Fifty years of the National Theatre, after a century of disagreement
By MICHAEL CAINES
Not fifty but forty-eight years ago, an anonymous theatre critic (Irving Wardle) could write in the TLS: ". . . we have begun to take for granted the existence of such unprecedented developments as the Aldwych [where the RSC was then based] and the National Theatre as if they had been there for generations"; he could also refer to the "inestimable importance" of these subsidized cultural institutions, even if, at the time, he felt that new writers were better served by their commercial counterparts.
Such statements might not seem controversial now, but the debate over whether or not a national, subsidized theatre was needed had been going on for a century when Wardle, a former TLS staff member, wrote those words. "The enormous number of Englishmen who do not care for the play, and never go to it, would hardly like to be taxed for theatrical purposes", Herbert Paul wrote in his 1902 book on Matthew Arnold. "As though there were the remotest likelihood of English theatrical history repeating French theatrical history two centuries and a quarter behind time!", A. B. Walkley wrote in the TLS in the same year, with the example of the Comédie Française in mind (although his main point, to be fair, was not that he didn't want a national theatre, only that its proponents hadn't proved that the public wanted a national theatre).
Comments like this are not difficult to find in the years before the National Theatre, under the directorship of Laurence Olivier, gave its first performance, on October 22, 1963, with Hamlet starring Peter O'Toole. I wrote in the TLS, back in 2004, about Samuel Phelps, the nineteenth-century Shakespearean actor and manager of the Sadler's Wells Theatre, who hoped the government would see from his example that it might be possible to establish a national theatre "upon a moderate scale of expense".
His was not a lone voice, but the government wasn't interested, despite some persistent problems: "the sordid speculations of monopolist lessees and the injurious restrictions of foolish Lord Chamberlains", as the London and Westminster Review had put it in 1837. The Lord Chamberlain's Office still had the power to censor stage plays in Britain when the National opened for business, as it had done since 1737, and as it would do for another five years.
Yet here we are – 800 productions later, apparently – with the National about to enter a new era under the leadership of Rufus Norris (who, it is rumoured, once gave extremely good drama lessons to a current member of the TLS staff), the doubts, it would seem, long put to rest. The model of producing, say, War Horse in the West End and a series of smaller shows in the Shed or the Cottesloe (currently closed and due to reopen next year under the new name, unfortunately, of the Dorfman Theatre; what was wrong with the old one?) vindicates the idea of a national theatre as conceived by Harley Granville-Barker many years ago.
Granville-Barker's vision was of one large and one small theatre on the south bank of the Thames, with workshops, rehearsal rooms, restaurants – a "great factory", as the TLS saw it, "where drama is made before it is sold". Substantial public funding would go into producting about fifty plays a year (OK, so that's not quite what's happened, generally speaking) and paying for a company of about 100 actors. For him, "there is no othe way in which the National Theatre can be made to proclaim that the drama is worthy of, so to speak, its cathedral". And now, of course, there is National Theatre Live to extend the cathedral into "a cinema near you".
Evidently, despite the philistinism for which the English are well renowned, better things are just about possible. Even if they do have to be debated for a hundred years beforehand.
© Simon Annand