The Yeomen of the Guard
The Merryman and His Maid
Words: W.S. Gilbert
Music: Arthur Sullivan
Written in: Authored Date:


The scene is set in the Tower of London in the early 16th century. Within the old fortress are immured several prisoners, amongst whom is Colonel Fairfax, condemned to death for sorcery, a charge trumped up by a villainous relation, who inherits the Colonel's wealth if the latter die unmarried.

The Colonel has unknowingly attracted the eye of young Phoebe, daughter to Sergeant Meryll. She in turn is pursued by Wilfred Shadbolt, the Head Jailer, whose attentions she now finds particularly irksome. In the opening scene, Phoebe and the jealous Wilfred quarrel over her interest in the condemned Fairfax.

Then follows the grand entry of the Yeomen of the Guard, escorted by the civilian inhabitants.

Dame Carruthers, Head Housekeeper to the Tower, reminds us that Colonel Fairfax is to die today and is spending his last hour alone with his confessor.

A conversation between Phoebe and her father, the Sereeant. reveals that the only hope for the gallant Colonel is that Leonard, Meryll's long-absent son, whose return is imminent, may bear a reprieve with him. Leonard arrives but, alas, he brings no reprieve.

Sergeant Meryll then conceives a daring plan to save the Colonel. No-one in the Tower knows his son Leonard by sight - so he will go into hiding for the nonce, and the Colonel will take his place in the Guard! Leonard is immediately dispatched, and Phoebe is entrusted with the task of filching the key of Fairfax's cell from Wilfred.

At this point. Colonel Fairfax himself is brought out under guard, and maintains a jaunty front despite the gloomy faces of Meryll, Phoebe, and of Sir Richard Cholmondeley, Lieutenant of the Tower. The Colonel makes a last request, that the Lieutenant find him a wife to thwart the machinations of his kinsman, Secretary Poltwhistle! The Lieutenant agrees to find him a wife - but where?

The entry of the crowd signals the arrival of a troupe ofentertainers -jugglers, tumblers, a performing bear - and an out-of work jester. Jack Point, with his girl, Elsie Maynard. The crowd jostles and manhandles the latter rather roughly and only the entry of the Lieutenant saves the situation.

The Lieutenant realises at once that Elsie is the ideal candidate for instant widowhood. Tempted by the much-needed money, both Jack and Elsie reluctantly agree to the scheme. Elsie, blindfolded, is taken away to be married to her unknown groom, and Jack is thoroughly auditioned by the Lieutenant for the vacant post as his jester.

Re-enter Elsie, married, but soon to be widowed.

As she leaves, Wilfred enters, his simple mind somewhat puzzled by the goings-on he has witnessed. Phoebe, by dint of wheedling and suggestion, distracts Wilfred while Meryll, unobserved, borrows his keys long enough to effect the release of the Colonel from Cold Harbour Tower.

Fairfax, in the hastily-donned guise of a Yeoman, is introduced to the rest of the Guard as Leonard, Meryll's son. Fairfax survives the ordeal, including the near-disaster offailing to recognise his own "sister", Phoebe. Ironically, Wilfred entrusts Phoebe to "Leonard's " fraternal care - a situation Phoebe is obviously only too delighted to exploit.

The bell begins to toll, the procession enters for the expected execution, the Lieutenant takes up his position - but no prisoner! The escort, led by "Leonard", returns to announce that Fairfax's cell is empty.

The Lieutenant is furious; Wilfred is threatened with death; Meryll and Phoebe affect astonishment; Elsie is distraught, trapped in marriage with an unknown groom! Jack Point is aghast and shattered - his "promised bride" is another's.

All dash off in search of the missing prisoner, leaving Elsie fainting in the arms of the new Yeomen, "Leonard" - Colonel Fairfax, her husband, did she but know it!


Two days later, and the whereabouts of the escaped Fairfax are still unknown.

Jack Point is heart-broken. However, Wilfred's ardent desire to be a funny-man gives Jack an idea. In return for Jack's teaching Wilfred how to be a jester, Wilfred will swear to having witnessed the death of Fairfax. Thus "widowed", Elsie will be free again for Jack.

The disguised Fairfax enters. He is free, yes, but trapped in marriage to an unknown bride.

From Meryll he learns that Elsie Maynard has recovered, and that Dame Carruthers has taken advantage of the situation to impose her unwanted attentions on the Sergeant. The Dame enters with her niece, Kate; their words reveal to Fairfax that his unknown bride is indeed Elsie Maynard, the strolling player.

The Colonel takes advantage of his knowledge to test his wife's integrity - a test which she passes with dignity... Their colloquy is interupted by a shot - Wilfred and Jack have set their scheme in motion. They proceed to elaborate their story, with sometimes conflicting details, of how the escaping Fairfax died.

A sceptical Fairfax questions Jack and, after criticising the jester's abrupt style of courting, proceeds to woo Elsie in his own way, and in doing so actually carries her off under Jack's very nose. Jack is desolated, Phoebe furious. She unwittingly reveals to Wilfred the true identity of her "brother". She decides to accept Wilfred's hand - but not his heart.

The real Leonard now enters, with news of the delayed reprieve. Dame Carruthers discovers the plot; in return for her silence she secures Meryll's hand - but not his heart.

