Curse of the Starving Class examines themes of the violation of the land and the disintegration of the nuclear family. It is a very American play, about naïveté, about family relationships and how these relationships are perceived. Taylor seems to sum it all up in act 2 when he complains, “You people carry on as though the whole world revolved around your petty little existence.” Worse, each person seems isolated within the family, unaware of the others’ goals and aspirations. Wesley and Emma are genuinely upset at the prospect of the loss of their home, while Weston has spent most of his time trying to break out of its confinement. Ella flatters herself that Taylor is interested in her and is devastated when she discovers that it was only the property he wanted. None of the Tates seems to realize that there is a profit to be made in dividing the land, converting it from farming to tracts for low-cost housing.
These themes are also suggested symbolically. In his directions at the start of the play, after specifying the position of a table, Sam Shepard notes, “Four mismatched metal chairs are set one at each side of the table.” The chairs suggest the differences among the family members. Emma’s 4-H uniform is a marked contrast to Wesley’s sweatshirt and jeans. No sooner does Ella, wearing a dress and white gloves, leave with Taylor than Weston enters in his shabby outfit. At the same time, there is a connection between these characters, attested by the similarity of their names. When Emma first meets Taylor, she assures him that there is something in the family, especially within the men, a sort of hereditary “liquid dynamite.” In the third act, when Wesley comes in wearing Weston’s clothes, his only explanation is, “They fit me.” Ironically, Emma is the one who explodes, but that is part of the destructiveness of family life. At the end of the drama, it is easy to see that Weston and Ella have been like the eagle and the cat: In their ceaseless conflict they have destroyed themselves and their children.
Finally, there is, as the title of the play suggests, a sense of fate at work, the unfolding of a curse. Critics have observed that Emma, experiencing menstruation, literally has “the curse.” Emma shouts, “WE DON’T BELONG TO THE STARVING CLASS!” The artichokes are important in this context. The quantity Weston brings home suggests abundance, but they are in no way a staple, and even Weston cannot stand to smell them cooking. The artichokes, then, like Weston’s plans for the future, provide no sustenance. These people need emotional contact more than food to stave off their hunger. Shepard has often been seen as a critic of the American Dream, but he is also a proponent of American values; in Curse of the Starving Class he can be seen to be lamenting their loss.
The Disappearing Frontier Shepard’s work, from his first play Cowboys to his most recent scripts, is suffused with images of cowboys, frontiersmen, and pioneers. When he was asked by a Theatre Quarterly interviewer in 1974 why he wrote about cowboys, Shepard replied:
Cowboys are really interesting to me—these guys, most of them really young, about sixteen or seventeen, who decided they didn’t want to have anything to do with the East Coast, with that way of life, and took on this immense country, and didn’t have any real rules.
Shepard’s fascination with images from the Western frontier also derives from his sense that something great and important in the American...
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character has disappeared.
In Curse of the Starving Class, the unnamed family on which the play centers are all affected by their unidentifiable sensation that a frontier has disappeared. They live in southern California, a place that was initially a true frontier and then in the depression became the land of dreams for poor migrants from the Dust Bowl and the South. But it, too, is changing, going from being some of the richest farmland in the United States to becoming the suburban sprawl of Los Angeles. Each of the characters responds to this differently. Ella wants none of it; she seeks to sell the house and use the money to go to Europe (the very opposite of a frontier). Weston is lost, beaten-down, and drunk, and he has sought to buy more land on an even more remote frontier—the desert. The children both romanticize the frontier. Emma sees herself as a character in a movie, pumping gas and fixing cars at a remote town far from civilization, while Wesley (like his father, perhaps?) still seeks for the real frontier: Alaska.
Although Shepard has denied that he is trying to write social protest plays, Curse of the Starving Class reads like one. In this play, the frontier disappears because of predatory capitalism (represented largely by Taylor, the lawyer who wants to buy the family’s house in order to create a suburb and who sells Weston worthless land). But capitalism and greed also work on a much more personal level to ruin the family. Ellis knows that Weston is a drunk and is not responsible for his own actions; nonetheless, he is happy to keep making money off his drinking and to take advantage of Weston by buying his house. The frontier, a land where a man could take his fate in his own hands and be the master of his destiny, is entirely gone in this play, replaced by the ‘‘curse’’ that marks this family and the ‘‘starving class’’ to which they belong.
Family Curses In a way, Curse of the Starving Class is an updating of one of the oldest extant play cycles, Aeschylus’ Oresteia. That trilogy, written in the fifth century B.C.E., tells the story of the house of the Greek hero Agamemnon, who brought a curse upon his family by sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia in order to obtain favorable winds for his army’s voyage to Troy. In the ten years he is gone at the Trojan War, his wife Clytemnestra takes up with another man, and upon Agamemnon’s return, she and her lover murder her husband. Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, must avenge his father’s death. The cycle of violence cannot end—murder must answer murder—until the gods themselves intervene.
The family of Curse of the Starving Class seems similarly doomed. They suffer under a ‘‘curse’’ that is peculiar to them, not just to their class. Ella says in the second act that this curse is ‘‘invisible but it’s there. It’s always there. It comes onto us like nightmare.’’ At other points, characters refer to the curse as a germ, as an infection, and as nitroglycerin in the blood. The curse dooms them to violence, poverty, and self-destruction, and the result is always to explode the enclosing structure of the family. Weston’s drunkenness breaks the family apart and, literally, damages the integrity of the house itself when he breaks down the door. Ella sleeps with the lawyer who is trying to take their house away. Emma, when she figuratively becomes a woman (has her first menstrual period), undertakes a life of crime and violence.
But it is Wesley who is the real emblem of the curse. At the start of the play, in a long monologue, he narrates his father’s rage of the previous night. In this monologue, he switches between first and third person, as if he were watching things happen to him from the outside. Food, the symbol of a healthy family, is literally pissed on by him when he urinates on his sister’s chart of how to cut up a frying chicken. And at the end of the play, after Weston has sobered up and decided to return to the family, Wesley changes into Weston’s old filthy clothes and butchers the lamb that is, in part, the symbol of the fragility of the family. As he reaches manhood, the curse takes hold of him, and he is compelled to behave in a way that ensures the destruction of himself and of his family.