Curse of the Starving Class

by Sam Shepard

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The Play

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 958

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 laundry is still on the table; a pot of artichokes boils on the stove. It is the next day. Ella has not returned from her meeting with Taylor. Weston stumbles in, drunker than before, announcing that he has sold the house to Ellis. Emma walks out. Swearing he will kill Taylor and Ella, Weston staggers against the table and falls asleep on top of it.

Ella returns with groceries. Throwing the artichokes out, she fills the refrigerator. Wesley realizes that it was Taylor who sold Weston the desert property just as Ellis arrives with fifteen hundred dollars for the house, the exact amount Weston owes to gangsters. Ella and Ellis argue, Ellis shows her the deed Weston gave him, and Taylor arrives to settle his deal with Ella. Finally, highway patrolman Malcolm appears with the news that Emma, having shot up the Alibi Club, is in jail. Taylor departs surreptitiously; Ellis grabs his money from Wesley and rushes off, with Wesley in pursuit. Malcolm agrees to wait for Ella at the station. Alone, Ella stares at Weston asleep on the table; he sits up, they look at each other, she runs off, and he lurches toward the refrigerator, kicking...

(This entire section contains 958 words.)

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artichokes out of his way.

The lamb is heard before the lights come up on act 3. Clean laundry is stacked on the table; the room has been swept. Weston, sober, neatly dressed, folds laundry while talking to the lamb. He remembers a time he was castrating sheep and appeased an eagle by throwing testicles up on a tin roof where the bird could get them. Wesley returns, bloodied by Ellis. Weston explains his new outlook: He took a bath, walked around the place naked, cleaned everything, ate a good breakfast, and decided to fix things up. He advises Wesley to do the same.

Ella returns from jail, exhausted, to find Weston cooking breakfast for Wesley. She and Weston argue heatedly. Pushing the clothes to the floor, she falls asleep on the table. Wesley wanders in, dazed and naked, wet from his bath. He looks at his parents; they do not notice him, and he leaves with the lamb. When he returns, he is wearing Weston’s overcoat, tennis shoes, and baseball cap, and he says that he butchered the lamb for food. He begins eating everything in the refrigerator. Wesley assures his father that the gang will get him, and Weston takes off for Mexico. Having escaped jail by having sex with Officer Malcolm, Emma has decided to become a criminal. Ella sits up and screams, and Emma departs.

An enormous explosion is heard. Emerson, a hit man, enters giggling, followed by his partner Slater, carrying the skinned lamb carcass. They have blown up Weston’s car, unaware that Emma was inside. Ella mistakenly calls Wesley Weston. Emerson and Slater warn him to pay up. Wesley protests feebly. Slater drops the lamb inside the fence; laughing, the two men leave, issuing another warning. Ella looks at the carcass, remembering Weston’s story of the eagle. Wesley finishes the story, how a big cat climbed onto the roof and began fighting with the eagle. The eagle carried the cat away, and they fought until both came crashing down. The play ends as Wesley, his back to his mother, concludes the story. Ella stares at the lamb.

Dramatic Devices

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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 understanding of what has occurred before the start of the play or between the acts. On the other hand, all the members of the family, except for Ella, are given long monologues which are almost soliloquies. In act 1, while Ella prepares her breakfast, Wesley has a long speech in which he recounts his sense of life while lying in bed, not simply on this night but also on many other nights. In an eerie way he is speaking neither to his mother nor directly to the audience; instead, the audience is allowed to hear his thought processes. When he pushes the wheelbarrow off, Ella begins a conversation about menstruation that seems directed at another person, but no one is there. When Emma enters, she joins in that conversation, and Shepard creates the sense that this conversation has been going on for some time. Later, when Weston enters and finds only the lamb at home, he naturally begins a conversation.

Emma, by way of contrast, often shouts her lines from offstage. She appears to be the most bizarre character in the play, yet is also the most “normal” member of the family. She participates in 4-H, she is an excellent student, and she wants to make something of herself. The dramatic means Shepard uses to present her underlines the theme of the play, the failure of communication, the failure of love, the failure of these individuals to nurture their young. Like so much else in Curse of the Starving Class, she is presented realistically, but there is a mythic quality to her character.

Historical Context

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Urban Sprawl As a country whose greatest natural resource has always been its seemingly endless supply of land and space, the United States settlement and development has generally followed the same pattern. New land—Plymouth Rock, California, Alaska, or anywhere in between—is settled and cleared for farming or industry by rugged individualist pioneers; more people move near that newly desirable land, and towns spring up; the towns grow so big and encroaching that the rugged individualists feel crowded by city life (or are unable, economically, to survive) and move on to find new frontiers.

