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.”
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.
Concerned that her son Jared may have Asperger’s Syndrome, Joyce gives him a book – Tony Attwood’s Asperger’s Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals – to read. Attwood, who has operated a clinical practice in Australia for those with Asperger’s since 1992, is one of the world’s foremost experts on the disorder. Below is a quick guide to Attwood’s “Australian Scale for Asperger’s Sydrome,” which aids in diagnosing the disorder. However, Attwood notes that there is no universally agreed upon set of traits. Body Awareness purposefully avoids indicating a diagnosis in either direction for Jared.
Here is a quick guide with traits of Asperger’s Syndrome.
Walter Bilderback: It's great to have you back at the Wilma. You've been busy since you were here last, and have been gathering great reviews for your work. You're working with Mimi Lien, who designed Becky Shaw, again on the set design: what challenges did Body Awareness pose design-wise? What does Mimi bring to the table?
Anne Kauffman: I'm THRILLED to be back at the Wilma again and so happy that Mimi is once again collaborating with me. I love working with Mimi because she and I are both interested in theatricalizing, or perhaps abstracting realism. We had a very interesting process on Body Awareness. Since the playwright tells us in the script that all three spaces exist simultaneously, Mimi and I asked ourselves "why" and "what does it mean?" We went through a couple of ideas where we threw out the directive from the playwright, and then found our way back to it. We discovered as we started to dig in that as the play progresses, the characters are like bees bringing experience and knowledge from one space, and sort of pollinating another...so as we watch them traverse and live in each location, we watch them bring work home to the kitchen, or the bedroom, and conversely what happens in the bedroom, makes its way back to
by Walter Bilderback
Walter Bilderback: My experience encountering each of your plays for the first time is that nothing much is happening to relatively ordinary people, and then sometime near the end I find myself thinking “Holy Cow! Something huge has happened without me noticing it.” You’ve said that dialogue and pace are overly-stressed in a lot of new plays. Can you talk a little about this?
Annie Baker: Oh good. That’s a huge compliment, Walter. Thank you. Yes, I feel like a lot of contemporary plays are trying to compete with film and TV, which is always a terrible idea. If you try to play their game, film and TV will beat you every time. The plays I’m talking about are fast-paced, “realistic,” take place in a zillion different locations, and have a lot of big sitcom-y laughs. I think Body Awareness is representative of my transition out of that kind of writing and into something else. I do think it has some film and TV residue on it, but it’s trying to shake it off.