The Yeomen of the Guard
The Merryman and His Maid
"He sipped no sup, and he craved no crumb, as he sighed for the love of a ladye."
There was an interval of a year between Ruddigore and the next operetta. Carte soon became desperate for a new one.
One day Gilbert was standing around being annoyed, because he had to wait for the train. Across the platform was a poster for the Tower Furnishing Company. The poster had a picture of a scarlet-uniformed "Beefeater" or guard standing before the Tower of London. This picture set him thinking about the glorious age of Tudor England. Why couldn't he do an operetta taking place in sixteenth century London at the Tower?
On Christmas Gilbert and Carte visited Sullivan with the new story. They decided that this wouldn't be another comic opera, it would be more of a serious opera.
Gilbert spent hours researching the places around the Tower for local color. He made many sketches of the Beefeaters. He even read Shakespeare for the rhymes and locutions of Elizabethan English. In The Yeomen of the Guard, Gilbert managed to write in a style like rollicking Shakespeare. One of the best examples of this is from the song "I've got a song to sing, O!" where it reads:
"It's the song of a merryman, moping mum,
Sullivan started the music in July of 1888. He worked in the country in Hampshire. He made the music reflect the atmosphere of Tudor England. No one guessed that when he wrote the music he was, as Sullivan put it, "a very sick man". Sullivan was working under a lot of pressure. Gilbert was becoming more and more irritable because he had gout. The Yeomen of the Guard opened October 3, 1888 at the Savoy Theatre.
The Yeomen of the Guard is the only Gilbert and Sullivan that doesn't open on a chorus. Instead, a single person, Phoebe, opens the stage. She sings that "when maiden loves, she sits and sighs, she wanders to and fro…"
Wilfred, Phoebe's suitor comes in. Phoebe doesn't like him at all. Wilfred is the head jailer, and assistant tormentor at the Tower. They discuss the fact that Colonel Fairfax will be beheaded today at half-past seven. Fairfax is charged with sorcery, and dealings with the devil. Phoebe is in love with Fairfax, and Wilfred is jealous.
Phoebe discusses with her father, Sergeant Meryll, the possibility of a reprieve for Fairfax. Phoebe's brother Leonard is coming back from the war to claim a place in the guard. They think it's possible that Leonard may bring a reprieve with him. Three times Fairfax saved Meryll's life, and Meryll is hoping he can have a chance to save Fairfax's. But when Leonard comes, he doesn't have the reprieve.
Sergeant Meryll gets an idea. No one has seen Leonard yet, so if they could get the keys from the head jailer, Wilfred, they could shave Fairfax's beard, and he could become "Leonard". Just then, the Lieutenant is escorting Fairfax from one cell to another. Fairfax sees Meryll, and greets him. He doesn't seem to mind being killed that much. As he says:
"Is life a boon?
Meryll and Phoebe leave. Fairfax then asks a boon of the Lieutenant. He knows that his relatives charged him with sorcery so they could inherit his fortune. Fairfax asks to be married, so that his wife would inherit instead. The Lieutenant agrees to grant this wish of Fairfax's.
Next we meet Jack Point and Elsie Maynard, two strolling players. Jack Point is a jester, and Elsie is his girlfriend. The crowds around them get rather riotous, they cry for help, and the Lieutenant comes to help them, along with a dispatch of guards. Seeing Elsie, he remembers his promise to Fairfax, and asks her about her situation. She remarks that her mother is very sick, and they're trying to make enough money to help her. Lieutenant tells her that if she marries "a worthy but unhappy gentleman" she'll gain a hundred crowns, and become a widow in half- an- hour. Jack Point is somewhat reluctant, but agrees when he is assured that the prisoner will die in less than an hour. Elsie is led away, blindfolded (for some unknown reason). The Lieutenant then enrolls Mr. Point as his jester.
Phoebe steals the keys and slips them to her father, while talking to Wilfred. Meryll soon returns them to her, with Wilfred none the wiser. Soon after Wilfred departs, Fairfax appears as “Leonard”. The Tower Guard greets him heartily. Soon the execution is to take place. “Leonard” and two other men are sent to escort Fairfax to his death. But they are puzzled to find that Fairfax isn’t there. The Lieutenant arrests Wilfred because he is believed to be mixed up with this disappearance. Elsie is shocked and frightened. Jack Point is frantic because he is bereft of Elsie, since she is married. Elsie faints in (guess who) Fairfax’s arms.
Act two opens with Dame Carruthers and the women jeering at the Yeomen.
“Warders are ye?
Jack Point enters, in low spirits. His new master the Lieutenant is very difficult to please. He is met by Wilfred (wait, I thought he was in prison… oh well.). Wilfred wants to be a jester like Point. Point agrees to teach him, on one condition. He wants Wilfred to pretend he shot Fairfax in the river, so that Elsie thinks her husband is dead, and she can listen again to Point’ suit. Wilfred agrees.
Meryll and Fairfax learn from Dame Carruthers that Elsie has been talking in her sleep. Apparently she is a wife to someone she’s never seen. Fairfax thinks privately, that this is a great piece of luck. He likes Elsie. Fairfax tests her fidelity as Leonard by professing his love to her, but she refuses because she is another’s, Colonel Fairfax’s in fact. Just as Fairfax is going to reveal who he really is, a shot is heard.
Point and Wilfred have carried out their plan, and now Fairfax is believed to be dead. Needless to say, Phoebe and the Sergeant find this very funny. Point renews his suit with Elsie. Fairfax is angry, and tells him he isn’t wooing properly. He shows Point how to woo, and Elsie falls head over heels in love with “Leonard”. Phoebe bursts into tears-- she was in love with Fairfax.
Phoebe is left alone, soliloquizing about her situation. She doesn’t realize that Wilfred is listening to her. He guesses what Phoebe and her father have done. The price of his silence is Phoebe’s hand. Phoebe reluctantly agrees. She tells Meryll and nobody notices Dame Carruthers is listening. She too guesses they’re secret, and Meryll is forced to marry her.
Phoebe, Dame Carruthers and Elsie are about to marry, when they hear there is a pardon for Colonel Fairfax. Elsie is sad about not marrying Leonard, until she realizes her Leonard is Colonel Fairfax. The real Leonard is given his place, and everyone is pretty much happy, except for Jack Point.
Both Gilbert and Sullivan had been extremely nervous opening night. It is said that Gilbert positively harassed Jessie Bond, the first Phoebe, because she was to start alone. After she sent him out, Gilbert hid at the Drury Lane Theatre where The Armada was playing. He did return to take his bow with Sullivan. The first night was a great success. In the long run, The Yeomen of the Guard wasn’t a success, but it wasn’t really a failure either. The Yeomen ran for 423 performances.