The National Theatre was founded in 1835 and has lead quite the eventful life. This timeline provides an outline of the major events pertaining to The National’s founding, its trials and tribulations, and the many milestones it has crossed.
Periodically you’ll find some entries highlighted in red. These indicates when The National opened after a major renovation or reconstruction project.
You’ll also notice the occasional entry highlighted in blue. These indicate major events in U.S. history that have transpired in The National’s lifetime. As you can see, the world has changed quite a lot!
A stockholding company is formed and a board is appointed for the establishment of a new playhouse in Washington.
July: William Wilson Corcoran (pictured below) buys and then bequeaths the land on which The National Theatre will be built.
December 7th: The National opens with a production of Charles Macklin’s Man of the World, staged by Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street Theatre company.
Thousands of Cherokee are forced on a deadly march from Georgia to present-day Oklahoma to satisfy the terms of the Indian Removal Act; the passage is known today as the Trail of Tears.
The National is closed for repairs; it reopens and then closes again just a few weeks later; it is converted into a circus and sold to new owners the following year.
The theatre falls under new management and resumes its usual performances…unfortunately, it also catches fire and burns down (not for the last time).
The National is rebuilt by new owners, partly to accommodate the visit of legendary Swedish singer Jenny Lind (pictured below), whose sold-out performances help resurrect the institution.
January: The building is sold again and remodeled as a circus for a French equestrian troupe; the arrangement does not last long.
December: Under new management, The National reopens as a theatre again with a performance of Sheridan Knowles’s The Hunchback.
After a brief life as “Fanny Morant’s National Theatre” – named after it’s then-manager – The National burns down once again.
The first shots of the Civil War are fired at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, initiating the battle between the Union and the Confederacy over the institution of slavery.
“The New National Theatre” – sometimes called “Grover’s National Theatre” after its manager, Leonard Grover – reopens on its original site.
The Civil War ends, and just days later, President Abraham Lincoln is assassinated by actor John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre; Washington theaters briefly close in mourning.
January: Once again, the building catches fire, destroying much of its structure and most of the scenery belonging to a visiting opera company.
December: But once again, The National is rebuilt, remodeled, and reopened.
Alexander Graham Bell makes the first telephone call to his assistant, Thomas Watson.
February: The National burns down one last time for good measure…
October: …And reopens in record time.
The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution is ratified, granting women the right to vote.
After enjoying a relatively stable period, The National reopens again after significant renovations.
World War II comes to an end after the United States drops atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The National closes after management refuses to racially integrate its audiences despite pressure from unions and leading artists; it is later converted to a cinema.
Under new management, The National reemerges as an integrated performing arts institution with a production of Call Me Madam, starring the legendary Ethel Merman.
The landmark Civil Rights Act is passed and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Neil Armstrong of the United States becomes the first man to walk on the moon.
The National Theatre comes under the management of the Nederlander Organization for the first time.
Richard M. Nixon becomes the first, and so far only, President to resign following the Watergate scandal that rocked Washington.
A non-profit organization called the New National Theatre Corporation is established to oversee the affairs of The National; it later joins forces with the Kennedy Center for booking services.
After years of working with the Kennedy Center, The National declares its independence.
The New National Theatre Corporation hands management over to the Shubert Organization.
The National closes for extensive renovations after narrowly avoiding demolition as part of an extensive campaign to revitalize Pennsylvania Avenue.
The heavily remodeled National Theatre reopens with a production of the hit musical 42nd Street and a brand-new backstage building that includes The National Theatre Archives. President Ronald Reagan gives speech following the curtain, which you can listen to here courtesy of The National Archives:
Computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invents the World Wide Web.
The building is closed for several months to allow for the asbestos fire protection curtain to be replaced by a new protection drape.
Barack Obama is elected the first Black President of the United States.
JAM Theatricals and Philadelphia’s SMG assume management from the Shubert Organization.
The Nederlander Organization regains management of The National after acquiring JAM Theatricals.
Something to Consider…
Looking at history requires us not only to examine the past but how that past is presented to us. This is where historiography comes in. Historiography refers to the writing of history and the theories that govern historical study and representation. In putting together this timeline, the dramaturg has had to make decisions about what to include, what to exclude, and how to describe some key moments in the history of The National Theatre and the United States. Granted, part of the process came down to style: “Too much gray here? Or blue? Too many pictures?” Nevertheless, if you look closely, you might notice a few key themes. Give it some thought and then consider the following questions:
- What commonalities can you find between some of the events listed here?
- If you were to summarize the message of this timeline, what would it be?
- Is there anything missing here that you think just has to be included?
Have something to add? Put it in the comment box below.
He did! In fact, we believe President Lincoln was actually in attendance for Wilkes’s turn in “Richard III” in 1863.…
Did John Wilkes Booth ever perform at the National?