California, especially southern California, is perhaps the best laboratory to examine this development. When the Spanish first explored the area of Los Angeles and the San Gabriel and San Fernando Valleys, the region was arid, almost desert. Largescale irrigation beginning in the late nineteenth century ‘‘made the desert bloom,’’ and soon the area (along with the Imperial and Central Valleys) was America’s richest farmland, producing citrus fruits, melons, berries, even lettuce and other water hungry crops. The agriculture drew refugees from the Dust Bowl states during the Great Depression, and poor people thronged to southern California. At the same time, land speculators were buying the land of Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, and Riverside counties and preparing it for residential development. Advertising in newspapers around the country, they encouraged people to come to ‘‘Sunny California!’’ to retire or simply to flee the frigid northern climates or unhealthy cities of the East. Los Angeles grew dramatically in the middle of the twentieth century, becoming one of America’s largest cities.

But the people who came to Los Angeles did not want to live in the same kinds of overcrowded cities many of them had left back East. They wanted large houses, cars, two-car garages, front and back yards. But with the millions of people who now lived there, there simply was not enough room in the city. The speculators and developers then began building subdivisions in the areas immediately surrounding the city. Ever more land was needed, and the developers set their sights to the farmlands surrounding the city. City-dwellers seeking lower taxes, lower crime rates, and less congestion came to these suburbs. ‘‘Urban sprawl’’ came to Los Angeles.

Today, Los Angeles is one of the largest urban conglomerations in the world. Some population geographers see the U.S. cities of Los Angeles and San Diego and the Mexican city of Tijuana as one immense ‘‘megalopolis,’’ a mega-city with tens of millions of inhabitants. The open spaces that once separated them have largely disappeared; similarly, the farmland that once was the area’s largest economic resource has long since given way to other industries. Caught up in this are families such as the one in Curse of the Starving Class, whose land is coveted by subdivision developers like Taylor. In the play, as in the real world, these families were often taken advantage of, selling their land for well below market rates and finding themselves with nowhere to go and little money to sustain them.

Literary Style

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SymbolismCurse of the Starving Class uses symbolism a great deal, but Shepard uses it in a jarring way. His symbols—the lamb, the broken door, the refrigerator, the old car—jump out at the viewer and almost announce ‘‘I am a symbol!’’ But Shepard uses them less as true symbols than as evocative images. This play cannot be ‘‘decoded’’ as an allegory in which we can reduce the refrigerator to a representation of spiritual hunger, the lamb to a representation of sacrifice and innocence, and the door to a representation of the barrier between the family and the outside world. These objects are indeed symbolic, but they are meant to hit the audience with their power. It is shocking to see a live lamb on stage and even more shocking to see it bloody and dead; similarly, the centrality of the refrigerator to every scene and the constant opening and closing of its door reminds us of the theme of hunger and starving, but Shepard refuses to nail down its meaning for us.

The symbols work together to undermine the realism of the play. Realism, a style of drama that seeks to represent the world on the stage just as it is in real life, was out of favor in the 1960s, the decade in which Shepard began writing. Symbolic dramas were popular, and Shepard wrote those kinds of plays in his early career. With Curse of the Starving Class, Shepard moved more toward realism, to the social dramas of such classic realists as Ibsen. But Shepard retains the symbolic structure of his earlier plays. These people are not meant to be accurate representations of real people, nor are we meant to believe that this family had a lamb, brought it inside, and then butchered it. Like the stock gangsters whose entrance signals the end of the play, these symbols break down the illusion of reality. The drama is here to create an impact: whereas the realistic story of the family appeals to our minds and emotions, the symbols affect us on a subconscious level.

Motif Closely connected to the symbolic structure of the play is its use of motif, or a recurring image. Two motifs, very near each other in meaning, recur throughout Curse of the Starving Class: images of inside/outside and images of disease and sickness. Obviously, these two motifs are related to each other, for disease is the intrusion of an entity that should be kept outside the body. Shepard, though, does not define the family’s curse just as a disease, though; this ‘‘curse’’ is more historical and supernatural, like the curses that afflicted the great families of Greek tragedy.

The first motif almost overwhelms the play with its omnipresence. The play opens on an image of the breakdown of the barrier between outside and inside, the shattered front door that allows all sorts of undesirable elements to enter the house. As the play continues we constantly see this theme emphasized: conversations in the kitchen are conducted in a normal tone of voice, but conversations between one person in the kitchen and another person outside the room are almost always furious screaming matches; the refrigerator’s constant opening and shutting reminds us that ‘‘inside’’ is an empty place; even the lamb, when brought onstage by Wesley, is placed into a small penned enclosure. Inside has become a hollow, void place to the family, and as a result, they want out—Ella to Europe, Emma to Mexico, Wesley to Alaska, Weston to an alcoholic stupor.

