Some correspondence from the National Theatre archives.
X to Y
Thank you for sending me your latest play. Without wishing to be the least offensive, I have to say that it is probably the worst play since Gammer Gurton’s Needle * and so, regrettably, we shall be unable to stage it at the National. So sorry, do let us have first dibs on your next!
Ever yours, dear one.
Y to X
You *&%$+@( *&%£!
X to another Y
Can’t I persuade you to reconsider your decision about playing - ? You know how we long to have you here at the National and I feel you could bring so much to the part.
Do, please, please, say yes.
Another Y to X
Yet another Y to another X
Dear another X,
I am at a loss to understand how you could have my play in rehearsal for two months and then fail to put it on! I feel very let down by an institution I have always supported. I am convinced that an absurdist comedy featuring violent rape, torture and beheadings would be delighted in by a wide audience (especially the matinée crowd). It is just the sort of play the National should be showing.
Yet another Y
Another X to Yet another Y
Dear Yet another Y,
Please believe me when I say that we *love* your play and would be only too happy to put it in the repertoire but, alas, the technical difficulties of staging it proved to be too great.
*'the worst play since Gammer Gurton’s Needle' is a quote from I Like it Here by Kingsley Amis.
The truth is not that far from what I’ve written; I’ve seldom read such an entertaining collection of letters. They begin when the National Theatre was only a dream and continue until the present day. I thought that after the Olivier years, the darlings and dearests would disappear but no, their luvvieness goes on and on.
The idea of a National Theatre began in the first half of the nineteenth century but it wasn’t until 1904 that William Archer and Harley Granville Barker outlined a definite plan with their pamphlet ‘Schemes and Estimates for a National Theatre’. Two world wars later, the Attlee government brought in an Act of Parliament in 1949 committing the Treasury to providing a million pounds for a national theatre, which was to be in a purpose-built building. In 1961 Laurence Olivier, the most charismatic actor of his generation, was appointed director of the new theatre. The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (later the RSC) already existed and letters between Peter Hall, its then director, and Olivier show that there was jealousy from the start (mostly on Hall’s side, IMO). Olivier devoted more than ten years to establishing the new company. Rosenthal points out that he could have made a fortune during that time from films and other acting roles; he really seemed to see it as a public duty. The new National Theatre Company, a sort of star-studded rep., eventually opened at the Old Vic in 1963. It was not until 1976 that it found its permanent home on the South Bank, in the building designed by Denys Lasdun.
The Peter Hall years are characterised by his constant complaints of overwork: ‘Dear X, So, so sorry I haven’t replied before, I know I should have done but you wouldn’t believe the stress I’m under …three theatres to run … constant shortage of funds … strikes …’ and so on ad nauseam.
The correspondents are far from all being household names. Among those who are, a young Maggie (then Margaret) Smith, writes furiously to Olivier because she hasn’t been given a part she thought she’d been promised. Much later, Alan Bennett complains about the limited number of performances of The Madness of George III because ‘people keep asking me for tickets.’ (We got tickets, so it can’t have been that hard.)
A rave letter to Ian McKellen about an outstanding performance (is there any other kind?) is obviously going to be less interesting than letters which are bitter or hypocritical. One thing you can say for John Osborne; he was just plain rude to everyone and didn’t give a damn. I don’t want to give the impression that all the letters are love/hate missives. Many are very serious discussions of ideas for a play, ways to improve a play, the best way to stage a play. My goodness, Michael Frayn, Tom Stoppard, Ian McKellen. Even their letters are clever!
I was given this book last Christmas and have been reading it ever since, in bite-sized chunks (you can read two or three letters during TV ad breaks). I love it! It really is theatre history revealed through correspondence. What a good job so many letters, telegrams, postcards and even emails were preserved. I have to say that once the correspondence is mainly in the form of emails, it is less interesting.
This lovely frontispiece shows the Old Vic exactly as I remember it. I can almost see my much younger self emerging, chattering excitedly about what we’ve just seen, while waiting for the bus home.