"The Yeomen Of The Guard"

or "The Merryman and His Maid"

Potted Plot | History | First Night Critics | Did You Know? | Behind the Scenes | Original Cast

Picture of first night programme

First performed at the Savoy Theatre, London, on October 3rd, 1888

The setting is the Tower Green.

Phoebe, Sergeant Meryll's daughter, is discovered sitting at her spinning wheel. Wilfred, the Head Jailer and Assistant Tormentor, enters and the conversation reveals that Phoebe is attracted to the young prisoner, Colonel Fairfax, who is to be beheaded that day on a charge of sorcery. Wilfred is jealous and departs grumbling.

The housekeeper of the Tower, Dame Carruthers, arrives and tells Phoebe that Fairfax is no sorcerer but an innocent student of alchemy.

Left alone with her father, Phoebe asks if any reprieve has at yet arrived for the poor Fairfax. Meryll is hopeful that might arrive that day with her brother Leonard, who has been recently appointed to the Yeomen.

He duly arrives bringing a dispatch for the Lieutenant of the Tower and no reprieve. Leonard suggests that as no one as yet seem him then he should go into hiding and Fairfax, with beard removed, might be passed off as the returned son. All depart.

Colonel Fairfax comes out for morning exercise and is greeted by the Lieutenant of the Tower. He has a request. The charge of sorcery has been laid against him by a kinsman who will succeed to his estate if he dies unmarried. He asks if could get married to anyone and, in return, she will get a hundred crowns and become a widow within the hour. The Lieutenant agrees to help with the request.

Enter Jack Point and Elsie Maynard, two strolling players. After they have entertained the crowd the Lieutenant approaches. After learning that they are not husband and wife he makes the offer of a hundred crowns to Elsie. They all agree to the plan although Jack Point, who is obviously attracted to Elsie has some concerns. Elsie is blindfolded and led away and quickly the marriage takes place.

In the meantime the Sergeant and Phoebe proceed with their plans to get Fairfax out of his cell.

Phoebe woos Wilfred and manages to get the key to the cell door.

In a tick, the Colonel is out and wearing a Yeoman's uniform. Meryll introduces him to his fellow Yeomen as Leonard.

It is soon time for the execution. Suddenly all is in turmoil. The prisoner's cell is empty. Wilfred is arrested and Elsie is upset that she is now a wife and her husband is free. The Lieutenant offers a reward of a thousand crowns to anyone who brings back the prisoner dead or alive.

Act two is the same, except by moonlight.

Both Jack Point and Wilfred are depressed. Wilfred confides that he has often thought that the profession of jesting would suit him. Jack has a plan. If Wilfred will swear that he shot Fairfax while trying to swim across the river then Jack would make him the very Archbishop of jesters. To top it off Jack would back up his story. They depart to work on their plan.

Fairfax enters with Sergeant Meryll and Dame Carruthers, who has been nursing the distraught Elsie. Fairfax realises that the charming Elsie who he saw in the Act One Finale was, in fact, his bride.

She enters and Fairfax decides to woo her in the guise of Leonard Meryll. Just as he is about to reveal himself a shot is heard and everyone gathers on stage. Wilfred and Jack tell their wild tale and the heroic Wilfred is carried off on the shoulders of four men.

Jack Point reminds Elsie that she is now free to choose her husband and is just starting to put forward his own claims when Fairfax points out that wooing is an art in itself. Fairfax demonstrates by wooing Elsie. Jack and Phoebe realise what is actually happening.

Left alone, Phoebe is discovered by Wilfred. She reveals to him that the man supposed to be Leonard Meryll is not her brother. Wilfred guesses the truth.

Before much can be done the real Leonard Meryll arrives with the news that Fairfax has been reprieved.v The operetta moves to it's close. Elsie realises that the man she loves is, in fact, the man she is married to.

Jack Point enters dejected.

"Oh, thoughtless crew!
Ye know not what ye do!
Attend to me, and shed a tear or two -
For I have a song to sing, O!"

As Fairfax and Elsie embrace, Jack Point falls insensible at their feet.

Click here for a complete libretto to the Yeomen

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On November the 5th, 1887, "Ruddigore" came to an end and for nearly a year following the Savoy stage was occupied by a series of revivals: "H.M.S. Pinafore", "The Pirates of Penzance" and "The Mikado". It was at the close of the latter that Rutland Barrington terminated his engagement at the Savoy. He went to try his hand at his own theatrical management.

Ruddigore Theatre Poster

One day, while waiting for a train at Uxbridge Station, Gilbert found himself staring at a poster of the Tower Furnishing Company, depicting the Tower of London. As he climbed into the train Gilbert dwelt on the possibilities that the next Savoy Opera could be set in the Tower of London.

Gilbert immediately set about writing the opera he called "The Tower Warder".

After hearing the plot Sullivan confided to his diary that he was immensely pleased: "No topsy-turveydom, very human, and funny also."

For the first time in his operas Gilbert was not mocking any British Institution. The single scene for both acts was the Tower Green. A prominent artist, Percy Anderson, was employed to design the costumes.

The music of "The Tower Warden" was composed at Fleet, in Hampshire. Concurrently Sullivan was writing the incidental music for "Macbeth", to be produced at Christmas at the Lyceum by Henry Irving.

He managed to put all he had into "The Tower Warden" which had several changes of name.

