There’s a clear theme of mobility in the show, which is not the same thing as progress. For all the societal push that happens in the show, only two characters have any kind of mobility: Coalhouse, with his car, and Tateh (and his daughter) with their wanderings.
But not all mobility is upward. Coalhouse’s mobility is the very thing that is threatening to the poor white volunteer firemen who ultimately bring about his downfall. The idea of a black man who’s going places (in both senses) terrifies them, so they crush it. It’s tempting to blame the victim and accuse Coalhouse’s immobility when it comes to demanding justice as the cause of his undoing, but it’s not his demand for justice that drives him over the edge—it’s society’s unwillingness to provide it to him. The society of New Rochelle can’t keep up with the changes Coalhouse represents; he’s travelling on roads that are still under construction.
Tateh, on the other hand, moves more frequently than anyone else in the show: from Latvia to New York to Lawrence, MA to Philadelphia to Atlantic City. Like generations of wandering Jews before him, Tateh stakes his future to an idea rather than a plot of land. Unlike Coalhouse, he attempts humility in the face of degradation, but he finds that a fruitless strategy. It’s only when he, like Coalhouse, fights back (by joining the union battle in Lawrence) that his fortunes begin to change. Unlike Coalhouse, Tateh doesn’t see his battle through to the end. When he sees his opening for further mobility, by jumping on the train to Philadelphia with the departing children, he takes it, and his fortunes change. Ragtime seems to be saying that justice is great, but true greatness is knowing when to get off.
And what of the WASP family at the center of Ragtime? Father departs for Alaska in the first scene—why doesn’t his mobility translate socially? The key is in “Journey On.” While Tateh is “coming to America,” Father is “going from” it, fleeing the force that powers the progress of everyone else in the show. Is exploration no longer part of the American dream? Perhaps, but Father is not an explorer. His initial exchange with Peary makes it clear that Father is a privileged tourist, and when he returns later in the show, we learn he was not allowed to reach the destination. Only Peary and his first mate, Matthew Henson, reach the North Pole. Father merely gets within orbit.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope for movement in the family. When things come to a head in the second act, and the balance of power in that family shifts towards Mother, they journey to Atlantic City. This trip plants the seeds to the eventual unraveling of their family’s dynamic, so that it may be reassembled in its final configuration… but not until after Father attempts one more time to journey, this time on the ill-fated Lusitania, another trip away from America that ultimately leads to oblivion.
What does it mean that after all this mobility, Mother and Tateh end up back in New Rochelle while Coalhouse ends up dead? Coalhouse’s choice to dig in his heels for justice rather than move when it became a necessity proved his undoing. Tateh’s arrival in New Rochelle, married to Mother, represents a final step forward for him and his daughter. But Mother is back where she started, in that same house on the hill. Sure, her family looks significantly different, and perhaps she has achieved more agency than she was ever accorded in his first marriage, but has she moved? Or did she not need to move, since it was her decision to take in Sarah and her baby at the top of the show that set the rest of the play in motion?