History

The National has operated as a theatre longer than any other major touring house in the United States and is the oldest cultural institution in the Nation’s Capital. The theatre opened its doors for the first time on December 7, 1835, with a production of A Man of this World. The building has been destroyed by fires four times and collapsed once, but part of the original foundation can still be seen in the basement of the present structure!   

The National Theatre has played a vital role in history by hosting presidential inaugural balls, world premieres of landmark American musicals, presidential command performances of national artistic merit, and the first presentation of the coveted Helen Hayes Award.  Lincoln learned of his nomination to a second term while attending a performance at The National Theatre and ominously witnessed the Washington debut of John Wilkes Booth in the title role in Shakespeare’s Richard III.  The theatre has played a significant role in national events, boosting public moral in times of conflict, and serving as a focal point in the struggle for civil rights in the 20th century.

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The National has had a diverse range of 6,000 performances over the 184 years in operation, from plays to dances, horse shows to circuses, and even a seaonce or two! However, our stage might be best known for hosting major theatrical performances, in particular, world premieres. Just a few of the beloved shows to make their debut at The National include Show Boat (1927), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Fiddler on the Roof (1964), Hello, Dolly! (1964), and more recently, West Side Story (2008), If/Then (2013), Mean Girls (2017), and Beetlejuice (2018). Of course, with such a vast history, virtually every great performer since 1835 has appeared on our stage, including John Barrymore, Joan Rivers, Carol Channing, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Ian McKellen, Sarah Bernhardt, Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn, Angela Lansbury, Rita Moreno, Sting, and Idina Menzel. Washington actress Helen Hayes traced her theatrical career to the time she saw her first play as a young child in the balcony of The National Theatre. Miss Hayes returned to The National time and again in many of her most famous stage roles, and in the 1980s the theater dedicated the Helen Hayes Gallery in her honor and hosted the premiere presentation of her namesake Helen Hayes Awards.

Not all of the famous figures have been spotted on our stage. The National has welcomed every president from Andrew Jackson through George W. Bush to performances. President James Polk held his Inaugural Ball in the theatre. President Ronald Reagan helped reopen the theatre after major renovations in 1984. And President Abraham Lincoln’s fateful night at Ford’s on April 14, 1865, might have gone differently had the President used his tickets to see the performance of Aladdin’s Magic Lamp on The National’s stage that night. 

These are just a few of the stories told from The National Theatre’s extensive collection of materials. Consisting of playbills, photographs, articles, and posters, among other items, it is an untapped source of information for theater enthusiasts, producers, scholars, and historians. Currently housed at The National Theatre, these invaluable materials are in immediate need of conservation and preservation efforts. Plans for proper storage, access, digitization, and display are under development. 

If you have pieces that you would like to donate to the Archives or are interested in supporting the Archives project, please contact our corporate offices at 202-783-3370. 


 

Below is a link to a chronological history of The National Theatre from 1835 to the present:

Download our timeline

A first computerized partial listing of titles of attractions at The National Theatre was assembled by General Manager Richard Schneider about 1987, apparently from playbills.

A second more elaborate computer listing from 1982 included dates, titles, and some performer annotation. This list included many performances other than those at The National, and seems to be the record of one east-coast theater-goer’s programs beginning in 1943.

Further work was done by President Donn B. Murphy, and Archivist Thomas S. Shorebird, from 1988 through 1993. Dr. Murphy and Anthony Stewart made entries from 1993 through 1997. Work to incorporate material from other files into a comprehensive chronology was done by volunteer archivists Melvin Goldberg, Bayla White, Mary Haley, Elaine Kolodny and Celia Shapiro over a multi-year period beginning in 2000.

SN refers to Stage for a Nation, Lee, Meersman, Murphy, 1985, the official history of The National. HNNT refers to History of the New National Theatre by Alexander Hunter and J. H. Polkinhorn, November 1954. ON refers to a series of orange notebooks containing information taken from the files of the Washington Historical Society on productions at The National beginning in 1835.