An Intro to The Yeomen of the Guard

Gilbert & Sullivan: operetta’s standing superstars, and with good reason. Full to the brim of farce, the duo’s characteristic flair for the chaotic is a running theme throughout their works, and The Yeomen of the Guard is no exception. If you’ve loved our G&S productions previously (or any comedy!) but would like a dark slant on the standard, we think you’ll love The Yeomen of the Guard.

Read up on Gilbert & Sullivan’s tower-based tragedy before our 2022/23 Season production.

*Content thanks to the English National Opera

A darker tale

Much like other Gilbert librettos, the cast of this operetta is a lovely lot – in the sense of everyone seems to be in love with one another! Set at the Tower of London, Sergeant Meryll, of the titular Yeomen of the Guard, lives with his daughter, Phœbe Meryll. At the beginning of our tale, Phœbe has gained the eye of the Jailor,  Wilfred Shadbolt. Wilfred, of course, has noticed who Phœbe has her eye on: Colonel Fairfax, a much grander man. Unfortunately, he’ll be a much less pretty picture without a head, as his execution is scheduled the same day.

Hatching a daring plan involving her brother Leonard impersonating the Colonel, this is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of Jack Point and Elsie Maynard, a duo of performers. Jack, of course, is infatuated with Elsie, so when the Lieutenant of the tower asks if Elsie wishes to marry Fairfax to negate her family’s financial strife, she relents.

…and all that happens within the first few scenes of Act 1. You might notice a grand total of five in our lovestruck cast: Phœbe, Wilfred, Fairfax, Jack and Elsie. Five, notoriously, is not a number which couples up easily. One of this number doesn’t get their happy ending – a rarity amongst Gilbert & Sullivan’s works!

Sullivan’s finest work

Composed towards the tail end of their working partnership, The Yeomen of the Guard marks a notable departure from the rest of Gilbert & Sullivan’s compositional output. Whilst it remains at its heart a G&S show, Yeomen is perhaps their least farcical work, putting away some of the childish glee we’re used to in their operettas and choosing to instead focus on a more adult storyline – where perhaps not everyone gets their happy ending after all. 

With this change in tone, Sullivan wrote what might be the best score of the bunch. Expanding the orchestra from the previously written Ruddigore, Sullivan’s use of the orchestra is masterful, straying from the familiar groove we know G&S operettas for in favour of more adventurous and daring writing. Of course, this does not come at the expense of delightful tunes, to which Yeomen is full to the brim: ‘I have a song to sing, O’, ‘When a Wooer goes a-Wooing’, ‘Free from his fetters grim’ and more

Immediately a hit in London, The Yeomen of the Guard opened 3 October 1888 and ran for 423 performances, with a English provincial tour opening the same year. The D’Oyly Carte company, which performed almost exclusively Gilbert & Sullivan’s works from the 1870s up until the 1980s, quickly added the show to their repertoire, bring the show back again and again – with 4 revivals just in the remainder of Sullivan’s life.