‘The bells! The bells!’ I have at last got around to actually reading the play made famous by Sir Henry Irving and which I’ve often heard mentioned or read about.
How it got there I have no idea but I found a book in the bookshelf titled ‘Hiss the Villain –Six Melodramas edited by Michael Booth.’ Why I say I wonder how it got there is because it was once the property of Tufts University Library. I must have got it legitimately though because I see on the flyleaf we paid £15 for it and that must have been some time ago when £15 was worth quite a lot. It’s been a long journey unread from New England to Crete, presumably via London and Yorkshire. Not Virginia or New York or it would have been marked in dollars. I was rather surprised not to find ‘Murder In The Red Barn’ or ‘Sweeny Todd’ in the collection, two most famous melodramas, but the ones included are more along the moralistic line, especially when dealing with the demon – alcohol! ‘Ten Nights in a Bar-room’ ‘Lost in London’ ‘Under the Gaslight’ and, of course, ‘The Bells’.
Talking of the demon alcohol – I saw a photographic reproduction of a dozen ladies with a large sign reading ‘Lips that touch alcohol shall ne’er touch mine.’ Looking at the grim faced rather plain harridans in the picture I shouldn’t think anyone would want to touch theirs. But back to melodrama.
It’s too easy now to find these works laughable, melodrama being a joke, but it was the mainstay of English and American theatre in the nineteenth century and evidently right up to the First Wold War and any management wanting to fill the theatre put on melodrama despite the number of elaborate (and expensive?) scenes required in each. Shakespeare and modern drama did not pull in the punters and the upper classes preferred the opera. The writing of these plays, fodder now for send-up and excruciatingly bad as it is with dialogue unheard of except upon the Victorian stage, was however evidently taken seriously by its authors if you consider for example the note Watts Phillips wrote at the end of his play ‘Lost In London.’
“The above explains my reason for requiring a great width of window at the back. I wish the great city to appear most distinctly as a background to the last act of the drama. The moonlight view will give a beautiful tone to the scene.”
And “It is required that the silver light of the moon should fall suddenly on the figure of Nelly, flooding it as with glory.”
Of course melodrama had to develop further and give the masses more of what they wanted hence the inclusion of what was known as “the sensation scene,” that is for example the rescue in the nick of time from an advancing locomotive or the hero diving into the lake to rescue the drowning heroine. What The Times called “a triumph of sensationalism” was in a play ‘The White Heather’ when two deep sea divers fight on the ocean bed and one is killed when his air pipe is severed. Evidently the scene was very realistic including the swimming fish. One of the reasons I suppose for the decline in melodrama was the advent of moving pictures that could reproduce these events that much more easily and with greater effect.
Of the six melodramas in this volume ‘The Bells’ is something of an exception as the writing is much more natural and consists of lines people could actually act in a more realistic way though, as with the others, the sets are many and the cast numerous. Managements could afford huge casts in those days. Now if you present a play with more than one set and two or three characters hands are thrown up in horror. The sensation scene I suppose is Mathias having a fantasy of a courtroom and being tried for murder, being hypnotised by a mesmerist (!) in order to reveal his guilt and naturally being sentenced to death.
Funnily enough we watched an early Sherlock Holmes movie in which that evil fiend Moriarty uses mesmerism to blackmail victims into believing they are guilty of murder. Melodrama wasn’t quite dead.
‘The Bells! The Bells!’