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Theatre / The Yeomen of the Guard

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The Yeomen of the Guard, or, The Merryman and his Maid is an opera by Gilbert and Sullivan. It takes place in the Tower of London in the 16th century, and concerns a young street musician, Elsie Maynard, who agrees to marry a condemned man, Colonel Fairfax, without even meeting him: she will be a widow the next day, and the marriage will prevent his fortune going to the kinsman who framed him for a crime. However, with the help of kindly old Sergeant Meryll and his daughter Phoebe, Fairfax escapes, and, under an assumed identity, begins to woo his own wife — to the distress of Jack Point, the unhappy jester who is Elsie's performing partner and hopes to be her husband.

Though generally considered a "comic opera," it is notable as the team's most serious work. It even became tradition, after Gilbert's death, to make the opera an outright tragedy by having Point drop dead of a broken heart. (Sir Henry Lytton wrote that Gilbert once told him that he had always intended Jack Point to die at the end, but had somewhat modified his intention due to the great comic reputation of George Grossmith, who originated the role.)

The central motif of the drama is said to have been suggested to Gilbert when he saw a Beefeater displayed on the advertisement of a London furniture moving company. His imagination took fire at the picturesque Tower of London setting, and he made a special study of Shakespearean language in order to create the proper feel for the period. The plot-device of the secret wedding may have been suggested by an earlier melodrama, Maritana, itself based on a still earlier French play, Don César de Bazan. However, neither of those sources have the eccentricity of character or the wit, grace, and occasional profundity of Gilbert's libretto, let alone the rich and glittering texture of Sullivan's outstanding score, "over which" (it has been said) "the motif of the Tower broods like a watchful giant."

Yeoman has had several television film adaptations including a 1982 version with Joel Grey as Jack Point.

Tropes present in this work:

