Powell, Martin (DNB00)

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POWELL, MARTIN (fl. 1710–1729), puppet showman, came into notice early in the eighteenth century. Until 1710 he exhibited his marionettes at Bath and other provincial towns, but his fame had reached London, and in 1709 Isaac Bickerstaff (in the ‘Tatler’) complained that he was ridiculed in the satirical prologue and epilogue of Powell's marionette performance. Powell replied (August 1709) that he had neglected nothing to perfect himself in his art, having travelled in France, Italy, Spain, and Germany. Early in 1710 Powell removed to London, and established his theatre in the galleries of Covent Garden, opposite St. Paul's Church, afterwards known as Punch's theatre. In ludicrous rivalry with the Haymarket he arranged various puppet operas, including ‘Venus and Adonis, or the Triumphs of Love: a mock opera acted in Punch's theatre in Covent Garden.’ Others of his pieces were ‘King Bladud,’ ‘Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay,’ ‘Robin Hood and Little John,’ ‘Mother Shipton,’ and ‘Mother Goose.’ He was largely responsible for the form taken by the drama of Punch and Judy. Magnin, the learned author of the ‘Histoire des Marionnettes en Europe,’ calls the years of Powell's pre-eminence ‘the golden age of marionettes in England.’

Following up the bantering allusions to Powell in the ‘Tatler,’ Steele, in the ‘Spectator’ (No. 14), made the under-sexton of St. Paul's, Covent Garden, write to complain that his congregation took the warning of his bell, morning and evening, to go to a puppet show set forth by one Powell under the piazzas. ‘… I have placed my son at the piazzas to acquaint the ladies that the bell rings for church, and that it stands on the other side of the garden; but they only laugh at the child.’ Another correspondent writes describing Powell's show, which he compares favourably with the opera at the Haymarket; ‘for whereas the living properties at the Haymarket were ill trained, Powell has so well disciplined his pig that in the first scene he and Punch dance a minuet together.’ Powell is described as a deformed cripple, but his powers of satire were considerable. When the fanatics called French prophets were creating disturbances in Moorfields, the ministry ordered Powell to make Punch turn prophet, which he did so well that it soon put an end to the prophets and their prophecies. In 1710, says Lord Chesterfield, the French prophets were totally extinguished by a puppet show (Miscellaneous Works, ed. Maty, ii. 528, 555).

On 20 April 1710 Luttrell mentions that four Indian sachems who were visiting London went to see Powell's entertainment. Defoe, in his ‘Groans of Great Britain,’ 1711, complains of Powell's popularity, and states that his wealth was sufficient to buy up all the poets of England. ‘He seldom goes out without his chair, and thrives on this incredible folly to that degree that, were he a freeman, he might hope that some future puppet show might celebrate his being Lord Mayor as he hath done Dick Whittington.’ Steele, who saw Powell as late as 1729, states that he made a generous use of his money.

In 1715 Thomas Burnet (1694–1753) [q. v.] wrote a brief ‘History of Robert Powell the Puppet Showman.’ The substitution of Robert for Powell's real name, Martin, was made to render the obvious satire upon Robert Harley more effective.

[Tatler, Nos. 44, 50, 115, 142; Spectator, ed. Morley, pp. 25, 26, 163, 398, 545; Magnin's Hist. des Marionnettes, pp. 236–44; Morley's Bartholomew Fair, p. 315; Ashton's Social Life in the Reign of Queen Anne, passim; Swift's Works, ed. Scott, vii. 143; and authorities given in text.]

T. S.