Powell, William (1735-1769) (DNB00)

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POWELL, WILLIAM (1735–1769), actor, was born in 1735 in Hereford, and educated at the grammar school of that city and at Christ's Hospital, London. Sir Robert Ladbrooke, a distiller, then president of the latter institution, took him as apprentice into his counting-house, and formed, says Walpole, so high an estimate of his abilities as to have contemplated making him a partner. Ladbrooke strove vainly, however, to keep the youth from amateur theatricals, going so far even as to suppress one spouting club in Doctors' Commons of which Powell had become a member. Once out of his indentures, Powell married, in 1759, a Miss Branston. For a while longer he remained in Ladbrooke's office. Charles Holland (1733–1769) [q. v.], however, introduced him to Garrick, who, wearying of the rebuffs he had sustained and anxious for foreign travel, sought an actor able to fill his place during his absence. An absurd rumour was current at the time that he was Garrick's son. Having been carefully coached by Garrick, Powell made his first appearance on any stage at Drury Lane on 8 Oct. 1763 as Philaster in an alteration of Beaumont and Fletcher's play executed by Colman. Great interest was inspired by what was indeed an audacious début. Powell had, however, ingratiated himself with Lacy and Colman, who were left in command. The latter carefully superintended his rehearsals, while Garrick from abroad sent him letters overflowing with sensible and practical advice. The experiment proved a brilliant success. The audience, in spite of the cynical depreciation of the actor by Foote, received Powell with raptures, standing up to shout at him. So remarkable a triumph bred much annoyance and jealousy, and for a while embroiled Powell with his friend Holland. Hopkins the prompter says in his diary ‘a greater reception was never shown to anybody.’ Powell's salary, arranged by Garrick for 3l. a week, was at once raised to 8l., and after a time to 12l. Full of hope and energy, Powell shrank from no efforts, and played during his first season Jaffier, Posthumus, Lusignan, the king in the ‘Second Part of King Henry IV;’ Castalio in the ‘Orphan,’ Lord Townly, Alexander the Great, Publius Horatius in the ‘Roman Father,’ Othello, Etan in the ‘Orphan of China,’ Sir Charles Raymond in the ‘Foundling,’ Dumont, Shore in ‘Jane Shore,’ Leon in ‘Rule a Wife and have a Wife,’ Oroonoko, Henry VI in ‘Richard III,’ and Ghost in ‘Hamlet.’ He was not, of course, equally successful in all these characters. In some he ranted, and in others he whined. In Leonatus, says Hopkins, he stamped with his feet until he appeared like a madman; in Alexander he was ‘very wild and took his voice too high;’ in Leon he was ‘queer enough;’ and in Lusignan he ‘spoke much too low, and cried too much.’ On the whole, Hopkins approved of him. Hopkins chronicles that Powell was warmly applauded, and states that the king sent Lord Huntington to thank him for the entertainment he supplied. Best proof of all, the receipts were up to the best Garrick days. In the season of 1764–5 Powell was seen as Lothario in the ‘Fair Penitent,’ Orestes, King Lear, Herod in ‘Mariamne,’ and Leontes; and played on 24 Jan. 1765 the first of his few original parts as Lord Frankland in the ‘Platonic Wife’ of Mrs. Griffiths. The extent and duration of his popularity ended by making Garrick uneasy and jealous.

Garrick accordingly reappeared in the season of 1765–6, and took from Powell a few characters, such as Lusignan, Lothario, and Leon. Powell added to his repertory Moneses in ‘Tamerlane,’ Alcanor in ‘Mahomet,’ King John, and Antony in ‘All for Love;’ played either Agamemnon or Achilles in ‘Heroic Love,’ and was on 20 Feb. 1766 the original Lovewell in the ‘Clandestine Marriage.’ The following season, his last at Drury Lane, saw Powell as Phocyas in the ‘Siege of Damascus,’ Jason in ‘Medea,’ and some character, probably Don Pedro, in the ‘False Friend.’ Powell played also three original parts: King Edward in Dr. Franklin's ‘Earl of Warwick,’ 13 Dec. 1766; Lord Falbridge in Colman's ‘English Merchant,’ 21 Feb. 1767; and Æneas in Reed's ‘Dido.’ In 1767 Powell joined Harris, Rutherford, and Colman in purchasing Rich's patents for Covent Garden. Powell was at this time bound for three years to Drury Lane under a penalty of 1,000l., which, as his share of the purchase-money was 15,000l., he could afford to pay. The price of his share was, however, borrowed from friends. On the opening night he spoke, 14 Sept. 1767, a rhymed prologue by Whitehead, and on the 16th played Jaffier. His new characters were Chorus in ‘King Henry V,’ Romeo, Sir William Douglas in the ‘English Merchant,’ Hastings, Sciolto, George Barnwell, Oakly, Bajazet, Horatius in the ‘Roman Father,’ Don Felix in the ‘Wonder,’ Macbeth, and Hamlet; and he was on 29 Jan. 1768 the original Honeywood in the ‘Good-natured Man.’ Powell lived at this time in a house adjoining the theatre, and provided with a direct access. In the fierce quarrel which broke out during the season among the managers, leading to legal proceedings and a fierce polemic, Powell sided with George Colman the elder [q. v.], whom he had been the means of bringing into the association, against Harris and Rutherford. In his last season he played Ford in the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor,’ Alwin in the ‘Countess of Salisbury,’ Young Bevil in ‘Conscious Lovers,’ and was, 3 Dec. 1768, the original Cyrus in Hoole's ‘Cyrus,’ and, 18 Jan. 1769, the original Courteney in Mrs. Lennox's ‘Sister.’ On the closing night of the season, 26 May 1769, he played Cyrus, being his last appearance in London.

