Since the original Broadway production opened in 1998, RAGTIME has given audiences an epic view of New York at the turn of the 20th century. Characters from three groups – the white upper class, the newly arrived immigrants, and the community of African-Americans in Harlem – intermix throughout Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, and Terrance McNally’s adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s sprawling novel. Through the connections they’ve made with each other, the characters redefine what it means to American – and what it means to be a family.
There’s one group that doesn’t quite fit with the three main groups RAGTIME addresses: the Irish. As recent immigrants, the Irish characters in RAGTIME haven’t fully assimilated or achieved the status kind of status that the WASP family RAGTIME centers on has. As a result, the Irish in RAGTIME use what power they do have to maintain their status.
In RAGTIME, the Irish mainly hold positions of service. Mother’s maid, Kathleen; Will Conklin and his volunteer firefighters; the police; they all make up a class below the wealthy WASPs, but above Tateh and his fellow immigrants. While the Irish are never directly addressed as a cohesive group, it’s clear that there is some kind of unity amongst them. When Coalhouse threatens to find a policeman after the firefighters refuse to let him pass their fire station, they laugh as their chief, Will Conklin, tells Coalhouse to send the police chief his regards. Will Conklin is confident that the police will refuse to help, presumably due to their shared ethnic background and the friendship between the two forces.
The Irish firefighters – and the police who stand by as the firefighters destroy Coalhouse’s car – are the only characters who display overt racism towards Coalhouse. Since they do not appear to have fully assimilated, given their accents and how they appear to uniformly be in the same social class, the Irish have the most at stake from African-Americans gaining more rights and moving up socially. Their shocking destruction of Coalhouse’s car is their way of venting their frustration, as well as attempting to keep Coalhouse from threatening their social position. The sight of someone who is supposed to be below them socially driving a car with an “impudent, cocky, king of the road smirk” must have seemed like a personal attack on their status, inciting them to a horrible act of violence.
When Coalhouse seeks revenge on Will, he turns to the authorities for help, pleading for protection. The Irish used to be in the same position as Coalhouse, he insists, only they had to “get used to it.” This statement, more than anything else in the show, demonstrates how tenuous Will views his social status. Eventually, of course, both the Irish and African-Americans are able to break out of their roles in society – without hindering each other.