Watching Ragged Dick I was reminded of the story of the young man in search of his fortune who seeks out a great samurai master. On finding the master, he walks boldly up to him and says, “Master, I want to be as great a samurai as you. How long will I have to work, how long will I have to practice to become as great as you?” The master slowly looks him over and says, “Ten years.” “Ten years!” the young man shouts, disappointed by his answer. “You don’t understand! I really want to be a great samurai master. Every night I dream about becoming a great samurai. I can think of nothing else.” “In that case,” the master says slowly, “it will take you 20 years.”
It’s clear from the start that playwright Neal Bell desperately wants Ragged Dick to be a deep play, an important play. But it is also clear that his desperation prevents him from achieving that. Ragged Dick is so filled with “deep meaning” and portent–poetic monologues, brooding conversations, characters who are also symbols–that the story and even the intent of the play become murky.
Which is a shame, because the play is set in an auspicious and dramatic time and place in American history–New York City in 1890–where the combined factors of unregulated industrial growth, corrupt political machines, and wave after wave of European immigrants had created vast, fetid slums. At the same time a new kind of journalist emerged, writing for the lurid tabloids published by the likes of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer to satisfy an audience hungry for tales of sex, scandal, and urban violence. These “yellow journalists” combed the slums for the next sordid story to splash across the front page, but many of them–including Jacob Riis, Lincoln Steffens, and Stephen Crane–hoped to use the newspapers to draw attention to the problems of the urban poor.
Ragged Dick concerns one such journalist, Dick Hunter, who has made it his mission, along with his photojournalist buddy Bunner, to document the slums of New York, a project vaguely reminiscent of Jacob Riis’s own bit of muckraking photojournalism How the Other Half Lives. But Neal Bell is not content to write merely a historical drama about the working lives of a couple of journalists. He has to graft a second, less believable story onto the first. So we also see Hunter obsessed with finding a mysterious whore named Susan, who may or may not be the same woman he saw in Chicago six years before at the Haymarket trials. Who is she? What does she know? Why is she in New York?
Hunter’s search for Susan provides us with a tour through Hell’s Kitchen, which is appropriate because the Madonna-like Susan (though as a prostitute, she may be more Magdalene than Mary) acts as Beatrice to Hunter’s Dante. As if this symbolism isn’t laid on thick enough, Susan is known on the streets as Ariadne, the woman in Greek mythology who helped Theseus find his way through King Minos’s labyrinth and kill the Minotaur.
Meanwhile, Susan is on the run, fleeing from a madman who refers to himself in his onstage monologues as a “ghost.” Susan never sees this guy, she just “senses” that he’s closing in–the way Hunter “senses” Susan is hiding something that could save them both.
Sadly, all these melodramatic intimations, and resonances, and layers of myth lead nowhere. They are there just to make the story seem deeper and more substantial. But the story reveals nothing more about the world of New York’s slums of late-19th-century America than last summer’s Batman revealed about late-20th-century America.
Credit for the play making any sense at all belongs to Jeff Ginsberg, whose direction is much better focused than the script, and to the actors, whose heroic efforts keep a play full of improbable dialogue and motivationless action moving.
It’s befitting that the best performance is delivered by an actor imitating a monkey. Whatever you think of the idea of a monkey who gibbers during the day and delivers long, sententious monologues at night, replete with references to the Book of Job and The Merchant of Venice (I think it’s stupid and pretentious), Raphy Green turns in a terrific performance. Richard Wharton is suitably intense as Dick Hunter, and Michael McNeal is suitably threatening as the madman.
Tim Morrison’s excellent set, Ron Greene’s moody lighting, and Frances Maggio’s apt costumes also give credibility to an unbelievable play. However, Jeff Webb’s use of Steve Reich’s music before the show and between scenes was especially annoying. I got the feeling that this music was somehow supposed to encourage us to see parallels between the action on the stage and the plight of the poor in America today, but it was only jarring, anachronistic, and deliberately hipper than thou.
The failure of Ragged Dick is all the more disappointing because at a time when blatant social injustice is making a comeback and the poor are almost as bad off as they were 100 years ago, we need a play that honestly, clearly, and coherently exposes the unjust America the muckrakers knew so well–if only to help us see how we might clean up our own mess.