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Powell, William

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William Powell – the actor and manager, not the Drury Lane house servant and prompter – was born at Hereford in 1735 or 1736. He seemed headed for a business career, spent some ten years in a City countinghouse, and married Elizabeth Branson (or Branston) in 1759. She seems to have had relatives at Covent Garden Theatre, and William had, as friends, the actors Charles Holland and William Parsons. It was through Holland that Powell met David Garrick, who happened at the time (1763) to be casting about for someone to act some of his characters while he was touring the Continent. Powell was given a trial and some training by Garrick, and practically fell into a professional stage career at Drury Lane. On 8 October 1763 Powell appeared as Philaster in George Colman’s alteration of Beaumont and Fletcher’s play and created, after some initial faltering, a sensation. The prompter Hopkins noted Powell’s great promise, and Horace Walpole said Powell had turned the heads of Londoners, including the King’s. On 22 November Powell acted Jaffeir in "Venice Preserv’d" and then Lusignan in "Zara", Lord Townly in "The Provok’d Husband", Leon in "Rule a Wife and Have a Wife", Oroonooko, the Ghost in "Hamlet", Othello, and other characters – almost all to satisfaction. Powell’s salary jumped from £3 to £8 weekly, Drury Lane made money, and everyone was happy. But Garrick must have seen that all was not well with Powell. The manager’s letters from the Continent were cautious: to his brother George he said Powell ‘must have a Master to watch his English’ and to Powell on 12 December 1764 he advised: ‘Study hard, my friend, for Seven years & you may play the rest of your life …’ How many different meanings of ‘play’ Garrick intended cannot be known, but it was advice Powell should have heeded. Perhaps he thought he really was heeding it when he decided to gain experience in the provinces and in management. In the summer of 1764 he began an association with the Jacob’s Wells Theatre in Bristol, acting King Lear for his debut. About 1766 he joined John Arthur and Matthew Clarke in the management of the new Bristol Theatre Royal, and in addition to encountering managerial problems and quarrelling with Arthur, Powell began to neglect his acting. The season of 1766-67 at Drury Lane was his last; Garrick felt betrayed, especially when Powell became involved in the Covent Garden patent, which the widow of John Rich made available for purchase. Powell became an assistant to Colman in the management and served the company as leading actor. But despite his years of business training Powell as a co-manager was frequently at odds with his cohorts, spent too much of his time womanizing and let his health deteriorate. His work at Covent Garden and in Bristol came to an end on 3 July 1769 in Bristol: he died of pneumonia brought on by foolishly stripping and lying in the damp grass after playing cricket. He was only about 33. Garrick wrote, ‘poor Powell had some requisites of an Actor, but he was carele[ss], & gave to his pleasures … the time he shd have Employ’d in Study – alas poor Stage!’ (BDA) [EAL]
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