The American struggle echoes in 'Ragtime'

May 26, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

WASHINGTON -- In "Ragtime," now showing at the National Theatre here, the doomed Coalhouse Walker Jr. -- doomed because he's a black man who expected a fair shake, doomed because it's the dawning of the 20th century and he should have known better, and doomed because it's America and they're still figuring things out by blowing things up -- sings to his compatriots:

"Go out and tell our story

Let it echo far and wide.

Make them hear you.

Make them hear you."

But Americans are a people sometimes too busy to hear, or too preoccupied to remember for very long what's shouted in our faces, or so breathless to keep up with the present that we neglect the past, until it strikes us what the past resembles: This precise hour of today, when we're still inventing ourselves, still fighting among ourselves, still blaming each other because we think the country's going to hell and then pausing at odd moments to celebrate the country beyond all sane measure.

"Ragtime" reminds us of the heartbreaking struggle and its simultaneous triumphs and amusements, and lifts our souls. Booker T. Washington shows up, and so does Harry Houdini. Henry Ford and J. Pierpont Morgan are there, and the anarchist Emma Goldman, to set the record straight. You leave the theater feeling not only better about yourself, but about the guy who ticks you off most of the time for reasons you can't entirely put into words.

It's adapted from E. L. Doctorow's novel about the country's early century internal struggles: impoverished blacks flooding into cities in search of a better life, tattered immigrants reaching America with dreams and discovering indifference and suspicion, workers demanding better pay and some semblance of security, slums filthy and infected and decaying beyond all redemption, the rich getting fabulously wealthy while the poor look frantically for some sliver of daylight. Any of this strike a chord today?

In the time of "Ragtime," millions of Eastern Europeans flooded the country. Only in hindsight do we celebrate them. In their own time, nativist sentiment ran deep, and foreign agitators were blamed for unrest among the working class.

In "Ragtime," Emma Goldman tells a crowd of grubby, sweaty, exhausted laborers, "I have just returned from Lawrence, Mass., where workers stand in front of the looms for 64 hours a week and earn under $8. When the mill gave out short pay, the workers went on strike. We must support them."

This, to people who can't feed their own sickly children. But they listened, and they walked the picket lines. This, generations before the American workplace grew edgy with layoffs and downsizing while the gap between rich and poor lengthened beyond all previous imagining and loyal employees, white collar and blue, wonder if they'll have jobs tomorrow because the unions that once protected them have been neutered.

The look and the sound of America were changed in the great immigration of the century's early years, and are changed again. Then, the laborers came out of Eastern Europe and built the great cities and worked the mines and the mills. Now they come out of Asia and Latin America, and they hear the same cries heard 90 years ago about immigrants pulling down the nation's standards.

But, as Michael Elliott writes in "The Day Before Yesterday": "The universities which were supposed to be mired in nothing but abstruse debates about political correctness [are] actually turning out tens of thousands of scientists and technologists, a disproportionate number of them children of those same immigrants whom the nativists would have kept away from America's shores."

In "Ragtime," the doomed Coalhouse Walker's ready to explode. Some Irish firehouse boys have ruined his car. "We were just giving him ----," says one of them, "just like we got ---- when we got here."

It's no big deal, he's saying, it's just what Americans do to each other, working things out in our cruel, crude way to see who survives. But sometimes it's a killer. Coalhouse's lady is beaten and murdered, and now Coalhouse goes truly mad -- until Booker T. Washington, the son of a slave who became the most famous African-American of his day, tells him to give himself up for the sake of his son.

He means, for all the sons and daughters to come. Coalhouse understands the sweep of history and marches off to his own demise. But he knows that his cause was just, and knows that the message mustn't die. So he sings:

"Make them hear you.

When they hear you

I'll be near you again."

It's the voice of yesterday yearning to be remembered, if only someone will pay attention. In a country constantly reinventing itself, the struggle never ends. America's a tough town. But "Ragtime" celebrates the struggle, shows us the triumphs as we push each other around until we start to discover the things that we share. It's one generation talking to another, and hearing each other's precise echoes.

Pub Date: 5/26/98

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