The first seeds of The National Theatre were planted in 1834. At that time, Washington’s theatrical scene was still lagging behind those of more established cities such as Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Charleston, whose leading companies dominated their respective regions. With the formation of a stockholding company and board, some of Washington’s elite members of society sought to create a theatre that would address that gap and do credit to the city. With the help of businessman-turned-financier William Corcoran, a prime site was selected on what was formerly a portion of E Street before it was shifted to Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s the same spot of land where The National stands today.
The theatre itself opened on December 7th, 1835 with a production of Charles Macklin’s Man of the World performed by Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street Theatre Company. Thanks to the management of R.C. Maywood and Co., who operated the Chestnut Street Theatre (one of the leading theatres in the nation) as well as other houses in Annapolis and Baltimore, The National enjoyed top bookings during its first few seasons. At the time, theatre was largely dominated by the “star system,” in which noted major performers toured the country and were supported by a local troupe of actors in what was called a stock company. Some of the many stars that graced The National during these early days included Edwin Forrest and Junius Brutus Booth, two leading men who specialized in weighty dramatic roles. Booth was a special favorite of The National thanks to performances in Shakespearean classics such as Richard III and King Lear; you can learn more about him and the Booth family’s complex legacy in National Theatre, National Politics. In addition to hosting leading stars of the stage, The National also programmed a variety of other entertainments, including music, dance, and circus acts.
Despite its obvious appeals, The National faced many trials during its early years. Management changed hands several times during the early 1840s and the building even spent a brief time as a circus venue (not for the last time, either). Nevertheless, notable events continued to transpire on The National stage, including the inaugural ball of President James K. Polk, one of many Commanders-in-Chief to make high-profile visits, and an appearance by several Native delegates visiting Washington for land negotations (you can read more about them at National Theatre, National Politics). Unfortunately, 1845 saw the first appearance of the theatre’s archenemy – fire – when flames broke out in the building’s oil room following a performance and eventually consumed the entire structure. Despite the best efforts of fire brigades arriving from as far away as Alexandria, the damage was already done. The charred site would remain empty for another five years.
Thankfully, if there is one abiding quality of The National Theatre, it’s the capacity to bounce back after disaster. In 1850, the imminent arrival of songstress Jenny Lind, known internationally as “the Swedish Nightingale,” prompted the rebuilding of The National under the leadership of Henry Willard and James “Land Admiral” Reeside. The new building proved a suitable venue for Lind, whose arrival was greeted with rapturous crowds and eventually transformed into a major state event, with President Millard Fillmore in attendance. Her concerts raised enormous funds for The National – despite her reported efforts to lower the second night’s premium so the poor could attend – and helped reestablish it as a major force in the area. Take a closer look at Lind’s time at The National by visiting her page on The National’s Leading Ladies site.
The National’s fortunes continued to fluctuate for the rest of the 1850s. The building changed hands several more times and even briefly served as a circus for a French equestrian troupe. After being acquired by E.A. Marshall, proprietor of Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre and New York’s Broadway Theatre, it returned to its original role as a host of leading national talent. Noted playwright Dion Boucicault and celebrated actor Edwin Booth (son of Junius Brutus Booth) enjoyed success on The National stage, along with soprano Gialitto Grisi and baritone Mario, who commanded the highest prices charged yet when they appeared in January of 1855. Unfortunately, mismanagement and another fire conspired to close The National in 1857. Once again, the site rested for five years.
The year 1861 brought with it the first shots of the Civil War, which preoccupied civilians and government officials alike in the nation’s capital. Nevertheless, relatively normal life continued for many, and after briefly playing host to the rather crudely made King’s Amphitheater, the site once again birthed a new National Theatre in April of 1862. In fact, it was officially christened the New National Theatre, though it was sometimes known as “Grover’s National Theatre” after its new manager, Leonard Grover. Under Grover’s leadership, The National prospered and found itself busy with major events on the American stage at large. In 1865, John Wilkes Booth, son of Junius and brother to Edwin, appeared in a benefit performance. Booth would go on to infamy after assassinating President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre later that year. Remarkably, the deed could have taken place at The National, where Lincoln was a frequent visitor; in fact, his son Tad was attending a production at The National that very night. You can learn more about Lincoln and Booth’s fateful meeting by visiting National Theatre, National Politics. Following Lincoln’s death, The National, like most theaters in Washington, briefly closed its doors in mourning.
Ironically, The National would reopen to great success under the temporary leadership of John T. Ford, whose own theatre was the site of that national tragedy. After enjoying relative stability for a few more seasons, The National fell into disrepair and eventually catching fire once again. Thankfully, this latest fire kept it closed for less than a year, and it reopened once again to play host to traveling entertainments from all around the world, including a controversial (and highly successful) British burlesque troupe in 1877, a notable production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta HMS Pinafore in 1879, and the Washington debut of superstar French actress Sarah Bernhardt, whom you can learn more about by visiting her page in The National’s Leading Ladies. By the time fire struck once again in February of 1885, The National was too important to stay closed for long.
If you’ve noticed one thing from the Timeline and Breaking Ground, it might be this: fire seemed to be The National Theatre’s biggest enemy. While the amount of destructive blazes might seem peculiar to us now, fires were a common hazard in the 19th century, especially at theatres. The infamous Chicago Fire, for example, began at the Iroquois Theater. This is partly thanks to the continued use of candles and gas lamps for lighting and the absence of proper safety measures, including ventilation and flame-retardant materials. Unfortunately, theatre fires continued to be a scourge even into the early 20th century. Thankfully, modern technology and strict regulations have combined to make fires and other disasters exceedingly rare, so there’s no need to worry when you make your next trip to The National!
“The Actor and the Assassin: Edwin and John Wilkes Booth.” Shakespeare Unlimited. Folger Shakespeare Library, https://www.folger.edu/shakespeare-unlimited/edwin-john-wilkes-booth, accessed 16 March, 2021.
Brockett, Oscar G. and Franklin J. Hildy. History of the Theatre. 10th edition. Boston: Pearson, 2008.
Lee, Douglas Bennett, Roger L. Meersman, and Donn B. Murphy. Stage for a Nation: The National Theatre, 150 Years. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985.