What exactly is a National Theatre for? What is its purpose? What form should it take? National theatres come in many configurations. There is the four-hundred-year-old Comédie-Française serenely presiding over French culture from the Salle Richelieu. The Habima Theatre of Israel, which mirrors the history of many of its countrymen in its journey from imperial persecution in Białystok to its transplantation to Palestine in 1928 and its final recognition in Israel in 1958. Then there is the more recent National Theatre of Scotland (2006), which proudly declares itself to be a ‘Theatre Without Walls’, and has no home playhouse, preferring to play in all sorts of locations.
The National Theatre of Great Britain, though much younger than many of its brethren, has achieved much in its fifty-six years. In Dramatic Exchanges, Daniel Rosenthal, the author of an exhaustive if slightly stolid history of the National (2013), has compiled a fascinating collection of letters, notes, emails, and countless first-night cards to create an alternative narrative, not as comprehensive perhaps as his history but much more immediate. It is fascinating to read these alongside the various autobiographies and diaries of those involved. Here we have the rough drafts that are often considerably smoothed out in their memoirs.