Disease and sickness, and images of a poison circulating through the blood, complement the motif of inside/outside. The curse on the family is described by both women as something that breeds internally in Weston and Wesley and is inevitable. Also inevitable, and also treated as a ‘‘curse,’’ is Emma’s menstruation (which is another image of the inside escaping to the outside). Ella warns Emma that swimming during her period could kill her. Even the lamb suffers from an invasion of a harmful force in its body: maggots have infested its digestive tract. When the body’s defenses fail and intruders are allowed to breed inside the body, the play tells us, the body will soon fall to those forces that threaten it.

Compare and Contrast

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1970s: Oil and gas shortages precipitate an energy crisis in the United States. Cars line up for gasoline, and President Ford appoints an ‘‘energy czar’’ to head U.S. energy policy efforts. As the crisis ends, both politicians and the public realize that these ‘‘shortages’’ were created arti- ficially by oil-producing countries and oil companies in order to boost profits.

Today: The U.S. again faces an energy crisis, but this time the shortages and exorbitant prices affect electricity. California suffers from ‘‘rolling blackouts,’’ and the major population centers of the East Coast are warned about similar blackouts or brownouts. President George W. Bush proposes an energy policy that stresses greater production, but many citizens mistrust this policy because of Bush’s and Vice-President Dick Cheney’s ties to oil companies and the energy industry.

1970s: In Los Angeles, suburbanization continues unabated. The central city suffers while middle-class people flee to suburbs that sprawl ever farther into what was once farmland.

Today: After riots, fires, a major earthquake, landslides, and flooding, Los Angeles continues to grow. However, many people move back into the central city to work in the burgeoning entertainment industry.

1970s: With the ‘‘first wave’’ of feminism, women begin demanding equal treatment by the law and by their husbands. Laws against marital rape, for instance, gain ground in many states that had previously resisted them. Conservatives, however, decry feminism, blaming it for rising divorce rates and what they see as a ‘‘breakdown’’ of the nuclear family.

Today: Feminism is in its ‘‘third wave.’’ As many of the issues feminists initially fought for have become law, feminist groups turn their sights on other issues. However, many of the same issues (such as access to abortions and birth control, equal pay for equal work, and affirmative action) still remain to be resolved.

Media Adaptations

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Curse of the Starving Class was adapted as a film in 1994 by Shepard and Bruce Beresford and produced by Breakheart Films. In addition, playwright Sam Shepard is himself an actor and can be seen in over a dozen wide-release films (many with his longtime partner Jessica Lange), including Country, Places in the Heart, and The Right Stuff.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Barnes, Clive, ‘‘Shepard’s Starving Class Offers Much Food for Thought,’’ in New York Post, March 3, 1978.

Beaufort, John, ‘‘Off-Broadway: Tale of a Blighted Family,’’ in Christian Science Monitor, March 3, 1978.

Bottoms, Stephen J., The Theatre of Sam Shepard: States of Crisis, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

DeRose, David J., Sam Shepard, Twayne, 1962.

Eder, Richard, ‘‘Theatre: The Starving Class,’’ in New York Daily News, March 3, 1978, p. C4.

Hart, Lynda, Sam Shepard’s Metaphorical Stages, Greenwood Press, 1987.

Kaufmann, Stanley, ‘‘What Price Freedom?’’ in New Republic, April 8, 1978, pp. 24–25.

Kissel, Howard, Review of Curse of the Starving Class, in Women’s Wear Daily, March 3, 1978.

Lahr, John, ‘‘A Ghost Town of the Imagination,’’ in Village Voice, July 25, 1977, pp. 61–62.

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

Watt, Douglas, ‘‘In the End, Emptiness,’’ in New York Daily News, March 3, 1978.

Further Reading DeRose, David J., Sam Shepard, Twayne, 1992. Part of the immensely useful Twayne’s U.S. Authors Series, this book provides a concise introduction to Shepard’s life, short descriptions of almost all of his works up to States of Shock, and discussions of the themes and techniques that characterize Shepard’s work as a whole.

Randall, Phyllis R., ‘‘Adapting to Reality: Language in Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class,’’ in Sam Shepard: A Casebook, edited by Kimball King, Garland, 1988. Randall argues here that, although Curse of the Starving Class is indeed a more realistic play than the works that preceded it, Shepard retains a use of language in this play that ‘‘we do not ordinarily associate with realistic drama.’’


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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 and Work of an American Dreamer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986.

VerMeulen, Michael. “Sam Shepard: Yes, Yes, Yes.” Esquire 93 (February, 1980): 79-86.


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