Interview with Richard Hamburger
Production Dramaturg William Steinberger sits down with director Richard Hamburger to discuss Curse of the Starving Class.
William Steinberger: You’re a longtime admirer of Curse of the Starving Class. What initially drew you to the play, and what about it seems particularly right for an American audience today?
Richard Hamburger: Even though it was written in the 1970s, CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS is particularly resonant today with the mortgage crisis having led to so many people losing their farms, houses and land. Weston, the father in the play, says, “I always figured on the future. I banked on it. I was banking on it getting better. It couldn’t get worse, so I figured it’d get better. I figured that’s why everyone wants you to buy things. Buy refrigerators. Buy cars, houses, lots, invest. They wouldn’t be so generous if they didn’t figure you had it comin’ in. At some point it had to be comin’ in. So I went along with it. Why not borrow if you know it’s coming in.” Critic Marc Robinson calls the play an ‘exploded version of the save-the-farm play,’ and it is that original, incendiary, aspect that intrigues me most. Despite the play’s tragic dimensions, it also has an irresistibly droll, surrealistic sense of humor. Shepard is a wizard at revealing American patterns and proclivities in an unpredictable and intriguing way, without ever preaching.
WS: The set for the Wilma’s production of Curse gives attention to the interplay between the family and the land. Could you tell us about how you and set designer Matthew Saunders arrived at this set design?
RH: At one point a character in the play looks at a lamb in the center of the kitchen says, “What the hell are you doing here ? Is this the inside or the outside? This is the inside, right? This is the inside of the house. Even with the door out it’s still the inside. Right? “Matt Saunders has designed a subtle space that shrewdly encompasses this confusion – it is both an indoor and outdoor world and at the same time we never forget that we’re in a theater. Owning a home and plot of land is a part of what we call the American Dream and this family’s struggle to maintain life on a dying farm embodies much of the action and struggle of the play. Matt’s work is intuitive and refreshingly non-literal; the wide open space is waiting to explode when actors come on stage. It has distinct possibilities for unpredictable happenings.
WS: I believe this is the first play of Sam Shepard’s you’ve directed. What unique challenges are there in working on a play by Sam Shepard?
RH: When I was younger, I thought Shepard was too unstructured for me to direct but now I see the play has its own particular, rigorous structure. Shepard has a foot simultaneously in two worlds, both naturalistic and wildly inventive with stream-of-consciousness riffs. I love this combination, and the way it diffuses the tragedy with vivid imagery. The play is full of gleefully satiric touches and yet it never loses touch with the dilemma of each individual character. No matter how far out it appears to be, it has a pulsating heart at its core. One of the exciting challenges of rehearsal will be to find a way to reveal the play’s strange hybrid of “real” and “heightened.” I can’t wait to dive into Curse of the Starving Class, and am very happy to be returning to the Wilma to direct it. I’m grateful to Blanka for taking a chance on such a brave one-of-a-kind play.
WS: Curse of the Starving Class, which premiered in 1978, marks Shepard’s transition from the more experimental, non-linear storytelling of his early career towards his best known family dramas, which take a more realistic, O’Neillian approach to issues of the family and the West. Could you talk a bit about how this play and your production balance Shepard’s image-heavy, non-literal language with these emerging themes of family, the West and a changing America?
RH: You’re right that this play has the wildness, humor and mythologies of the earlier plays while sending its roots deeper into Shepard’s own particular past. And like most creative artists, Shepard has uncovered what has been right under our collective noses all along --- that this is an endlessly energetic, hungry country with an enduring talent for dreaming up and marketing shiny futures that lots of people buy into in order to sate their appetites. Some of us are left destitute and out in the cold when the bill comes in. You’ve got a longstanding, complex problem? Dream big and shoot from the hip. We’ll deal with the consequences later. Change is so rapid in America, and it can be hard to keep up with the latest dreams that are being peddled. Yeats’ line, ‘ This is no country for old men,” which Cormac McCarthy has resuscitated, remains true.
WS: Shepard has noted that he’s very interested in “the real connection between the forces of nature and the human condition,” a connection that he finds underexplored in American drama. What does Curse of the Starving Class have to say about the relationship between the forces of nature and the human condition?
RH: Shepard doesn’t provide answers or a thesis. His play asks questions such as how much of our destiny is handed down to us from our family’s class, blood, lineage? How much can we reinvent ourselves? How can we free ourselves from the past? Are we ever really free? Are we bumping into what we’re trying to escape from? When we lose our connection to the land, do we lose our identity? Most good plays ask these questions. When you walk home from the play, maybe you’ll wonder, as Emma, the young daughter, does, ‘What kind of family is this?” You might even ask, “How much are we like these people?” or even “What’s it going to take to save what’s important to us?”