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!

  • 1834

    A stockholding company is formed and a board is appointed for the establishment of a new playhouse in Washington.

  • 1835

    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.

    A black and white portrait of William Corcoran.
    Historic Figures
  • 1838

    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.

  • 1843

    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.

  • 1845

    The theatre falls under new management and resumes its usual performances…unfortunately, it also catches fire and burns down (not for the last time).

  • 1850

    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. You can learn more about Lind’s time at The National here.

    A painted portrait of Jenny Lind, seated with hands folded on her lap.
  • 1851

    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.

  • 1857

    After a brief life as “Fanny Morant’s National Theatre” – named after it’s then-manager – The National burns down once again.

  • 1861

    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.

  • 1862

    “The New National Theatre” – sometimes called “Grover’s National Theatre” after its manager, Leonard Grover – reopens on its original site.

    A black and white drawing of Grover's National Theatre.
  • 1865

    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. Learn more about Lincoln and Booth’s fateful encounter here.

  • 1873

    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.

  • 1876

    Alexander Graham Bell makes the first telephone call to his assistant, Thomas Watson.

  • 1885

    February: The National burns down one last time for good measure…

    October: …And reopens in record time.

  • 1920

    The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution is ratified, granting women the right to vote.

    A black and white photograph of several women waving American flags.
  • 1922

    After enjoying a relatively stable period, The National reopens again after significant renovations.

  • 1945

    World War II comes to an end after the United States drops atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

  • 1948

    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. Learn more about efforts to desegregate Washington theatres here.

  • 1952

    Under new management, The National reemerges as an integrated performing arts institution with a production of Call Me Madam, starring the legendary Ethel Merman.

  • 1964

    The landmark Civil Rights Act is passed and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

  • 1969

    Neil Armstrong of the United States becomes the first man to walk on the moon.

    Neil Armstrong on the moon with the American flag.
  • 1972

    The National Theatre comes under the management of the Nederlander Organization for the first time.

  • 1974

    Richard M. Nixon becomes the first, and so far only, President to resign following the Watergate scandal that rocked Washington. Politics has been a consistent feature of life at The National; learn more about that here.

    President Nixon gestures as he
  • 1974

    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.

  • 1979

    After years of working with the Kennedy Center, The National declares its independence.

  • 1980

    The New National Theatre Corporation hands management over to the Shubert Organization.

  • 1982

    The National closes for extensive renovations after narrowly avoiding demolition as part of an extensive campaign to revitalize Pennsylvania Avenue.

  • 1984

    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:

    The interior of The National Theatre, photographed in 1984.
    Structural Changes
  • 1990

    Computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invents the World Wide Web.

  • 1991

    The building is closed for several months to allow for the asbestos fire protection curtain to be replaced by a new protection drape.

  • 2008

    Barack Obama is elected the first Black President of the United States.

    President-elect Barack Obama and family wave to a crowd.
  • 2012

    JAM Theatricals and Philadelphia’s SMG assume management from the Shubert Organization.

  • 2019

    The Nederlander Organization regains management of The National after acquiring JAM Theatricals.

Consider This…

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. If you look closely, you might notice a few key themes. Give it some thought and then consider the following questions:

  1. What commonalities can you find between some of the events listed here?
  2. If you were to summarize the message of this timeline, what would it be?
  3. Is there anything missing here that you think just has to be included?

Have something to add? Put it in the comment box below.

2 thoughts on “Timeline

    1. He did! In fact, we believe President Lincoln was actually in attendance for Wilkes’s turn in “Richard III” in 1863. The Booth family will be part of an upcoming site titled “National Theatre, National Politics.”


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