After facing many trials and tribulations during its first fifty years, The National Theatre settled into relative stability at the tail end of the 19th century. The fire of February 1885 was answered with yet another rebuild in October of that year, which yielded an impressive five-story beauty built in the Italianate style that would remain relatively unaltered until 1922. Other major improvements included comfortable seats, better carpeting, and, most importantly of all, electric lighting, which was rapidly replacing gaslight systems across the country. With that, The National was ready to enter a new era.
By 1885, theatre had become big business in the United States and The National was a major hub for touring New York productions. This coincided with a growing White middle-class in Washington, D.C. that could afford to spend more money on evening entertainments. Despite competition from other establishments looking to benefit from that new wealth, The National continued to host many significant performances: the Metropolitan Opera brought celebrated productions of Faust, The Barber of Seville, and Carmen in 1904; the great composer John Philip Sousa appeared with his band in April of that same year; and two massive productions of the sword-and-sandals epic Ben-Hur wowed audiences. The famous Ziegfeld Follies, a music, dance, and comedy review that appeared annually in New York, were popular hits as well, despite (or perhaps because of) their risqué content. During this time, The National also started building a reputation as a premier pre-Broadway tryout site for productions looking to make it on the Great White Way; you can learn more about the pre-Broadway development process and some of the major productions to pass through The National by visiting Big Before Broadway. In addition to lavish productions and high-profile stars, The National continued to host major world leaders – or, in some cases, world leaders in the making. One of the most notable was future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who appeared in 1900 to give a lecture on his exploits in the Boer War in present-day South Africa.
As usual, a major building project was inevitable, though for once it was not preceded by a major fire. Instead, owner W.H. Rapley decided renovations were in order and closed the building in 1922. The final performance was apparently followed by the orchestra playing “Auld Lang Syne” and a silent audience watching on as stagehands removed the last of the scenery. The closure was short-lived: The National reopened later that year with new decorations and a reinforced roof, which wsa mandated after a collapse at the Knickerbocker Theatre in Washington killed several patrons. The renovated building remained as popular a destination as ever, hosting such stage luminaries as Talluah Bankhead, Frederic March, Montgomery Clift, and the great Helen Hayes, a Washington, D.C. mainstay whose name now graces the highest awards available in Washington theatre; you can learn more about Hayes by visiting her page on The National’s Leading Ladies site. After so many decades of turmoil, The National finally appeared to be on stable ground.
Yet despite its many high-profile successes, The National Theatre, like many institutions in the early twentieth century, found itself caught up in the country’s changing political landscape. In 1929, The National Theatre Stock Company, the Theatre’s resident acting troupe, had trouble affording the required seven-man orchestra to accompany their productions. Because the orchestra members were protected by a union, the company was unable to negotiate a reduced number and had to cut their season short. Eventually, the actors agreed to effectively tax themselves in order to pay for the full orchestra in 1932; the gesture was rewarded with a benefit concert to replace the money later that year. In addition to labor disputes, The National also faced threats of censorship. Several productions were forced to defend themselves or delete material that was deemed offensive by local legislators. An entire scene was cut from Robert E. Sherwood’s play The Rugged Path for a performance attended by President Harry S. Truman and his wife.
While The National could long depend on filling its houses, the sad fact is that it did not always fill them equitably. Throughout the history of American theatre, including in nation’s capital, African Americans were consistently denied full rights to entry and seating. Though slavery had long been abolished, discriminatory practices in the name of Jim Crow segregation continued well into the 1940s and beyond – including at The National. Eventually, those practices, not another fire or financial failure, would result in yet another closure. After a series of legal challenges and protests, a host of major theatre professionals, including actors Helen Hayes and Zero Mostel and renowned musical lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, signed a boycott pledge against The National. Eventually, the Actors Equity Association, backed by the Dramatists Guild, announced that no member of their union would be permitted to perform unless the discriminatory practices were abolished. When The National’s leadership declared it would not change its own policies until more inclusive policies were adopted throughout the city, its days were effectively numbered. The National Theatre closed on July 31st, 1948 with a farewell production of Oklahoma! and was later converted into a movie house. You can learn more about desegregation efforts in Washington, D.C. by visiting National Theatre, National Politics. Ultimately, after working so hard to establish firm foundations, The National’s leadership had let it down by failing to change.
From the Archives
This centennial celebration program comes direct from The National Theatre Archives. Note the photographs of The National’s interior, the brief history of the then-100-year-old institution, and the stylish advertisements. The headline performance that night back in 1935 was the Broadway staple Anything Goes. Click on each photo to zoom in and access the gallery function. You can also click “full size” and use the magnifying glass to take an even closer peek.
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.
Matthews, Lafayette. “How Helen Hayes Helped Desegregate the National Theatre.” Boundary Stones: WETA’s Local History Blog. WETA, 22 June, 2016, https://boundarystones.weta.org/2016/06/22/how-helen-hayes-helped-desegregate-national-theatre.
“Visits to America.” Churchill and the Great Republic. Library of Congress, accessed 28 July, 2021, https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/churchill/interactive/_html/2_02_00.html.