The first seeds of The National Theatre were planted in 1834. By that point, Washington’s theatrical establishment was still lagging behind those of more storied cities such as Philadelphia and New York. With the formation of a stockholding company and board to oversee its activities, some of Washington’s elite members of society sought to correct that imbalance by creating a theatre that would 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 – 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 and 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 performers toured the country and were supported by local actors in 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 classic such as Richard III and King Lear. The National also played host to a variety of other entertainments, including music, dance, and a variety of 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). 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. Unfortunately, 1845 saw the first appearance of the theatre’s archenemy: fire. 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 The National.
The National’s fortunes continued to fluctuate for the rest of the 1850s. The building changed hands several times and 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 yet charged at The National 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. Apparently, Lincoln, an avid theater-goer, had intended to go to The National that fateful day of April 15th, 1865, but his wife persuaded him to take in a production of Our American Cousin at Ford’s instead. Following his 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. The National enjoyed several successful seasons thereafter before falling into disrepair and eventually catching fire once again. Thankfully, this latest fire kept The National 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. By the time fire struck once again in February of 1885, The National was too important to stay closed for long.
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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 in fact a fairly common hazard in the 19th century, especially at theatres. 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. The infamous Chicago Fire, for example, began at the Iroquois Theater. 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 take in your next National show.