The Yeomen of the Guard
The Tower of London is the setting for Gilbert & Sullivan’s beloved operetta, The Yeomen of the Guard.
The arrival of a travelling troupe of performers sparks forbidden romances, fantastical plots and unrequited love. It’s full of delightful tunes including ‘I have a song to sing, O’, ‘When a Wooer goes a-Wooing’, and ‘Free from his fetters grim’.
The Yeomen of the Guard Plot Summary
Act I: The Tower of London
Colonel Fairfax, once a soldier of outstanding bravery, is imprisoned in the Tower of London under sentence of death for sorcery. Phoebe, daughter of Sergeant Meryll of the Yeomen, has fallen in love with him. When the Tower’s head gaoler Wilfred appears, she ridicules him. He loves Phoebe; knowing of her love for Fairfax, he gleefully conveys the news that Fairfax is to be executed later that day. The citizens and Yeomen Warders arrive.
Dame Carruthers, the Tower’s housekeeper, dismisses Phoebe’s protestations of Fairfax’s innocence. Annoyed by Phoebe’s criticisms of the Tower, she lauds its merits. After everyone leaves, Meryll tells Phoebe that her brother Leonard has been appointed a Yeoman. He is on his way from court and may bring with him a reprieve for Fairfax. However, when Leonard arrives, he has only a dispatch for the Lieutenant of the Tower.
Meryll is anxious to save Fairfax to repay him for saving his own life in battle on more than one occasion. The Sergeant formulates a plan: Leonard will hide and Fairfax, sprung from his cell, will assume Leonard’s identity. Phoebe must distract Wilfred and obtain the key to Fairfax’s cell.
Fairfax enters, escorted by the Yeomen. The Lieutenant of the Tower greets him sadly, as they are old friends. Fairfax bears his impending execution philosophically. He makes a request of the Lieutenant: the charge of sorcery was the doing of his wicked cousin, a government minister, who will inherit his estate if he dies unmarried. He therefore wishes to be married to any available woman – it matters not whom – who will receive a financial reward for her trouble. The Lieutenant agrees.
The strolling players Jack Point and Elsie Maynard are pursued by a noisy crowd that demands entertainment. Point manages to quieten the crowd, and he and Elsie perform a song. When the song is over, the crowd grows unruly again, and violence is averted only by the Lieutenant’s arrival.
Point and Elsie explain that Elsie’s mother is poorly, and they need money to buy her medicine. The Lieutenant offers Elsie the opportunity to earn a substantial sum if she marries a condemned gentleman immediately.
Point, who intends to marry Elsie himself, is assured that the groom will be executed immediately after the ceremony. Elsie consents, and, blindfolded, is led off to the secret ceremony. The Lieutenant tells Point he has a vacancy for a jester, and Point tells him of his skills and tries out some jokes. They go off to discuss the position further.
Wilfred leads Elsie back from her anonymous meeting in Fairfax’s cell. While he wonders what they were up to, Elsie reflects on her impending widowhood. Phoebe arrives, distracts Wilfred, and steals his keys, which she gives surreptitiously to her father to release Fairfax. She distracts Wilfred until she can return the keys to Wilfred’s belt, leaving the gaoler confused but entertaining hopeful fantasies of marrying her.
Meryll disguises Fairfax as his son, Leonard. The Yeomen greet ‘Leonard’, who insists that stories of his bravery are exaggerated. He falters when he meets Phoebe, but Wilfred explains who she is, pretending to Fairfax that he (Wilfred) is betrothed to her.
The Headsman enters in readiness for Fairfax’s execution. Wilfred, ‘Leonard’ and two Yeomen go to fetch Fairfax but return to announce his escape. The Lieutenant blames Wilfred, and declares his life forfeit instead, at which Wilfred protests his innocence. Point is distraught at Fairfax’s disappearance, Elsie faints, and all rush off to hunt for Fairfax.
Interval of 20 minutes
Act II Two days later
Dame Carruthers berates the Yeomen for letting Fairfax escape. Point, now in the Lieutenant’s employ, bitterly reflects on his profession and taunts Wilfred. When Wilfred says he’d rather be a jester than a gaoler, Point has an idea. He reveals the secret wedding and agrees to teach Wilfred the jester’s art if Wilfred will publicly swear that he (Wilfred) shot Fairfax dead as he tried to escape. Wilfred agrees.
Meanwhile, Fairfax, still disguised as Leonard, regrets his marriage to a bride he cannot identify, for her face was concealed throughout the ceremony. Elsie, who fainted at the thwarted execution, and who is now in Meryll’s care, has recovered. However, her illness gave Dame Carruthers an excuse to move into his house while she nursed the girl. Carruthers has been making overtures to Meryll for years, though he has always spurned her. Carruthers returns and reveals that her niece heard Elsie talking in her sleep about her secret wedding.
Alone, Fairfax discloses how pleased he is that his mystery wife is the beautiful Elsie. He decides to test her fidelity by pretending to woo her but disguised as Leonard. Elsie rejects his advances.
A shot resounds, and everyone rushes in. Wilfred pretends that he discovered Fairfax in hiding, and after a struggle Fairfax dived into the Thames, whereupon Wilfred shot him dead.
Now Elsie is a widow, Point asks her to marry him. Fairfax, still disguised as ‘Leonard’, tells Point that he doesn’t know how to court a woman, and he therefore gives Point a lesson in this art with a most effective demonstration on Elsie. Point is slow to realise that Fairfax is wooing the girl for himself and that she has fallen for ‘Leonard’. On seeing her adored Fairfax pledged to another, Phoebe bursts into tears; Point, shocked by the turn of events, wishes he was dead.
Phoebe inadvertently discloses Leonard’s true identity. She desperately buys Wilfred’s silence by agreeing to marry him (after a long engagement). The real Leonard returns and announces that Fairfax’s reprieve has finally arrived. Phoebe admits to her father her folly, whereupon Dame Carruthers threatens to expose the three schemers who had freed Fairfax illegally. Meryll reluctantly buys Carruthers’s silence with a marriage proposal.
Elsie arrives for her wedding to the man she still knows as ‘Leonard’, but the Lieutenant announces that her husband Fairfax is still alive. Fairfax arrives dressed for the wedding. Elsie, distraught over the loss of ‘Leonard’, does not turn to see his face. Elsie begs him to free her to go to ‘Leonard’, but Fairfax won’t be moved. Finally, she turns to see his face, and recognises him. Everyone celebrates Fairfax and Elsie’s marriage – all, that is, except the broken-hearted Jack Point.