“A visit from the Old Testament!” proclaims a member of the Vanderbilt dynasty, as future head of the New York City planning commission, Robert Moses, invites himself round to talk with one of the city’s great landowners about the common man’s newly discovered taste for leisure and the opportunities therein. Vanderbilt’s right; Robert Moses is a biblical character. A man with a god complex, yes, but also a desire to create the world in his own image and impose his values. When nominative determinism is this on the nose, a play outlines itself.
The biblical Moses turned his back on the Egyptians and lead the enslaved population to freedom. The 20th century Moses admires antiquity’s architectural perfectionism and ignores the cost in human lives. The mind wanders to other egos from recent history who were big on city planning.
David Hare’s dramaturgical design incorporates biographical nooks and mile upon mile of social commentary. Moses, we learn, is a man whose narcissism works in tandem with a sliding scale of contempt for those he regards as barriers to progress. The more poor, female and non-white you are, the greater Moses’ tendency, fashionable amongst the intelligentsia of the early 20th century, to bulldoze your neighbourhood in the name of paternalism – an authoritarian and distinctly undemocratic tendency that’s useful for hiding all manner of destructive instincts. “Vandal”, “doctrinaire”, these words get bandied about. Uglier words spring to mind.
Straight Line Crazy’s a grand character study but it might have been a better play, though perhaps a weaker piece of biography, had Hare not delineated Moses’ self-interest when an up and comer. Though he later explores the irony of a neophile whose ideas have been frozen in aspic, Ralph Fiennes’ megalomaniac might have been a more tragic figure still had he actually once believed in a benign form of utilitarianism.
Swaggering and wryly cynical, Fiennes suitably puffed up and incredulous – his hands on his hips like a weary Leonard Rossiter, the younger Moses sets out his implicitly contemptuous idea that the green spaces he’ll create, betwixt the city’s new arteries, are a sop to the virtue symbolised by nature – manna for opinion formers.
His later declaration, that roads are simply the means by which urban renewal is facilitated, is either self-deception or outright dishonesty. As the play reaches its crescendo, with conserving forces finally rallying, though too late to prevent the commodification of traditional living, there’s no doubt. Moses’ plans for further “improvements” are defeated but the unforeseen consequence is lifestyle as a fetish – saved communities available only to the most affluent.
It’s sobering to think that just as Jane Jacobs was waking up New Yorkers and the American architectural orthodoxy to the deprivations caused by their abstract thinking (The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published in 1961), foaming UK urban technocrats, eyes like wall cavities, were preparing to replicate it as a panacea for the country’s post-war housing problems.
What lay behind the plans – corruption, fear and hatred of the working poor and minority communities, a Mr Toad-like fascination with cars, which just happened to exclude the worst off – was the same as before and it had exactly the same sociological impact; the displacement of generational communities, homes replaced by living cells in isolated blocks – anomie, alienation, and the low paid turfed into poor housing stock or the sense-deadening sprawl.
It would be comforting to exit Hare’s play and call it history. But some patrons will return to so-called shared owned homes in lifeless, recently built appends to once vibrant communities throughout London and lament an evening in the company of the man who made it all possible. You may want to contact your Housing Association by the way, that damp wall is starting to smell.