The Bridge Theatre, near London’s spectacular Tower Bridge, is showing David Hare’s latest play, Straight line Crazy, directed by Nicholas Hytner. The play is based on the life of Robert Moses, who was a ‘master builder’ in New York from the 20s to the 60s: he transformed the transport links of the city.
Making a bee line for the beach
The play opens in the 20s with the unelected but forceful Robert Moses planning direct line transport links – only for cars – through Long Island, with the vision of enabling citizens to reach the beach for recreation and enjoyment. In the early scene, we saw how the rich landowners of Long Island would resist this. Later we realised that there was resistance to urban planners from the urban poor who had already experienced slum removals in the Bronx in Manhattan.
This had included compulsory purchases, which then involved demolishing ‘slums’ and moving the inhabitants, possibly to better housing, but far away from their previous homes, and all carried out with scant regard for the law. The poor were being moved for the convenience of the car owning middle classes.
In Moses’ plan for Long Island there was no plan for railway or buses to take the poor to the beaches. Moses is unconcerned by this. He builds his department, including a devoted assistant, Fiannula. Dominating and persuasive, he persuades the unelected State Governor, Al Smith, both to sign off on his scheme and to ensure that the judge in the case decides in his favour.
A straight line through Manhattan
After the interval, the second section of the play is set in the mid 1950s. Times have changed: but Moses has not. He has built 600 miles of expressways on Long Island and territories surrounding the island. Now his plan is to drive a straight line through Manhattan from end to end, including cutting through Washington Square. This time the middle classes are involved: they organise and protest. He has a young recruit to his department who has modern ideas about community and consultation.
The play moves towards tragedy, in the style of Ibsen. His thinking is totally rigid. He is fixated on his vision to the extent of obsession and near insanity. Tragedy strikes at his personal life, as his alcoholic wife is committed to an asylum. His assistant, who has been with him for 30 years, supports community involvement and concerns. She decides she no longer agrees with his plans and resigns. He believes that he is right; that matters to him above all else. The play ends with him on stage, isolated.
A strong cast
Ralph Fiennes provides a powerful interpretation of Robert Moses, supported by a lively cast who complement his performance well, particularly Siobhan Cullen as Fiannula Connell, the assistant, and Danny Webb as Governor of New York, Al Smith. Fiennes powerfully depicts the transition from manipulative and dominating to nearly tyrannical, with perhaps a touch of pathos at the end.
Regulating local planning
For anyone who has been involved with planning departments or on the receiving end of their decisions, particularly where grand schemes are involved, the issues raised will be familiar: grand visions requiring the removal of all obstacles in their way; rapid and efficient transport links and modern housing overriding community and local neighbourhoods.
Residents of Kent will recognise the dilemma. I heard it said at the time of planning HS1 that England’s planning laws need changing so that the rail link could be punched through Kent as fast as the French built their high speed line through the Pas de Calais. The Pas de Calais is a sparsely populated region, with little that is worth protecting. Kent is known as ‘the garden of England’. There are old houses, ancient apple orchards, ‘Sites of Special Scientific Interest’ and ‘Sites of Outstanding Natural Beauty’.
Fortunately England’s planning laws, the need for Environmental Impact Assessments, democratic engagement and the acceptance of the need for consultation mitigated some of the damage. HS2 is raising the same concerns. The play itself references Haussmann, Napoleon’s urban planner who cleared slums to build the boulevards of Paris. The issues are perennial.
Planning priorities change
The play inspires the thought that from time to time we need to reassess our fixed convictions. Climate change, for instance, is making us rethink our reliance on cars. And the difficulty of admitting that we have been or are in error in the light of new experience or knowledge is almost universal.
The play runs at The Bridge Theatre until 18 June. It will be shown in theatres in association with National Theatre Live in the autumn of 2022.
*Editor’s note: Frances knows this in detail as she worked in the office that received the letters of Kent residents and property-owners protesting at the planned “straightlinecrazy” route of HS1.