Monday, December 14, 2009

Ragtime and Houdini

Ragtime as a musical has been revived again on Broadway. We went to see it on Saturday afternoon and we were surprised by how enjoyable it is. I am a big fan of the book by E.L. Doctorow and I have strong memories of how poorly I thought it was adapted for a film. But the musical strikes me as quite a bit better than the film in capturing the richness and variety of the original novel. The movie seemed too focused on the fictional story of Coalhouse Walker, but the musical does a much better job of introducing us to the panoply of characters that Doctorow wanted us to get to know from the period of about 1905-1914: from Harry K. Thaw to Stanford White to Evelyn Nesbit to Harry Houdini to Henry Ford to Emma Goldman to J. P. Morgan and Admiral Peary and his first mate Mathew Henson. We get a glimpse of all of these people in the musical and even a bit more than a glimpse of Evelyn and Emma and J.P. and Henry Ford.

There are a few bits about Houdini, too, but not nearly enough. Houdini. I have been fascinated by him since I was kid. And the musical does offer us a take on Houdini which suggests that as an escape artist, he was an inspiration to many people who were trying to escape their own chains - the chains of racial oppression and anti-semitism and the exploitation of ordinary laborers. Houdini was a brilliant entertainer and a master magician who could do things that it seemed no one else could do. But in the end, virtually all he accomplished involved some sort of trick or manipulation of the audience. He yearned to do something that was truly mystical, that took people beyond the ground of ordinary experience into the realm of the supernatural and inexplicable. After his mother died, he expended huge amounts of money and time attempting to communicate with her. He exposed a countless number of corrupt mediums who claimed to have an ability to bring people in touch with their late relatives. He honestly thought he could find a way to reach across the divide separating the living from the dead. At one point, he even had himself buried alive from which he planned a spectacular escape. In the end, though, it was an ill-fated experiment and he had to have his assistants dig him up before he suffocated.

Houdini remains one of the great symbols of a bygone era. He was an amazing escape artist and a perfectionist who drove himself and everyone around him nearly to the breaking point. There is something about him that remains mysterious and just a bit other-worldly. Like Charlie Chaplin and Babe Ruth, he truly was a representative American figure. And he deserves a prominent place in that remarkable period before World War I when America was listening and dancing to ragtime and rapidly becoming the most powerful nation on earth.

1 comment:

  1. Coming to America, the ultimate escape...
    For another take on this theme, take a look at Michael Chabon's "Kavalier and Clay". Layers of escapism...