Robert Moses was probably the single most influential person in the creation of New York in the 20th century. And if his name to modern ears means little more than a causeway or a state park, his influence is still being felt at one time or another by virtually everyone in the state. From the 1920s into the 1960s, though he was never elected to office, he held over 10 titles and oversaw massive public works construction projects from far out on Long Island to uppermost Upstate New York. And while he never learned to drive, he almost literally paved the way for cars to dominate the state’s roadways.
Now his story is being told in a play Straight Line Crazy, by David Hare, starring Ralph Fiennes, which will be performed off-Broadway at The Shed in New York. Hare, a British playwright whose 2004 docu-play Stuff Happens, about the lead-up to the U.S.-Iraq War made for riveting drama, again tackles a very American subject: the creation of modern New York state. Directed by Nicholas Hytner and Jamie Armitage, Straight Line Crazy shows Moses in the 1920s, when he began to accumulate power and then in the 1950s, when that power was being challenged and diminished. Still, Moses stood tall over the New York scene and by extension the American scene for 40 years.
As noted in Robert Caro’s masterpiece of biography, sociology and history, The Power Broker, the key to Moses power came almost innocently enough in a phrase inserted in his job description, when he was named to the seemingly innocuous post of New York State Parks commissioner: He was put in charge of construction projected in all parks in the state and their connecting roads. Since all roads connect, that, in effect, put him in charge of all roads in the state and all public works projects on those roads. Using among other things, the power of the authority—an entity that was governmental when it needed to be and private when it wanted to be—and eminent domain, Moses built bridges, parkways, parks and buildings that greased the skids for automobiles to take over the roads in the state. In the process, he destroyed neighborhoods and ruined lives, which he casually rationalized with the now-famous line: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”
Working with New York Governor Al Smith, Moses became an expert bill writer, skill he used to gather and consolidate power. In the depths of the Great Depression, his motives, it was generally agreed, seemed good; and his work was great and well received. He supervised the construction of projects like state parks and Jones Beach, as well as dozens of vest-pocket parks—places where people could escape to. He also oversaw the two World’s Fairs. He became the darling of politicians who loved the photo-ops his projects offered them and of ordinary citizens who saw him contributing to the common good.
But as Moses’ power grew, so did his arrogance. Bridges and expressways—never tunnels, subways or railroads—none of which allowed space for mass transportation cut across the state in lines that should never have been straight. Their effect is still being felt by New Yorkers today. The Bronx, once thought of as the New York’s most beautiful borough, became the epitome of urban blight.
Moses’ projects also showed his racism in ways that were both overt—expressways cut through the neighborhoods of people of color—and subtle—bridges that crossed over his parkways have (to this day) such a low overhead that buses can not fit under them. Thus, poorer inner city people (e.g., people of color), those without cars, would have a more difficult time getting out of the city to enjoy those wonderful parks.
Moses downfall came gradually, a project in Central Park pitted him against some Upper West Side homemakers, whose resolve he underestimated. His refusal to work with Walter O’Malley cost the city the Brooklyn Dodgers, who with the New York Giants moved to California. A planned expressway that would have destroyed Greenwich Village pitted him against activist Jane Jacobs. These defeats and public relations blunders exposed his weaknesses and eroded his popularity, which then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller exploited, ultimately accepting Moses’ resignation.
So much has been written about the history and principals of New York—Al Smith, Jane Jacobs, Fiorello LaGuardia, to name just a few—that any comprehensive play would probably have to be performed over the course of weeks. Moses is so much larger than life that he is literally the subject of opera—A Marvelous Order. Hare, however, in Straight Line Crazy, distills rise and fall of Moses into two “decisive incidents” in Moses career, one in 1926 and one in 1955. As Moses, Fiennes, who became famous in the U.S. for his portrayal of Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, is again playing a power hungry, if slightly less charming character. It all promises to make for an epic evening of theater.
With Straight Line Crazy, the Shed, which last season debuted The Search for Signs Intelligent Life in the Universe starring Cecily Strong, is quickly establishing a name for itself as a venue for top-flight theatrical productions.
Straight Line Crazy will be performed at The Shed’s Griffin Theater from October 18 to December 18, 2022. For more information and tickets, go to TheShed.org.