It is, proclaimed Charles Wyndham in 1908, ‘an institution alien to the spirit of our nation’. The alien having long since landed, it’s easy to snicker. After all, what would English (British? — that’s another question) theatrical life be without the National? It has become crucial to the way audiences think about themselves — and imagine what they might become.
Wyndham was partisan: he was an actor-manager. But as Daniel Rosenthal’s absorbing collection of letters to and from people at the theatre makes apparent, he was not alone. He still isn’t. Bernard Shaw was scathing about a nation which happily donates ‘a huge sum of money to buy the Crystal Palace for the sake of the cup finals, but absolutely refuses to endow a national theatre’. It’s not hard to recognise the pattern: after all, today’s minister for culture is the minister for soccer. Which gets more telly time?
Rosenthal has a strong association with the National: he has written its history. That cuts two ways. Here he marshals his material with authority, making an incisive narrative sweep through 115 years, following its first promoters, William Archer and Harley Granville Barker; the early days under Laurence Olivier and Peter Hall; the subsequent artistic directorships of Richard Eyre, Trevor Nunn and Nicholas Hytner; and the Rufus Norris-led theatre of the present.
But he has no appetite for dispute, and could do with being more flavoursome in his introductory material. I counted (quickly) 131 men and 38 women in the list of ‘principal characters’. No way of knowing, of course, how many of these had white faces, but I could take a guess. In these senses, the National has been all too close to the spirit of the age, or rather to the Establishment.