Britain Establishes the Royal National Theatre Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After a struggle of more than one hundred years, Great Britain finally established a national theater, but the development met with mixed reactions from critics.

Summary of Event

On Tuesday, July 5, 1962, the British press reported that Sir Laurence Olivier was to be the first director of Great Britain’s Royal National Theatre. Olivier had been sounded out about the directorship by Lord Chandos, a former Conservative cabinet minister, in 1957. Widely regarded as the greatest actor of his time, Olivier had already been an actor-manager at London’s famous Old Vic Theatre Old Vic Theatre from 1944 to 1949. Summarily dismissed by the theater’s board of governors, a deeply hurt Olivier formed Laurence Olivier Productions Laurence Olivier Productions (which boasted Alexander Korda as a shareholder and board member) and, on November 14, 1949, took a four-year lease on the St. James, a plush Victorian theater once famous as 1890’s dominion of actor-manager Sir George Alexander. The company’s biggest success with critics and audiences alike was the 1951 pairing of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra Caesar and Cleopatra (Shaw) (pb. 1901, pr. 1906) and William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra Antony and Cleopatra (Shakespeare) (pr. c. 1606-1607), with Olivier and his second wife, Vivien Leigh, playing the title roles. Royal National Theatre Theater;companies [kw]Britain Establishes the Royal National Theatre (Aug. 9, 1962) [kw]Royal National Theatre, Britain Establishes the (Aug. 9, 1962) [kw]Theatre, Britain Establishes the Royal National (Aug. 9, 1962) Royal National Theatre Theater;companies [g]Europe;Aug. 9, 1962: Britain Establishes the Royal National Theatre[07300] [g]United Kingdom;Aug. 9, 1962: Britain Establishes the Royal National Theatre[07300] [c]Theater;Aug. 9, 1962: Britain Establishes the Royal National Theatre[07300] Olivier, Laurence Tynan, Kenneth Chandos, Lord (Oliver Lyttelton)

Olivier’s name had long been linked with the dream of a national theater. In 1949, after the National Theatre Act National Theatre Act, British (1949) had been passed by Parliament, he had served on a committee advising on the selection of a suitable building to house the theater. Although a foundation stone was laid on the south bank of the Thames in 1951, nothing further occurred in the matter until Olivier directed the 1962 Chichester Festival Chichester Festival (1962) , which was widely regarded in the press as a trial run for the National Theatre.

The lukewarm reviews for the Chichester Festival’s two opening productions, The Chances and The Broken Heart (both directed by Olivier), were fortunately transcended by unanimous accolades for a production of Anton Chekhov’s Dyadya Vanya Uncle Vanya (Chekhov) (pb. 1897, pr. 1899; Uncle Vanya, 1914), also directed by Olivier (who played Astrov), which came as close to Chekhovian perfection as is possible in English. Olivier turned his repertoire into a preview of what was to come at the National Theatre—a wide spectrum of plays done in distinctive styles.

Olivier’s official appointment came on August 9, 1962, when it was determined that the Old Vic Company’s last season as such would end in June, 1963. Olivier wanted George Devine Devine, George , the founder and manager of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, to be his second-in-command, but Devine did not want that subsidiary role, though he agreed to direct a production in the National Theatre’s first season. Devine also allowed Olivier to recruit John Dexter Dexter, John and William Gaskill Gaskill, William from the Royal Court, both of whom (along with Tony Richardson) had helped bring Devine’s company enormous prestige.

Olivier’s first press conference as head of the National Theatre was held on August 6, when he announced his desire to present a spectrum of world drama and to develop the best company in the world. He was assisted in his phrasing by Kenneth Tynan, a brilliantly acerbic critic for the Spectator, the Observer, and other sources, who was engaged as dramaturge.

Olivier redesigned the Old Vic with the assistance of Sean Kenny Kenny, Sean , who served as designer for the National Theatre’s opening production, an uncut version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Shakespeare) (pr. c. 1600-1601). In his zeal to make over the Old Vic, though, Olivier extended the forestage at a grave cost to acoustics. As rehearsals for Hamlet proceeded amid bedlam and mess, it seemed that the Royal National Theatre was royal only in name and intent.

