The National Theatre Story, by Daniel Rosenthal


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“The history of a producing theatre is not what it wanted to do, but what it did”, declares Trevor Nunn in one of the epigraphs to this massive work of theatre history. He’s right, in the sense that theatre history in particular needs to guard against an idealism which assembles manifestos and sketchbooks to build a wistfully cod-Hegelian story of What Good Ideas People Had And How Sincerely They Believed Them. Nonetheless, the motives, aspirations and loyalties of the people involved are as much part of the narrative as the box office receipts and the building projects, and Daniel Rosenthal’s more than 900 pages provide plenty of those alongside the material facts.

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Indeed one of the book’s strengths is the way it delves back beyond the actual National Theatre of the early 1960s to sketch the history and causes of a British National Theatre. The original notions and principles which the term implied the late nineteenth century are shown, followed by a series of “false dawns” in the early twentieth century, which allows the reader to consider whether what ended up as the National Theatre fulfilled those ideas. It also prompts us to wonder how far the history of the idea and the institution alike might provide a critique of the current situation and a guide for reflection on the future.

What emerges is a fascinating institutional history, drawing on production records, slews of interviews and unpublished correspondence. Theatre history lends itself to the historiography of personality, and there are plenty scattered across this volume, including Peter Hall, Richard Eyre, Laurence Olivier and others. This is carefully linked to an account of the historical conditions within which they operated, admittedly pretty tightly focused (we don’t get anything like the incisive reflections of Shepherd and Womack’s cultural history of English drama), but providing a strong basis for understanding why certain decisions were made, and what the other options were (or weren’t.) Rosenthal’s transcription of a scene from an episode of Yes, Prime Minister about arts funding is a particularly good example (418), giving a flavour of the period and a quick glimpse at what the world outside was saying, albeit satirically, about the grand institution in London.

Amongst the people and projects are brief accounts of the shows the theatre put on, giving a sketch of the various directions British drama travelled during the period (or at least a particular kind of British drama.) This facet of the book makes it particularly attractive to the general reader, and links the intrigues and visions of a major institution to the history of theatrical writing and the society which it reflected and influenced. It will make a fine companion to Michael Billington’s State of the Nation, which covers roughly the same era, and concentrates much more strongly on what Billington believes is the really vital strand of the theatre: individual playwrights and the plays they write. Rosenthal’s book gives a much richer sense of the situation (not to mention constraints and policies) within which playwrights worked, and Billington discusses the artistic works which the theatres charged people to see.

The two books also aim at the same kind of history: bringing plenty of unread documents to light, giving accounts of what people said and felt, and telling a strong story. Critical or theoretical analysis is eschewed (along with most evaluation in Rosenthal’s case) and neither author seeks to present a radical central thesis to upset previous approaches to the topic. Which is not to say that their work will not prompt critical speculation, or that they do not display particular assumptions about the forces that bring themselves to bear on theatre history and the people who create it. Though there are broader arcs visible in Rosenthal’s book, every chapter is available immediately as a human story which took place at the level of people arguing, which makes for very entertaining reading. It does become a little chronicle-like at times, needing to recall who did what and when without assembling these into a coherent argument, and will perhaps be more valuable as a volume to dip into than read straight through.

The strong focus on the institution, and the virtue I mentioned earlier – the account of the “National Theatre” as an idea before it was a company or a building – does lead to one the book’s largest drawbacks. Writing so intimately from within the institution’s story does sometimes distort the outside aspects which contributed to that story. For example, the “pre-history” in the nineteenth century definitely gives the National Theatre perspective on its own origins. The mid-nineteenth century is portrayed as a woeful wasteland in which shoddy commercial interests tramped down the elevating potential of drama (4), a thesis which Jacky Bratton thoroughly took apart in New Readings in Theatre History, nearly ten years ago. It is the founding myth of the theatrical and social reformers who contributed to the idea of the National Theatre, a reshaping of the past to justify their own projects and both natural and necessary, but the evidence does not support it. (For example, Henry Irving’s Lyceum appears as part of the story, but the “legitimising” management of Sadler’s Wells, thirty years earlier, receives no attention which might derail the story.)

Similarly, Granville Barker is described as “having learned much from acting for William Poel, who reasserted the pre-eminence of Shakespeare’s language, clearly and realistically spoken”, and demonstrating “a 20th-century emphasis on each character’s psychological background that and been wholly alien to Victorian theatre practice” (13). These are the views which underpin a lot of the approach taken to Shakespeare in the mid-twentieth century by directors such as Peter Hall, who has more than once constructed a Shakespearean lineage for himself back through Poel to much early theatrical figures, to authenticate his practice. It may be that twentieth-century directors at the National took Poel to have released the text into a clear and realistic style, but that seems to be part of their institutional self-understanding. In fact accounts of Poel’s actual practice include his notion that each character was part of a musical harmony rather like an operatic voice or an instrument in a consort, and that they must thus perform in a particular pitch and articulation, as well as his eccentric rehearsal habits which stressed and exhausted his actors, and what appeared a rather mechanical system of verse-speaking. Likewise, psychological authenticity might have been rather alien to Victorian theatre practice (though not all of it), but it would have been much more alien to Shakespeare. These passages demonstrate the way in which the narratives about the past are used to justify the present, even at the risk of warping the historical record to suit the National Theatre’s own agreed history.

Overall, Rosenthal’s book is a capacious and fascinating account of swathes of theatre history, which vividly brings the voices and documents of those involved to the reader.  It has also disappeared from my desk for a while whilst I was working on this review, which suggests the book’s attractions for those working in theatre history and performance.


The National Theatre Story, Daniel Rosenthal (Oberon: 2013) ISBN: 978-1840027686, £35.  I am grateful to Oberon Books for providing a review copy of the volume.


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