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The earliest theatrical shows in America were staged in the 1600's, these took place in colonies which were less puritanical and welcomed new forms of entertainment. However, it was not until 1716 that a building was constructed with the sole purpose of housing a theater. This was in Williamsburg, but shortly after, in 1732, New York followed suit. Historians have found the first reliable records of professional theater companies from this time; they show that in New York an English cast staged a production of Joseph Addison's tragedy, Cato, in 1749, and then Shakespeare's Richard III in 1750. During a later production of Othello in Williamsburg, the Chief of the Cherokee nation attended with a party of warriors. He was said to be quite surprised at the naked sword fighting which took place on stage.
In the aftermath of the War of Independence, George Washington not only united the various colonies, but relaxed the somewhat restrictive laws around the arts and theater. This enabled the numerous British actors who arrived post-war to set up groups of traveling performers, like the 'Old American Company', and employ American actors to stage works created by home-grown talent. The first play written by an American to deal with contemporary issues was The Contrast, which looked at the differences between US and European cultures. It was produced in New York by the Old American Company during 1787.
Theater continued to grown in popularity, makings stars of its performers and giving cities like Savannah, Richmond, New York and Baltimore a reputation for theatrical excellence. By the 1800's there were numerous theatrical companies in New York which enjoyed a highly competitive relationship with each other. To accommodate their ambitions and keep the public entertained, many new theaters were built in the city; these include the Lafayette Theater which opened in 1826, the Franklin Theater that opened in 1835 and the Broadway Theater in 1847 – the first to feature the area's now famous moniker. Around half a million people are reckoned to have been living in Manhattan by 1850, and Broadway soon became an epicenter for the theatrical world.
The theater briefly found itself in a lull during 1861 and the early American Civil War years, but as people looked for some light relief it soon became a more popular pastime than ever. In 1865, five days after the war ended, Abraham Lincoln was fatally wounded by John Wilkes Booth in Ford's Theater, Washington, whilst watching a production of Our American Cousin. Some people believe that Booth, a little know actor, wanted to boost his fame, whilst others think he was a confederate sympathizer. Either way, the career of his brother, a more established actor named Edwin Booth, did not falter despite the scandal. Just four years after his brother assassinated the president, Edwin had amassed such a fortune as a performer that he financed the building of Booth's Theater on New York's Sixth Avenue.
Over the last century theatrical styles have come and gone, but Broadway productions still attraction millions of people each year. They may be more expensively staged and elaborately produced, but the traditional idea of entertaining and thrilling an audience remains the same, with people still going out to buy theater tickets as much as ever.