The National Theatre did not get its own home until 1976, three years after Olivier’s reign had ended. His successor, Sir Peter Hall (his former chief rival as head of the Royal Shakespeare Company), had the signal honor of ushering in a new era in Denys Lasdun’s new building on the south bank of the Thames. Though Olivier was no longer associated with the company, the larger of the National Theatre’s two auditoriums was named after him.


Olivier’s inaugural production at the National Theatre did not fare well. Hamlet was played by Peter O’Toole O’Toole, Peter (hair dyed blond), who lacked technique and discipline for the role, and Olivier was unable either to inspire him or to curb his pranks both on stage and off. Sean Kenny’s large new revolving stage was unpredictable, jamming without warning (it was nicknamed the “revolt”), and his trapdoor, crucial to the graveyard scene, stayed shut on opening night. Though the critics were generally diplomatic in their complaints, this Hamlet was hardly an auspicious beginning for Great Britain’s most prestigious theater, and the production’s failings led to subsequent grumblings about Olivier’s contributions as director and administrator.

In general, critics contended that the National Theatre was trendy and eclectic and lacked a distinctive ensemble style. Kenneth Tynan was assailed for a sometimes perverse selection of plays and for interfering in casting and production matters, and Olivier was reviled for being dependent on him. The breadth of repertoire was considered mainly conservative and not especially welcoming to modern English playwrights. Critics suggested that Olivier should stick to acting—where his greatness was secure—and leave the other businesses to people more temperamentally suited to them.

Even when it came to acting, however, Olivier was not immune to carping comments. He played thumping Shakespearean roles such as Othello and Shylock in addition to essaying smaller parts in plays by Anton Chekhov, Somerset Maugham, William Congreve, and George Farquhar. His starring roles confirmed his greatness, but even some of his smaller parts turned miniatures into superbly wrought showpieces, thereby illustrating his passion for acting. Yet he was criticized for this; his critics contended that the National Theatre should not be a showcase for stars but a testing ground for ensemble distinction. On one hand, he was criticized for not acting enough (he took on only five leading roles in ten years); on the other hand, he was attacked for not giving other heavyweight actors a starring opportunity. He was widely taken to task for not acting alongside John Gielgud or Paul Scofield and for not inviting Ralph Richardson or Alec Guinness into the company. Olivier, though, refused to turn his productions into acting contests.

Olivier’s company consolidated the reputations of Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Rosemary Harris, Colin Blakely, Anthony Hopkins, and Billie Whitelaw, while developing a new generation of actors such as Derek Jacobi, Lynn Redgrave, Frank Finlay, Tom Courtenay, Robert Stephens, and Michael Gambon. Olivier’s company proved that it could perform in almost any style required by a text, and although it was impossible to pinpoint with any accuracy a distinctive National Theatre style—in contrast, say, to the very identifiable Comédie Française or Royal Shakespeare Company house styles—the level of achievement was enviably high, a fact borne out by three triumphant international tours (to Moscow and Berlin in 1965, to Canada in 1967, and to Los Angeles in 1970).

Foreign directors of the stature of Ingmar Bergman, Jacques Charon, and Franco Zeffirelli were successfully wooed to work at the National Theatre, with some outstanding results, and foreign designers such as Josef Svoboda and René Allio contributed their genius to production standards. Olivier, however, was vulnerable to charges that by relying excessively on Tynan’s literary taste, he was leaving himself open to his dramaturge’s power politics. Certainly, Olivier was publicly embarrassed by controversies over productions of Rolf Hochhuth’s Soldiers Soldiers (Hochhuth) in 1967 (which held Winston Churchill responsible for the bombing of Dresden), Seneca’s Oedipus Oedipus (Seneca) in 1968 (for which Peter Brook insisted on sensational phallic symbolism), and Fernando Arrabal’s The Architect and the Emperor of Assyria Architect and the Emperor of Assyria, The (Arrabal) in 1971 (directed by Victor Garcia to emphasize the play’s nudity and cannibalism).

