Cartoon portraits and biographical sketches of men of the day/Henry Irving
'The Bells' was produced by Mr. Bateman on the 25th of November 1871, and the critics were unanimous in their praise of the acting of the principal character of the piece. Indeed, the play is essentially a one-part piece as completely so as 'Leah' is. It is founded on the story of 'The Polish Jew,' by those great novelists, MM. Erckmann-Chatrian—the twin brothers of modern French romance.
The play is adapted by Mr. Leopold Lewis, who seems to have performed the task of taking other men's ideas as well as adapters generally. His version of 'The Polish Jew' opens as 'The Corsican Brothers' does—with a narrative of the motive incident of the plot.
Mathias keeps an inn in Alsace. In the common room of this inn, Walter and Hans are talking of the murder of the Polish Jew, which happened fifteen years before; when Mathias, the rich innkeeper, returns from a visit to Paris. Mathias was the murderer. He is astonished and alarmed to find the crime still a topic of conversation. When he killed the Jew for the gold he carried in his belt, he was poor and embarrassed. Now he is wealthy and prosperous, and the chief man in the village. His daughter is to be married to Christian, and he can give her a dowry of thirty thousand francs.
In Paris he has seen a mesmerist put people into the mesmeric sleep, and make them disclose their thoughts. This has made a deep impression on his mind. He sups; drinks with Hans and Walter; and after they are gone, is alone with his disordered fancy. The sledge bells ring again in his ears; again he sees the face of the murdered Jew; the soughing wind blows back on him the Jew's blessing, 'God be with you!' Still the sledge bells ring, and Mathias sees his victim driving in the snow. With a wild and terrible cry, he faints and falls.In the second act he is hurrying on the signing of the marriage contract.
But as he writes his name to the parchment, the bells ring in his ears, each chime a fiendish voice to rack his soul.
The deed is signed, and witnessed by half the village. They dance a dance of joy. Mathias, leaping up, joins in it, and shouts and sings with a mad glee.
In the third act the guests depart, and Mathias resolves to sleep alone; for he talks in his sleep. He locks the door of his chamber, and retires to his bed—to dream; and, in his dream, to live again through all his night of crime. But with a new horror. A prisoner at the bar, he fancies the mesmerist makes him sleep, and tell his judges, with his own lips, the secret story of his guilt.
Day comes. His wife and Christian break open the door of his chamber. They lift Mathias from his bed of horrors, in a dying state. He breathes his last in their arms.
Such is the plot of 'The Bells.'
Of Mr. Irving's character of Mathias, it is impossible to speak too highly. It is the finest impersonation seen on the English stage for years. It is a work of the highest art. The actor is lost in his creation. You see only Mathias, the terror-stricken murderer. The acting in the dream scene can only be charged with one fault. It is too real, too terrible. And at the end, the presentment of death is perfect.
Mr. Irving appeared first on the London stage, nearly six years ago, in a play called 'The Belles' Stratagem,' at the Theatre Royal, St. James's.