One of the hottest tickets in New York this season is for a play about the controversial urban planner Robert Moses (1888–1981), whose incredibly ambitious infrastructure projects—highways, bridges, parks—transformed metropolitan New York in the mid-20th century. Straight Line Crazy, written by British playwright David Hare, and starring Ralph Fiennes in a spectacular performance as Moses, has sold out its run (through December 18) at the Shed in Manhattan. Editor in chief Cathleen McGuigan spoke with Hare about why he took on a quintessentially American figure for a play originally staged in London.
How did Robert Moses capture your interest as a potential protagonist?
Nicholas Hytner, the director, had read the book about Robert Moses, The Power Broker, by Robert Caro [the Pulitzer Prize–winning biography, published in 1974]. Nick got very interested in architecture through building the Bridge Theatre in London, working with Steve Tompkins [Haworth Tompkins Architects], now the preeminent British theater architect. And so Nick asked me if I’d ever read the Caro book, and I had, but then I reread it. And I basically felt I had a different view, by reading around the subject and because so much has happened since in terms of studies of both Jane Jacobs, who opposed him, and of Moses himself. I felt I had a new take on the subject—I’d never have done it if I felt that I was just going to reinforce what Caro said.
What is your perspective on Moses?
Caro’s version of Moses is based on the idea that what he was interested in was power, in his creation of a new arm of government, a commission, which was not democratically accountable but run by one man imposing his will. Caro sees Moses as a man who becomes corrupted by power, whereas my play is much more about a man who has a dream and the means he uses to fulfill that dream.
Your play is structured around two periods in Robert Moses’s life: Act I, in 1926, when he was just getting started, and Act II, in 1955, with his downfall, when he confronts opposition to his ideas, which he doesn’t understand.
That’s exactly it. I had to choose two incidents. One is the creation of Jones Beach on Long Island, which does seem to me his claim to genuine idealism. Yet in order to open up Long Island to the people of New York, he had to create roads—his chosen instrument was always the car. And the tragedy of Moses is that he becomes trapped in that belief in the car as the means of liberation. By the 1950s, opinion was already changing about that.
You bring on the character of Jane Jacobs as his foil, as others have done, when, in Act II, Moses is proposing an expressway cutting through Washington Square, the heart of Greenwich Village.
It was before Jacobs wrote her book [The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961]. She was not the leader of the movement opposing Moses then, but she was a significant part of it. The other great, significant event is clearly the building of the Cross Bronx Expressway [beginning in 1948, it destroyed entire neighborhoods and displaced tens of thousands of people]. The shadow of that had to be in the play because that is the great crime—the human damage it caused, which clearly had a racial element.
But I really wanted to say there isn’t anything worse than being trapped in a dream if you can’t move on from it. And so the play, I hope, is about more than urban planning. It’s about all of us, and the dreams of our youth that can become very rigid if we don’t check them against reality occasionally,
I identify completely with Moses. Because I think [laughing] it’s true of my own life. I’m 75, and I don’t mean to be overly autobiographical about it, but it’s something that happens to human beings, you know—it is very hard for them to let go of whatever it is that first motivated them. Moses was the victim of constant criticism, and the tendency is to become scratchy and defensive and to believe that you are always right, which really was Moses’s chief crime. He was right about Long Island: Jones Beach is an incredible achievement. But he ceased to be able to distinguish where he was right and where he was wrong. He was clearly wrong about mass transit, as anyone knows who’s ever struggled out to JFK to catch a flight and curses the name of Moses.
Have you heard from architects who have seen the play?
Norman Foster’s response was one of the most interesting. He rang me after he saw it and had a whole load of stuff to say, not least, “How do you know the way we talk?” He basically was saying, you’ve got it right—that is how we talk. But beyond that, he said that the Jane Jacobs approach is now the approach that architects want to take, which is, how do we keep what is good while we also improve the quality of life?
As you say, the world around Robert Moses changed, but he did not.
Yes, and he has been misrepresented in many ways. I wanted to make clear that this vulgar idea of him as a brute wasn’t really right. He was a highly sophisticated man. His writings are full of references to Socrates and Aristotle—he was highfalutin’ and highbrow. I wanted to restore his complexity. The arguments against him, I hope, are pretty well represented, but there are arguments for him as well.