During rehearsals the piece became "The Yeomen of the Guard".

When the curtain came down on the first performance Sullivan went home and wrote in his diary: "Crammed house - usual enthusiastic reception. I was awfully nervous and continued so until the duet 'Heighday' which settled the fate of the opera. Its success was tremendous, three times encored! After that everything went on wheels, and I think its success is even greater than The Mikado. Nine encores".

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First night critics



"Judging by the crisp and epigrammatic title, The Yeomen of the Guard; or, The Merryman and his Maid, the librettist seems, up to the last moment, to have been undecided as to what he should call his new and original infant."

Sunday Times

"It is well known that nervousness prevents Mr. Gilbert ever sitting through one of his own works...Consequently on Wednesday night, during the progress of The Yeomen of the Guard he might have been seen in the stalls at Drury Lane, watching The Armada...He turned up in time for his 'call' through."

Daily Telegraph

"The one set in the opera elicited the first round of applause. It shows the Tower as solidly built, to all appearance, as the original edifice a little lower down the river."

The Times

"It should..be acknowledged that Mr. Gilbert has earnestly endeavoured to leave familiar grooves and rise to higher things on his abandoned self as on stepping stones. Whether the move in the new direction will be altogether a successful one is a different question, which at present it would be premature to decide."


"There was but one doubt about last night's performance. It was not certain that spectators so used to finding fantastic drolleries hidden beneath apparently grave speeches would accept seriously what was meant to be serious, that, in fact, they would not laugh in the wrong place. The skill of the performers prevented any such mishap."

The Times

"(D'Oyly Carte's new tenor, Courtice Pounds, is) a decided acquisition....the possessor of a charming voice and cultivated style...He acts in a spirited and unaffected fashion, which is very rarely found in tenors, and did much for the general success."

The Times

"To Mr. Denny had fallen the difficult task of creating the part of the gaoler, obviously designed for Mr. Rutland Barrington, who has left the Savoy Theatre. That the new actor was quite equal to his inimitable prototype cannot be said, but he showed considerable humour of the dry kind nevertheless."

Daily Telegraph

"Perhaps Mr. Gilbert's most successful lyric...the 'singing farce of the Merryman and his Maid',...made doubly attractive by Sir Arthur Sullivan's quaintly beautiful music...may take rank in popular esteem as the gem of the work. It was doubly encored last night amid great applause."


"Miss Ulmar has, perhaps, never been seen and heard to such complete advantage. She adopts the various moods of the character of Elsie with excellent appreciation, and, it need hardly be said, sings delightfully."

Daily Telegraph

"It may be (that George Grossmith's) warmest admirers were surprised at the merits of his Jester - an assumption of very considerable subtlety, and one in which no ordinary difficulties are surmounted. Whether giving expression to poor Jack's professional wit, or hiding a sorry heart behind light words...Mr Grossmith was the master of the part he assumed."


"After a tuneful and tender ballad for Fairfax, 'Free from his fetters grim', came what, for many, was one of the musical hits of the evening, 'Strange adventure!' - beautifully harmonized, and certain to be long remembered as one of the most delightful numbers of the opera"

Daily Telegraph

"We place the songs and choruses in The Yeomen of the Guard before all his previous efforts of this particular kind. Thus the music follows the book to a higher plane, and we have a genuine english opera, forerunner of many others, let us hope, and possibly significant of an advance towards a national lyric stage."

Daily Telegraph

"The accompaniments...are delightful to hear, and especially does the treatment of the woodwind compel admiring attention. Schubert himself could hardly have handled those instruments more deftly, written for them more lovingly. ... We place the songs and choruses in The Yeomen of the Guard before all his previous efforts of this particular kind."

The Times

"Many songs were encored, and of some, as, for example, the duet of Elsie and Point with its quaint accompaniment of the hurdy-gurdy type the audience seemed never to tire. Of the weakness of the plot no one seemed to take notice in the excitement of the general success."

Click here to check out the reviews for the first Australian production.

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Did you know?

The dramatic effect of using a single bell to accompany the executioner's procession is well-founded on historical fact, for the bell of St. Peter's always tolled for executions both on Tower Hill and on Tower Green. The use of the real bell in four productions staged in the moat of the Tower in 1962, 1964, 1966 and 1978 added a chilling touch of authentically.
In Gilbert's day, the effect was created by a 2 cwt. bell provided by the stage manager, J.M. gordon, which had to be carefully positioned so that the percussionist could see the conductor at all times. After the first production of the opera, the bell found its way into the billiard room of Gilbert's house, grim's Dyke.

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Behind the scenes

A series of sensational and grisly London murders gripped the attention of newspapers and the nation the autumn of 1888. The assailant, known as Jack the Ripper, was never found. Amid Sullivan's usual diary entries relating to his progress of composition and rehearsals, a reference to those murders (in Whitechapel) stands out at the end of September.
(Diary, 29th September): Wrote new song 'Is Life a boon?' Scored it, and took it to the theatre to Baird. Last night of The Mikado. Great excitement, and tremendous enthusiasm for Barrington. Speeches before and behind the curtain. Left at 12. Very wet night. Portland.
(Diary, 30th September): Pounds came at 3 and rehearsed the new setting of 'Is life a boon?' I went to the theatre at 4.30 to arrange seats in orchestra. Four stalls taken off. Heard at the theatre of the double murder at Whitechapel the previous night.

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