In the final scene, Elsie, expecting an enforced reunion with an unknown husband, finds he is in fact her beloved "Leonard", and, amidst general rejoicing. Jack Point dies - of a broken heart.

Written by Mr P de Grouchy


Background to the Opera

During the year following the disappointingly short run of "Ruddigore", D'Oyly Carte, the impresario who had brought Gilbert and Sullivan together, continually pressed the librettist and the composer to produce something new; it was becoming unprofitable to keep the Savoy Theatre running on revivals of past successes. "My chance of running present establishment seems to be to rush on new piece" he telegraphed.

Then came the stroke of luck, like the falling of the Japanese sword which had inspired "The Mikado". In Gilbert's own words:

"The genesis of this libretto was a placard advertisement of the Tower Furnishing Company in which a Beefeater was a conspicuous figure. I was on my way from Uxbridge to Paddington and, having missed my train at Uxbridge, I had an hour to wait, and so it came to pass that I had plenty of time in which to study the advertisements on the walls. The Beefeater on the placard suggested to me that an effective libretto might be constructed, the scenes in which should represent two views of the Tower of London, with a body of Beefeaters as male chorus. My first idea was to make the piece modem, with young ladies, guardsmen, a Lieutenant of the Tower, and so forth; but a picture of a jester in a magazine which I bought to read while I was waiting suggested to me the advisability of putting the piece back into the sixteenth century in order that I might be able to weave that effectively dramatic figure into the story. I had christened the piece "The Beefeaters", but Sir Arthur Sullivan considered "Beefeaters" to be an ugly word; so at his urgent instance the title was altered to "The Yeomen of the Guard", notwithstanding the fact that the Yeomen of the Guard, properly so called, have no association whatever with the Tower of London. I believe that this piece was a special favourite of Sir Arthur Sullivan's, and I am certainly disposed to regard it as the best piece of work that he and I have produced in collaboration. I am also disposed to believe that, if I had not missed that train, I should never have written that piece."

Gilbert was struck by the apparant similarities between the glorious days of Queen Victoria, who had just celebrated her Golden Jubilee, and those of Queen Elizabeth I, and originally set the opera in the latter period, the second half of the 16th century. However, certain anomalies in the libretto, along with other evidence, suggest that the earlier period of Henry VIII, more precisely the early 1520's, was finally in Gilbert's mind. For example, the only historical person in the plot. Sir Richard Cholmondeley, was actually Lieutenant of the Tower from 1513 to 1524. And photographs of early productions show "HR" rather than "ER" on the Warders' costumes. To this confusion is added the problem of the Yeomen themselves. As Gilbert implies above, his Yeomen are a kind of theatrical and unhistorical amalgam of the original Yeomen of the Guard, apersonal bodyguard to the Sovereign, established in 1485 and normally resident at Windsor or St. James' Palace and the Tower Warders who were not established until 1548, a year after the death of Henry VIII. These loose ends provide a real headache for anyone who wishes to present a historically authentic production.

To be fair, Gilbert thoroughly researched the background for his libretto. He visited the Tower frequently, absorbing its romantic atmosphere and history; he even read Shakespeare to capture the rythms and diction of sixteenth century English - but he secretly admitted that he did not find Shakespeare "rollicking".

However, like Shakespeare, Gilbert appears quite happy to pick other men's brains. The plot of "The Yeomen of the Guard", as it finally evolved, bears close resemblance to that of "Maritana", a mid-nineteenth century opera by Wallace, which in turn had similarities with an earlier French play "Don Cesar de Bazan" - a knight languishes in the condemned cell, marries a gypsy dancer, and afterescaping, returns in disguise. Justly or not Gilbert was accused of plagiarism; but much less justly he has been accused of plagiarising Leoncavallo's "I Pagliacci", the story of a tragic clown. But "I Pagliacci" did not appear on stage until four years after Jack Point first did so.

Interestingly, Gilbert claimed that his plot was "without anachronisms or pathos of any kind".

Sullivan liked the plot and declared himself "immensely pleased with it. Pretty story, no topsy-turvydom, very human and funny also". He began writing the music in July 1888 in Fleet in Hampshire although he was "a very sick man".

The new work was billed as an "entirely new and original opera", thus emphasising the departure from the lightweight comic pieces with which the two creators had become associated.

"The Yeomen of the Guard" opened on 3rd October 1888. Both men were very apprehensive about the first night, but as Sullivan recorded "the success of the Heighday duet (I have a song to sing, O!) settled the fate of the Opera... after that everything went on wheels...NINE encores".

"The Yeomen of the Guard" ran for 423 performances in its first season and has been regularly revived since, including productions actually staged in the Tower of London itself.

Written by Mr P. de Grouchy

The Yeomen of the Guard, July 2012, Nuffield Theatre
The Yeomen of the Guard, March 2002, Nuffield Theatre
The Yeomen of the Guard, April 1990, Mayflower Theatre
The Yeomen of the Guard, July 1982, The Nuffield Theatre
The Yeomen of the Guard, March 1975, The Guildhall
The Yeomen of the Guard, March 1967, The Guildhall
The Yeomen of the Guard, March 1959, The Guildhall
The Yeomen of the Guard, March 1951, The Guildhall
The Yeomen of the Guard, April 1934, The New Avenue Hall
The Yeomen of the Guard, April 1929, Watts Hall