Curse as Hinge

By William Steinberger

Curse of the Starving Class, Sam Shepard’s first proper family drama, functions as a decisive hinge in the playwright’s remarkable career. The play marks Shepard’s transition from his earlier avant-garde works to his renowned family plays, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child (1978), True West (1980), and Fool for Love (1983). The early plays feature long, winding, image-rich monologues, the ample presence of non-literal language and a lack of resolution and narrative structure. The noted critic Richard Gilman has suggested of Shepard’s early plays that he “learned alongside [the Absurdists], … or in their wake, in the same atmosphere of rejection of linear construction, cause and effect sequences, logical procedures, coherent or consistent characters, and the tying of language to explicit meanings.”

In Curse, Shepard matches these experimental techniques with the pillars of American drama dating back to Eugene O’Neill, building a narrative around a conventional three-act structure, all taking place in a recognizable domestic location. The play features a family, the Tates of Southern California, comprised of familiar types engaged in definable conflicts. Curse also fits Shepard’s gift for droll, surrealistic humor within these familiar familial conflicts, taking a less naturalistic approach to the family than his predecessors.

Dramaturg John Glore notes that Curse is the first of Shepard’s plays to reach “for classical dimensions by giving us something – a Meaning –that will resound long after its theatrical sensation has faded. If Shepard’s early plays were firecrackers –short, dazzling, potent, abrupt—Curse strives to give a deeper, more penetrating and lasting rumble of power.” In developing this deeper power, Curse introduces many of the themes – heredity, family, and the myth of the American Dream among them – that mark his plays to come. Shepard’s great family plays show dueling and disconnected American generations, people without firm roots to a land. As he has stated, “I don’t know what the American Dream is. I do know that it doesn’t work. Not only doesn’t it work, the myth of the American Dream has created extraordinary havoc, and it’s going to be our demise.”

The great family plays of Shepard’s middle period, beginning with Curse, are also deeply personal, representing an intentional engagement with Shepard’s own life and history. In a letter to his mother describing the new direction in his writing, he wrote “I’ve been trying to escape myself ever since I left home and I realize now that I have to face things, I can’t run forever.”  Shortly before Curse’s premiere he stated that “If you could really understand [your family], understand the chemistry and the reactions that are going on there, I’ve had the feeling that you’d understand a lot.”

Years later, Shepard, who grew up in part on a Southern California avocado ranch with an alcoholic WWII fighter pilot father, said that “It suddenly occurred to me that I was maybe avoiding a territory that I needed to investigate, which is the family. And I’d avoided it for quite a while because to me there was a danger in – I was a little afraid of it, particularly around my old man, you know, and all of that emotional territory. I didn’t really want to tip-toe in there and then I thought, ‘well, maybe I better.’ I guess it started with Curse.”

About the Photo
“I was traveling around the Los Angeles area this past January as a part of a birthday present surprise.  It seemed like the perfect opportunity to take a drive through the towns that inspired Shepard to write Curse of the Starving Class.  Specifically, I visited Duarte, California; Sam graduated from the high school here, and it's this landscape where much of his inspiration originates.  I drove through the dull neighborhoods, took some pictures, found some cheap mexican food at the strip mall along the main road - wasn't much to see.  In a 1997 Paris Review interview Shepard said, 'The California I knew, old rancho California, is gone.  It just doesn't exist, except maybe in little pockets.' My visit to Duarte confirmed this." - Christopher Collucci (Original Music / Sound Designer)

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