  • Abhorrent Admirer:
    • Sergeant Meryll has Dame Carruthers, whom he finds too old to be attractive.
    • Phoebe has Wilfred Shadbolt, whom she detests for his occupation as jailer at the Tower of London.
  • Adaptation Expansion: Based on Gilbert's poem "Annie Protheroe", with some truly epic expansion, turning a fairly trivial little comic poem into easily the most serious and realistic of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas.
  • Affably Evil: Wilfred Shadbolt, head jailer and assistant tormentor, but wants to be more affable by becoming a jester.
  • Ambiguous Ending: The stage direction at the end of the opera says only that Elsie and Fairfax embrace while Point "falls insensible at their feet." Asked to clarify its meaning, Gilbert told stage manager J.M. Gordon "the fate of Jack Point is in the hands of the audience, who may please themselves whether he lives or dies." (George Grossmith, who originated the role, waggled his toes comically at the end to indicate he was still alive. Other productions have chosen to make it more clear that he suffers a heart attack.)
  • And Now You Must Marry Me: Not one, but two major characters are forced into loveless marriages to detested admirers who have enough dirt on them to get them executed. Marriage to said admirers is the price of their silence.
  • Author Filibuster: "I've Wisdom from the East and from the West" appears to be Gilbert himself explaining his use of comedy.
  • Dark Reprise: "I Have a Song to Sing, O!" first appears as an uplifting song and dance in the first act, with the (more depressing) first and third verses slightly altered for their reprise at the end.
  • Darker and Edgier: Sullivan was fed up with frivolous "topsy-turvydom", so Gilbert wrote a much more serious libretto. Even though it was a hit (and remained Sullivan's favourite and probably Gilbert's), they went Lighter and Softer again with The Gondoliers.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Jack Point "is not yet married to Elsie Maynard, but time works wonders..."
  • Downer Ending: Most Gilbert and Sullivan plays end with all of the leads happily married off, even if some of the matches might have been made hastily. In Yeomen, two of the three marriages are forced and loveless on one side and Dogged Nice Guy Jack Point appears to die of a broken heart after his love interest is reunited with his rival.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Fairfax, facing execution for a crime he did not commit, appears to have accepted his fate in his song, "Is Life a Boon?" In it, he notes that if life is good ("Is life a boon?") then it doesn't matter how much time people are given, they'll always want more; and if life is not good ("Is life a thorn?") then it's just as well to get it over with.
  • Faint in Shock:
    • In the course of the first act, Elsie Maynard is thoroughly justified in doing so. She:
      1. Is forced to marry a condemned criminal to buy medicine to save her mother. note 
      2. Witnesses the highly-charged leadup to his execution by beheading.
      3. Then she finds out that he's escaped, meaning she, as a poor woman in Tudor times, is now permanently a criminal's wife.
      4. Being a moral woman, love is now forbidden to her, because loving anyone else would be adultery. It is at this point she faints.
    • At the end of Act II, the jester Jack Point, who is in love with Elsie Maynard, faints because Fairfax is pardoned and is married to Elsie.
  • For Doom the Bell Tolls: The finale of the first act employs the ensemble singing along as the bell tolls for Fairfax's execution.
  • Foreshadowing: Zigzagged with Point and Elsie's introductory song, "I Have a Song to Sing, O!" It's about a jester who is "moping" because his female partner rejects him for a wealthy Lord, which foreshadows the Love Triangle of the opera, but it has a much happier ending (for the jester, anyway) than the opera does.
  • Healthcare Motivation: Elsie agrees to marry Fairfax because she needs the money for her sick mother.
  • Historical Domain Character: Sir Richard Cholmondeley was Lieutenant of the Tower of London from 1513 to 1520. note 
  • The Ingenue: Elsie Maynard.
  • Job Song: "A Private Buffoon" is sung by Jack Point about his job as a jester, from a rather cynical perspective.
  • Marriage Before Romance: While waiting to be executed Fairfax marries Elise in order to prevent his property being inherited by those who have falsely accused him. She is blindfolded for the ceremony and he is too distracted to remember her face so that when they meet later neither recognizes the other. They then proceed to fall in love.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Played with. Fairfax is the hypotenuse of not one but two love triangles (not to mention the center of a third). His rivals, Point and Wilfred, publicly claim to have killed him as he tried to swim across the Thames, reasoning that Fairfax can't contradict them without fatally blowing his cover.
  • Oblivious to Love: Fairfax to Phoebe (unless the director decides that he notices but doesn't care).
  • Offstage Villainy: Fairfax's cousin and heir apparent, Sir Clarence Poltwhistle, has falsely accused Fairfax of sorcery in order to get his hands on his estates and fortune after his execution. It's Fairfax's determination to prevent this that sets up the play's Downer Ending.
  • Off with His Head!: Fairfax is to be executed on a false charge of sorcery.
  • Orphaned Setup: Jack tries out the riddle, "Can you tell me, sir, why a cook’s brain-pan is like an overwound clock?" Cholmondely refuses to hear the punch line, to Jack's frustration. We never find it out.
    • An answer from the Gilbert and Sullivan fan site "Because they are both so tight that they don't give seconds."
  • Pair the Spares: Subverted. After Elsie and Fairfax get together, the spares are Phoebe (who had pursued Fairfax) and Jack Point (who had pursued Elsie). They don't pair up; Phoebe marries someone else — not for love, but to protect Fairfax — and Jack Point doesn't marry anybody, but gets left out to dry.
  • Patter Song: Jack Point has two, "I've Jibe and Joke" and "Oh, a Private Buffoon", as well as a patter duet with Wilfred in "Like a Ghost His Vigil Keeping". Sgt. Meryll and Dame Carruthers have a semi-patter duet in "Rapture, Rapture!"
  • Playing Cyrano: Played with. Fairfax leads a quartet about how wooing has to be learned, with Jack Point eagerly hoping to apply this teaching to Elsie. Then Fairfax proposes to Elsie and sends Jack off.
  • Rags to Royalty: Elsie. Or at least from rags to prosperous upper class as Fairfax is indicated to have a considerable estate.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Sir Richard who is sympathetic to Fairfax' cause and goes along with his arrangement to thrawt the designs of his malicious cousin.
  • Sad Clown: Jack Point, professional jester. The story doesn't end well for him, and some productions depict him as sickly.
  • She Is All Grown Up: Played with. When Phœbe greets Fairfax as "Leonard", he has no idea who she is. Upon learning that she's "his" sister, he exclaims, "Why, how you've grown! I did not recognise you!"
  • Shown Their Work: The Tower of London is guarded by the Yeomen of the Guard, not the Yeomen Warders, which didn't exist until 1548.
  • Snap Back: Wilfred is arrested after Fairfax escapes in the finale of Act I, but is suddenly at liberty when Act II begins with no mention of his arrest. It is implied, however, that he has lost his job as head jailer and assistant tormentor.
  • So Unfunny, It's Funny / Incredibly Lame Pun: Jack Point's attempts to impress the Lieutenant are this.
  • Spanner in the Works: In order to prevent his accusers from inheriting his property after his execution Fairfax marries Elsie so that she will inherit instead. When he is rescued his escape is complicated by the fact that he is now married.
  • Suspiciously Apropos Music: In Act 1, Jack Point and Elsie Maynard perform "I Have A Song To Sing, O!" which tells the story of a jester who falls in Unrequited Love with a highborn lady. This turns out to have multiple layers of Dramatic Irony to the rest of the plot.
  • Talking in Your Sleep: Kate hears Elsie talking in her sleep, and learns important information from it.
  • Throw the Dog a Bone: Elsie's reprise of "I Have a Song to Sing, O!" changes the line about the maiden who "laughed aloud" at the jester to saying that she "dropped a tear." Note that this was not in the original production, where Elsie "laughed aloud" at Point's misery. For a revival in 1897, Gilbert changed the line to make Elsie more sympathetic.
  • Villain Song: Wilfred Shadbolt has a solo early in the show called "A Jealous Torment". It was cut after the first performance but is brought back in some modern productions.
  • Wandering Minstrel: Jack Point and Elsie Maynard are strolling performers, though Jack manages to land a gig as Court Jester for Cholmondely later on.
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: Averted, for the most part; as mentioned above, Gilbert made a special study of Elizabethan language to get it right. note