endless supply of land and space, the...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Curse of the Starving Class uses symbolism a great deal, but Shepard uses it in a jarring way. His symbols—the...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1970s: Oil and gas shortages precipitate an energy crisis in the United States. Cars line up for gasoline, and President Ford...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

• Research the different ways in which plays go from being written to being produced in America. Who writes plays? What different kinds of...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Curse of the Starving Class was adapted as a film in 1994 by Shepard and Bruce Beresford and produced by Breakheart Films. In...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Buried Child (1978) is the second of Shepard’s ‘‘family trilogy.’’ It examines many of the same themes as does Curse...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Barnes, Clive, ‘‘Shepard’s Starving Class Offers Much Food for Thought,’’ in New York Post, March 3,...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Cohn, Ruby. “The Word Is My Shepard.” In New American Dramatists, 1960-1980. New York: Grove, 1982.

DeRose, David J. Sam Shepard. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Kauffmann, Stanley. “What Price Freedom?” The New Republic 178 (April 8, 1978): 24-25.

King, Kimball. Sam Shepard: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1988.

Marranca, Bonnie, ed. American Dreams: The Imagination of Sam Shepard. New York: Performing Arts Journal, 1981.

Oumano, Ellen. Sam Shepard: The Life...

(The entire section is 89 words.)