Curse of the Starving Class Summary

Sam Shepard

Curse of the Starving Class

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Curse of the Starving Class Summary

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“Curse of the Starving Class” by American playwright Sam Shepard follows a working-class family in a sparsely populated desert region of California. It premiered in London in 1977, and was adapted to a major motion picture in 1994. Shepard won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 and is often regarded by critics as one of the best playwrights of the 20th century. “Curse of the Starving Class” was praised for its handling of dark comedy that finishes with a sinister surrealism.

Its themes include the struggle for dignity, moral obligations to family members, and the effect of money in America. There are three acts. Most of the play takes place in the family’s kitchen, with frequent drama created with reference to the emptiness of the refrigerator.

The Tate family all have unique and often contradictory ambitions. The head of the family, Weston Tate, a man in his 50s, doesn’t know what to do with his failing farm. He used to raise sheep and grow avocados, but he’s lost the willpower and capital to continue the business. Instead of working through his problems, Weston prefers to ignore them by drinking constantly. The few times he’s actually home is to sleep off a hangover. Things only get worse after he loses his part-time job as a pilot.

Weston’s wife, Ella Tate, has been depressed for at least a decade, and thinks the family should sell the farm and move to Paris before the land depreciates anymore. She’s several years younger than Weston and believes there’s so much more of the world she’s yet to explore. In Europe with her children, she’s sure that they can all create a new life far away from Weston. Throughout the play, Ella betrays her deep naiveté toward Europe, but her ignorance doesn’t halt her ambition. When the audience first sees her, she’s wearing a bathrobe and has curlers in her hair.

Meanwhile, their children are by turns selfish and irritable, or idealistic and determined. The youngest, Emma, is a thirteen-year-old high-achiever who hates her parents and wants to live a wild life in Mexico. She plans on working as a mechanic. Emma recently had her first period, and her mother can only offer her the most obvious advice.

The family is not starving, but they have so little money that by American standards, they are. Their refrigerator is never full, which leads Ella to steal the chicken that her daughter was raising for a school project. She doesn’t tell her about the theft, nor does she apologize for eating Emma’s science project. Weston, still drunk from last night, later pees on the poster’s Emma made for her presentation.

Her brother, the introverted Wesley, eighteen years of age, likes where he grew up and wants to stay and fight to make it better. He also doesn’t want to see his mother and father separate. Yet he also understands that the family will likely have to leave the land. He fears becoming like his father if he stays on the farm. Wesley always appears in unassuming clothing. In the first scene, he wears jeans and a hoodie as he picks up pieces of the front door his father broke in a drunken rampage.

While the family hopes to profit from their farm, there’s also the possibility that they may lose everything because of their debt, almost entirely brought on by Weston’s irresponsible actions.

The Tate family is far more vulnerable than they know. They are surrounded by hawkish developers and petty criminals, as well as gang members. This includes Taylor, a real estate agent who starts an affair with Ella. During their private “business meetings,” he proves himself to be an effective (but conniving) businessperson.

What Ella hasn’t realized yet is that Weston, while drunk, already sold the farm. He sold it to a bar/club owner for next to nothing; the bar owner plans on revamping it as a steakhouse.

As his family falls apart, Wesley considers moving to Alaska. No one is aware that Emma is scheming to take the farm profits for herself and escape the U.S.

Wesley and Ella hear from the club owner that Weston owes several gang members money. Ella calls her lawyer. He says that Weston is drunk so often that his right to make a business deal of that magnitude is in question. Just then, a police officer visits the house to inform them that Emma has been arrested. It turns out that she had ridden one of her horses through the club owner’s property and caused much damage. Ella drives to the police station to bail her out.

While Ella is away, Wesley goes out to “the care of business.” He attempts to retrieve money owed to the family but fails; he then appears in the kitchen in a bloody shirt. Weston is unfazed by the blood on his son’s t-shirt. Instead, he tells Wesley about a vision he had that involved cutting off a lamb’s testicles (a sick lamb of no value and one of the few remaining ones they own) and placing it on their roof so a bald eagle could swoop down and devour them. Weston has never appeared crazier.

When Ella and Emma return, Ella is so exhausted that she naps on the table. Emma says she’s leaving the family to become a criminal; no one stops her departure or her theft of Ella’s purse.

Offstage, a loud explosion occurs. Two gang members, Emerson and Slater, appear in the kitchen. They joke about killing the sick lamb and blowing up Weston’s vehicle. It’s implied that Emma was in the car and is now likely dead. Emerson and Slater say the family should stay away from the gang and report nothing if they don’t want future trouble.

The play concludes with the family shocked and all of their hopes and willpower spent. They begin to discuss Weston’s bizarre story about the eagle eating lamb testicles on their roof.