At an early date Powell had become an unexampled favourite in Bristol, where, at the Jacob's Well Theatre, on 13 Aug. 1764, he took his first benefit as Lear. On the erection of the King Street Theatre, the foundation-stone of which was laid on 30 Nov. 1764, Powell became associated with two local men named Arthur and Clarke. The lease of the house was for seven years. On 30 May 1766 it opened with the ‘Conscious Lovers,’ given gratis, with Powell as Young Bevil. The license not having been yet obtained, the entertainment was announced as a concert; and the piece named and the ‘Citizen,’ in which James William Dodd [q. v.] took part, were given without charge. A prologue, written by Garrick, was spoken by Powell. On 31 May 1769 Powell made, in this edifice, as Jaffier, his last appearance on the stage. The following day he caught cold, playing cricket. His illness became severe, and King Street, in which, near the theatre, he lived, was barred by chains against carriages, by order of the magistrates. On Friday, at the request of his family and physician, the performances were suspended to avoid disturbing him, and on Monday, 3 July, at seven in the morning, he died. ‘Richard III’ was given that evening, and Holland, then manager, had to apologise for the inability of the actors to play their parts. The audience voluntarily dispensed with the closing farce. Powell was buried on the following Thursday in the cathedral church, Colman, Holland, and Clarke, with all the performers of the theatre, attending the funeral, which was conducted by the dean. An anthem was sung by the choir. On 14 July the ‘Roman Father’ was performed in Bristol for the benefit of Powell's family, most of the audience appearing in black. An address by Colman was spoken by Holland, who did not long survive. A monument in the north aisle of the cathedral, erected by his widow, has an epitaph, also by Colman. Powell's wife made a début as Ophelia in Bristol in July 1766, but did not reach London. She married, in September 1771, John Abraham Fisher [q. v.] Miss E. Powell appeared in Ireland, where she married H. P. Warren, an actor, and died as Mrs. Martindale in King Street, Covent Garden, in 1821. Another daughter married Mr. White, clerk of the House of Commons, and left daughters who were shareholders in Covent Garden Theatre.

Powell was a worthy man, an entertaining companion, and an actor of high mark. He was above middle height, and, though round-shouldered, well proportioned, and with an expressive countenance. His voice, which he abused, was musical rather than powerful. It has been said of him that he burst upon the stage with every perfection but experience. His acting, as luxuriant as a wilderness, had a thousand beauties and a thousand faults. In impassioned scenes tears came faster than words, choking frequently his utterance.

A portrait of Powell, by Mortimer, as King John to the Hubert of Bensley and the ‘Messenger’ of Smith, is in the Mathews collection in the Garrick Club, in which is a second portrait by an unknown artist. There is an engraved portrait of him as Cyrus, and Smith mentions (Catalogue Raisonné) other portraits by both Lawrenson and Pyle.

[Lives of Powell are given in the Georgian Era, Rose's Biogr. Dict., and in most dramatic compilations, while references to him are abundant in the biographies of actors of the last century. See more particularly Genest's Account of the English Stage; Manager's Notebook; Jenkins's Memoirs of the Bristol Stage; Davies's Life of Garrick and Dramatic Miscellanies; Gilliland's Dramatic Synopsis and Dramatic Mirror; Garrick Correspondence; Murphy's Life of Garrick; Bernard's Retrospections; Reed's Notitia Dramatica (MS.); Wilkinson's Wandering Patentee; Boaden's Life of Mrs. Jordan; O'Keeffe's Memoirs; Doran's Annals of the Stage, ed. Lowe; Victor's History of the Theatres; Clark Russell's Representative Actors; Thespian Dictionary.]

J. K.