If our species has developed anything like a collective conscience, it’s to the extent that we know our past. History doesn’t just measure our growth, we also need to know the crimes we’re capable of.

The theater can gild our guilt and still push it home. That’s the impetus behind Ragged Dick, an Immediate Theatre Company world premiere. Neal Bell’s play seeks to re-create the feel and the stench of the not-so-gay 90s, when journalists first offered an antidote to gushing reports about the Astors’ and Vanderbilts’ lavish balls. Nor did the muckrakers write about the poor, in order to denounce their presumed immorality. Instead they wrote for the poor, to call attention to their plight: abominable sanitation, contagious diseases, starvation wages, police brutality, and political neglect.

Ragged Dick is not meant to embalm an ugly past, as Steppenwolf’s reverent Grapes of Wrath did Steinbeck’s survivors. To Bell, who teaches play writing at New York’s Playwrights Horizons, the greedy past is too close to the 1990s.

“I didn’t have to work to find parallels,” says Bell. “The turn of the century saw the growth of an enormous gap between rich and poor that continues today. But it was clearer then than it is now. And growing out of this disparity was the problem of homelessness. Plus a VD epidemic was carrying people off at an alarming rate–it was then as incurable as AIDS.” The Metropolitan Museum and Carnegie Hall were going up, side by side with the seedy Bowery and the Mulberry Bend slums.

“I’m trying to bring the past into the present,” Bell says, “and show how one reporter becomes aware enough to make a difference.

“It’s not that we don’t know there’s a homeless problem but we lack the political nerve to do something; we feel helpless or desensitized. I see places in New York where people step out of limousines over bums on the sidewalks to get into fancy restaurants. The Reagan 80s made many of us feel the government can’t be bothered to care about its citizens.”

Bell thinks that theater can arouse us in the same way that the muckrakers aroused the citizenry at the turn of the century. “A play should challenge an audience to think and make connections that don’t have to be spelled out,” he says. “That’s what makes theater amazing: out of their collective imagination, the audience works with the actors to create something larger than both.”

Ragged Dick takes place in the years after Chicago’s 1886 Haymarket Square bombing, which killed seven and set off a desperate search for scapegoats; four anarchists were hanged more for their beliefs than for any evidence linking them with the killer, who remained unknown.

Bell’s hero is Dick Hunter, a photojournalist based on crusaders like Jacob Riis and Lincoln Steffens. Stumbling on a few clues about who really threw the bomb, Hunter embarks on a quest for the truth that shows him the underside of the Gilded Age. Bell chose a journalist as his hero because he “wanted a character whose job would be to alert people to what’s going on.” But Hunter learns “that people can be informed about injustices,” Bell says, “and still do nothing about them.”

To prepare for Ragged Dick, Immediate director Jeff Ginsberg and his cast of 12 immersed themselves in the squalid past and present. Besides absorbing Riis’s seminal photo essay How the Other Half Lives, the cast took field trips to the Field Museum’s ongoing photographic exhibit on the homeless, to the Hull House museum on South Halsted, to what’s left of the near-west-side neighborhood Jane Addams served, and to the courthouse where the anarchists’ trial was held and the four “martyrs” hanged. Two of the actors who play derelicts also visited warming shelters like the Pacific Garden Mission on South State.

Ginsberg talks about a few disturbing truths he picked up: “The Marshall Fields, McCormicks, Armours, and Swifts–Chicago’s top families–would send their agents to Slavic countries and import thousands of people into Chicago and New York with the promise of jobs. But when the immigrants got here, they found there were far too few jobs, which of course kept wages low.

“These immigrants were not exactly escaping an Eden in the old country, but at least in the rural areas they left there were jobs and breathing room, not the cramped ghettos with 20 to a room. One of the visual themes of this play is the Dickensian airlessness, the sunlessness and the stench of the period.”

Technically the show reinforces the connections with our own time. “The visual and technical elements,” Ginsberg says, “will depict the 19th century, but the music linking the 24 scenes comes from today. These selections from the Kronos Quartet and from Steve Reich have an eerie, driving quality to match the dark, urban Hitchcockian pull of the play.”

Ragged Dick plays at the Theatre Building, 1225 W. Belmont, through April 8. Performances are Thursday at 7:30, Friday at 8:15, Saturday at 4 and 9:15, and Sunday at 3. Tickets are $17-$20 and can be reserved at 327-5252.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/C.M. Hardt.