The Bells

Definition

Theater

  • Leopold Lewis's English adaptation of Le Juif polonais,a melodrama by Erckmann-Chatrian. It was first performed in 1871 atthe Lyceum Theatre, London, when it made Henry Irving famousovernight. Irving persuaded the theater's US manager, H. L. Bateman,to stage the piece after the Lyceum's season opened disappointingly.Its success established Irving as the leading tragedian of his time,made him the chief power in Bateman's company, and saved the theater'sfortunes.

    The plot involves Matthias, a respectable burgomaster, whois haunted by the undiscovered murder and robbery he has committedon a Polish Jew. Matthias has horrid visions of the Jew and keepshearing the ringing bells of his sleigh. Irving's insight into thistortured character held his audience spellbound, withhis horror-stricken cry "The Bells! The Bells!" passing immediately into theatrical folklore.

    However, The Bells was also the final straw that brokehis marriage to Florence O'Callaghan, who was a month away from givingbirth to their child when the play opened. They were returning homein a cab after the opening-night celebrations, when Florence, whohated the theater, suddenly asked him, "Are you going on makinga fool of yourself like this all your life?" Irving stoppedthe carriage, got out, and never once saw her again.

    Irving later toured widely with the play, making his New Yorkdebut in the piece in 1883; he even played the strenuous role duringhis last illness, despite doctors' warnings. After Irving's death,the critic A. B. Walkley paid tribute to the man who "set ourears ringing with the 'chink-chink' of the Polish Jew's sleigh bells...."

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