An American Story
in Three Media

By: Nicole M. Lemery

My first exposure to RAGTIME came through seeing it onstage in Green Bay, Wisconsin nearly seven years ago. At that time there was only one theatre large enough to accommodate traveling Broadway shows, so my exposure to theatre was mostly “what you see is what you get.” I enjoyed RAGTIME immensely, and was immediately drawn into the picture of America it presented. Some of the characters were familiar to me—like Harry Houdini—and others, like “Mother,” would become familiar after repeatedly listening to the soundtrack.

I enjoy RAGTIME because it is a story of my country, and my history, yet it is not the whitewashed version I got in high school. The story of RAGTIME, as originally conceived by novelist E.L. Doctorow, takes place during a tumultuous time period in American history. It is a story about our ancestors and about ourselves, about learning what it is to be American, and who gets to claim that title. The scenes shift between a white, middle-class, suburban family, an immigrant family newly arrived from Eastern Europe, and an African-American family attempting to live their own version of the American Dream. Played out during the swiftly changing pre-WWI time period between 1906 and 1914, RAGTIME has proven irresistible to both Hollywood and Broadway alike (as both film and stage versions now exist). There is a sense of familiarity in the story itself, which appeals to people from all backgrounds.

Doctorow’s novel was published in 1974, right before the bicentennial of the founding of America. It seems an appropriate setting, dealing as it does with another great moment in American history, the turn of the 19th century. This was a country that had produced wealthy men like J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford, was unrivaled in terms of manufacturing and agricultural production, and was drawing immigrants by the thousands from every imaginable country. Yet it was also, according to James W. Loewen’s book LIES MY HISTORY TEACHER TOLD ME, an era of fear mongering, when the Jim Crow laws were becoming a force unto themselves, and the laws coming out of Congress were limiting immigration and attempting to stymie the huge monopolies springing up everywhere. Doctorow paints a picture of different American experiences by deliberately having the three families in his story crash into each other and then observing their reactions.

The basic plot of RAGTIME is convoluted, but it goes something like this: While her husband is away for a year exploring the North Pole, Mother discovers an abandoned black baby in their garden, and makes the decision to take it and the mother, Sarah, into their home. When Coalhouse, who left Sarah before learning she was pregnant, discovers where she is, he begins calling every Sunday to try to earn her trust. This is the situation Father comes home to. Coalhouse at last convinces Sarah of his honorable intentions and they plan to marry. While driving back home afterwards, he passes by the Emerald Isle fire brigade house, and the firemen taunt him and ultimately end up destroying his car. Coalhouse demands justice, but there is little he can do. Sarah attempts to intervene, and ends up losing her life. Now wild with grief, Coalhouse locks himself in JP Morgan’s library and threatens to blow it up (along with all its treasures) unless his car is returned and he allowed to deliver justice to the fire chief who started the whole mess. The story ends with sadness, but there is hope too as Mother marries Tateh (a Jewish immigrant) and creates a blended family—which includes Mother’s son, Tateh’s daughter, and the child of Coalhouse and Sarah. Along the way, Doctorow sprinkles in real life figures such as Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Emma Goldman and the aforementioned Ford and Morgan to draw parallels between the experience of “average” Americans and the ones history remembers.

RAGTIME the book is a meditation on what it means to be American. Doctorow does not think twice about letting his secondary characters ruminate for pages at a time, or detouring for a scene that is highly symbolic but unnecessary to the plot—the scene where J.P. Morgan contemplates how history will view him while trying to sleep inside the Great Pyramid of Giza comes to mind—and for this reason it seems like nearly an impossible task to find the narrative thread necessary to a movie or play. The strength of the book lies in its meandering pace. It creates pictures of a time and place, of people who move through a world they are unprepared for, but who react honestly to the new situations. Reading this book is like listening in on the deepest thoughts of our ancestors. It is refreshing to hear that they are just as uncertain as we are, just as passionate and nervous about the future.

The movie RAGTIME was made in 1981, only a few years after the book had come out. The strangest choice, in my opinion, was made about Tateh and his little girl. The movie portrays him as a hardworking, good man who is seen at first making silhouettes for ten cents on a street corner, then as an entrepreneur making “movie-books” (those little flip books that give the impression of movement). An hour later he returns as the “Baron Ashkenazy,” having become a director of motion pictures, and a successful man. The Tateh of the movie is sincere, but because the audience has not seen his journey, it comes as something of a surprise when he makes his reappearance. Doctorow’s Tateh on the other hand faces an uphill battle, as he struggles to overcome poor wages and living conditions in the factories of Massachusetts, his journey from Lawrence to Philadelphia and eventually to Atlantic City, New Jersey providing a kind of window into the experience of immigrant Americans. Tateh is fully aware at the end of the book that he is lucky to have succeeded at the American dream, and he completely understands the oppressive government against which he has had to struggle. Watching the film, I was left with the impression that his success had been linear, whereas his story in the book more accurately reflects the struggle of immigrants and the poorer classes.