Such controversies did not bode well for the head of Great Britain’s most prestigious theater, and in March, 1972, Sir Max Rayne, the new chairman of the National Theatre’s board after Lord Chandos’s death the same year, gave Olivier a six-month formal termination notice. Olivier formally resigned in 1973. Royal National Theatre Theater;companies

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beauman, Sally. The Royal Shakespeare Company: A History of Ten Decades. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. In telling the story of one of the world’s most famous acting companies—and especially the postwar renaissance of the theater’s work under Barry Jackson, Anthony Quayle, Peter Brook, Peter Hall, and Trevor Nunn—this book has an interesting account of negotiations between Olivier and Peter Hall over the formation of the National Theatre. Good sketch of theater power politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Callow, Simon. The National: The Theatre and Its Work, 1963-1997. London: Nick Hern Books, 1997. Insider’s history of the theater, including a complete chronology of all productions through 1997. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, Judith. The National Theatre. London: Harrap, 1976. Part history, part collection of profiles of various theatrical figures, this slim volume is useful for historical background and as a quick reference about some key players.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cottrell, John. Laurence Olivier. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1975. Well-researched biography that concentrates on Olivier’s greatness as an actor and on his Englishness rather than on nagging details of his reign at the National Theatre. Handsomely illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    Faber Playwrights at the National Theatre. London: Faber and Faber, 2005. Interviews with five major playwrights about their works performed at the Royal National Theatre. Includes excerpts from one play by each author.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fairweather, Virginia. Olivier: An Informal Portrait. New York: Coward, McCann, 1969. A chatty memoir by a personal friend of Olivier and his press representative at the National Theatre. Contains interesting anecdotes about the creation of the Chichester Festival, the inception of the National Theatre, and the problems of the National Theatre Company’s first triumphal overseas tour. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gourlay, Logan, ed. Olivier. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973. A collection of interviews with leading actors, directors, and playwrights. Some remarkably candid and provocative assessments of Olivier’s achievements as actor, director, and administrator. Of particular interest are interviews with John Osborne, Tony Richardson, and William Gaskill. Illustrated, with a sampler of reviews.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haill, Lyn, ed. In Rehearsal at the National: Rehearsal Photographs of the National Theatre’s Work, 1976-2001. London: Oberon, 2002. More than two hundred photographs of rehearsals at the South Bank National Theatre (opened in 1976), documenting the breadth of the productions staged by the theater over twenty-five years.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holden, Anthony. Olivier. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988. A book by a well-known journalist and biographer of Prince Charles. Treats Olivier very much as a royal institution. Much of the material is a reprocessing of information already familiar from earlier studies, but the twist is a depiction of a great man’s shrivelling up. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Olivier, Laurence. Confessions of an Actor. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1982. Pleasingly illustrated, this autobiography irritated many of Olivier’s critics for its arch-modest tone and calculated omissions about personal and professional relationships. Contains documents by Olivier, Tynan, and Lord Chandos about the Hochhuth controversy and also includes Olivier’s maiden speech in the House of Lords on July 20, 1971.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spoto, Donald. Laurence Olivier. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. A psychosexual portrait that provides glimpses of Olivier’s relationship with Tynan at the National Theatre. Perversely tendentious about Olivier’s private life, but contains some new material about his career at the National Theatre. Illustrated.

Olivier’s Hamlet Is Released to Acclaim and Controversy

“Angry Young Men” Express Working-Class Views

The Mousetrap Begins a Record-Breaking Run

Ford Foundation Begins to Fund Nonprofit Theaters

Pinter’s The Caretaker Opens in London

A Man for All Seasons Premieres

Royal Shakespeare Company Adopts a New Name and Focus

Theatres Act Ends Censorship of British Drama

Categories: History