On 3 October 1888, at the Savoy Theatre, W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan presented to the public the eleventh product of their theatrical collaboration, The Yeomen of the Guard or, The Merryman and His Maid. Billing it “A New and Original Opera,” Gilbert claimed that inspiration for the libretto had come to him in an unlikely locale. According to his early biographers, “while waiting for a train on a railway platform one day, he noticed a poster of a beefeater advertising the Tower Furnishing Company, and this set him thinking and devising, and the result was The Merryman and His Maid.” 1 Yet, from the opening-night reviews to the present, questions have been raised about the extent to which Gilbert’s portion of the opera ought to be called “original”: other sources of external suggestion (besides the storied poster) have been, and may be, proposed. The most significant of the sources proposed by the present essay—Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge—parallels Yeomen not only in its plotting but also in adapting a traditional literary genre to the pained post-theistic sensibilities of the late Victorian age.
As discussion of Gilbert’s borrowings hinges upon the specific contents of Yeomen, some review of these is useful. The story is set in the Tower of London and concerns Colonel Fairfax, soldier and alchemist, unjustly condemned to death as a sorcerer through the machinations of an evil kinsman, who hopes to inherit his estate. But Sergeant Meryll, a Yeoman of the Guard, whose life was once saved by the colonel, conspires with Phoebe (Meryll’s daughter), who has seen Fairfax from afar and fallen in love with him, to contrive a last-minute escape: Phoebe’s brother Leonard is due to arrive at the Tower today to join the Yeomen, but Meryll determines to send him away and substitute a disguised Fairfax among the ranks of the beefeaters. The plan, however, depends upon Phoebe’s ability first to steal the keys to Fairfax’s cell from her would-be lover Wilfred Shadbolt, head jailor and assistant tormentor.
Meanwhile, Fairfax decides that, if he must die, he will at least thwart the plans of his treacherous kinsman, who only becomes the colonel’s heir if Fairfax dies unmarried. He asks the Lieutenant of the Tower to [End Page 203] find any woman at all and offer her 100 crowns if she will come to his prison cell and, in his life’s last hour, become his wife. No sooner does the Lieutenant set about this quest than there appear on Tower Green two ballad-singers: Jack Point, a strolling jester, and Elsie Maynard, his performing partner. The Lieutenant puts Fairfax’s proposition to Elsie; though she and Point are informally engaged, the temptation of money, which would allow her to buy medicine for her sickly mother, persuades her to accept—and the jester, too, says he will consent to the arrangement “if the fee is duly paid” and the colonel promptly executed. 2 So the girl is blindfolded, and led in to her wedding.
But the ceremony has scarcely finished when Phoebe succeeds in purloining Wilfred’s keys; her father then rescues Fairfax, shaves his beard, dresses him in a Yeoman’s uniform, and presents him to all as Leonard Meryll. When Fairfax’s escape is discovered, Elsie swoons at the thought of the bond that now holds her, while Point bewails the loss of his lady. Determined to rectify matters, he recruits Wilfred to “tell a tale of cock and bull” (Y, 330) about spotting Fairfax on the river and shooting him down. But before Point can renew his addresses to the supposed widow, the ostensible “Leonard” steps in first, wooing and winning his own wife. Elsie’s happiness, however, is nearly shattered when the news arrives that Fairfax is actually alive, has been issued a royal pardon, and is coming to claim his bride; she is restored to joy, though, when the husband who now appears and her beloved “Leonard” prove to be one and the same. The abandoned Point intrudes...