The movie does not rely on themes or imagery to get its point across. The audience must draw its own conclusion about what the experiences of the characters mean. Without these larger themes, it becomes a story about individual, ordinary people, not an observation about groups of people coming together as Americans. At no point—with the possible exception of Tateh—do the characters realize they are operating within the larger frame of American history. They do not consciously contribute to the patchwork that is history. It is entirely possible that this was the deliberate choice of director Milos Forman (himself an immigrant), as most ordinary people are not consciously aware of their contributions to history. But by making the characters slightly more self-aware in the novel, Doctorow lifted his characters out of the realm of the ordinary. The movie creates brilliant character studies, but there is too much focus on their individual struggles, and no overarching sense of the end of an era.

This is not the case with the musical adaptation of RAGTIME, which I recently saw again at the Apollo Theatre, this time presented by Chicago’s Porchlight Theatre Company. The musical clearly understands that the three groups of people presented herein are representative of the larger cast of Americans, and it uses their blossoming self-awareness to subtly signal that we shall not see this America again. It is easier, perhaps, in theatre to get this point across, since theatre conventions encourage people to step forward and narrate parts of their life, and multiple viewpoints can be examined simultaneously through one song. The clearest example of this is “’Till We Reach That Day,” the Act One closer, where Coalhouse laments the death of Sarah, surrounded by Mother, Younger Brother and Emma Goldman, all of whom are contemplating what kind of country would do this to a man.

The characters are painted more broadly here, but their motivations are also made more clear. There are references to each character’s place in the framework of the American Dream, and their expectations are clearly laid out at the beginning of the show. The tension begins to build immediately as those expectations swiftly crumble. Mother is surprised to discover that she holds differing opinions from her husband—but the audience is not. We have heard her wistful farewell in “Goodbye, My Love” despite her conviction that she is encompassed by him.

The show also, out of necessity, cuts a great deal out of the book, but this time it’s the secondary characters that are seen less. Henry Ford, for example, makes an appearance twice, each time to deliver a succinct bon mot that sums up pages of the book: “All men are created equal, but the cream rises to the top!” The prevailing attitudes of the day are dissembled in a similar way:, the play cuts through it all cleanly when Grandfather asks Coalhouse if he knows any “coon music”—only to have the flabbergasted Coalhouse hit a discordant note in surprise. Because the play uses its characters to represent larger groups, their statements resonate more, and their discoveries about their attitudes are representative of a country coming of age.

The biggest change is the attitude encompassed by the ending. The brief epilogue of the show reveals that Father dies on the Luisitania, leaving Mother free to marry Tateh. Even in 2007, such a mixed family would have problems, yet the show manages to send its audience home humming. (Tateh is, after all, the creator of the enormous popular OUR GANG films, later revived as the LITTLE RASCALS.) By ending with the new American family just starting out in the new century, the show sends a clear message of hope (well, it is musical theatre) instead of the book’s more calculated winding-down. RAGTIME the musical believes that America is a great country, worth believing in, even if it sometimes suffers from growing pains. It is worth seeing just for this uplifting history lesson. (One note--I heartily recommend listening to the soundtrack before going or at least familiarizing yourself with the story, because the show absolutely flies by.) RAGTIME the book is less certain about the future of America, but it is quietly proud of the moments that have gotten us this far. RAGTIME the story makes it clear that although America has problems, through the faith in tomorrow of individuals like Mother, Tateh, Coalhouse, and Sarah, the future is bright.

RAGTIME is a story with a proven ability to captivate audiences of every media. E.L. Doctorow won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1974. Seven years later the movie, featuring James Cagney’s last performance, would be nominated for 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The musical was nominated for 12 Tony Awards, winning Best Featured Actress, Book and Score (but losing Best Musical to THE LION KING). It is clear that this is a story that speaks to Americans, that we see ourselves reflected in the confusion, passion, anger and hope of these characters. Each version examines a new facet of this story, and each offers something to the audience that is attractive and exciting, and yet familiar. Book, movie and musical do not give a definition of what it means to be an American—only widely different examples which challenge us to create our own definition.


Doctorow, E. L. RAGTIME. Bantam Paperbacks, New York (1977).

Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me (Trade Paperback). Touchstone, New York, 1996.

RAGTIME. Paramount Pictures (1981).

Ragtime. Live Performance. Apollo Theatre, Porchlight Theatre Company, Chicago, 2007.

Songs from RAGTIME-The Musical. CD Sound Recording. Original Concept Album, RCA Victor Broadway (1996).