From Ruddigore to Yeomen

Stephen Gent has written the following piece:

The demise of Ruddigore – at the end of 1887 – and the rise of the Yeomen of the Guard – performed at the Savoy Theatre for its first night in October 1888.

In early November 1887, Ruddigore was withdrawn after a very rocky run of only 288 performances, compared with the previous collaboration of The Mikado, which ran for 672 performances. During Ruddigore’s first night, the gallery booed it, and at the end someone shouted ‘Give us back The Mikado – take this rubbish away’. By Gilbert and Sullivan’s standards, it was a complete failure.

Alfred Cellier, who conducted the first G&S operas, was also a composer in his own right, and composed several comic operas, one of which was Dorothy, which actually ran for longer than The Mikado. The success of Dorothy plunged Sir Arthur Sullivan into the depths of despair; he felt that if Cellier’s piece was what the public wanted, then there was no future in the Savoy Operas, whose scores had caused him so much blood, sweat and tears. He wrote to Gilbert in a defeatist mood, saying he had lost heart in their partnership.

His letter made Gilbert angry, particularly as he was already working on their new piece. He wrote back to Sullivan, saying: ‘why in the world we are throwing in the sponge now, just because of Dorothy is beyhond me. We have the best theatre, the best company, the best composer, and (even if I say myself) the best librettist in England, and to scatter this would be to give up on a gold mine. What is Dorothy to us? Do other companies fold because Mikado ran for over 650 performances?’

Gilbert’s letter had the desired effect’ Sullivan came to his senses. His thoughts turned to Gilbert’s words, and his diary entry at that time read – ‘Read Gilbert’s new plot (The Tower of London). Immensely pleased with it, pretty story, no topsy-turvydom, very human and funny also.’ Gilbert’s idea for the plot was formed when he saw a poster of a Beefeater on Uxbridge railway station platform, and turned his thoughts towards a serious romantic tale. Of course some topsy-turvydom did creep in as it developed, in the characters of Jack Point and Shadbolt, but the usual inversions were absent.

Gilbert was indebted to Wallace’s Maritana, while, probably unconsciously, he borrowed themes from The Mikado and Bab Ballads provided other details. Remembering the fuss about Ruddigore (originally Ruddygore), Sullivan successfully objected to The Beefeaters as the title. Although Gilbert was a disciplined playwright, working regular hours (sometimes well into the night), Sullivan found it impossible to work to a discipline. He first decided what rhythm he wanted for a number, then sketched it into his musical shorthand, and wrote the vocal parts afterwards. The new G&S opera was to become The Yeomen of the Guard. Sullivan delivered his score late (as usual) because of his commitments to conduct orchestras at several music festivals, and his busy social life. He had the feeling that this dramatic story, set in the Tower of London, would be their masterpiece, and Gilbert agreed with him.

From the moment when, after an overture in strict symphonic form, the curtain rose at the Savoy Theatre on October 3rd 1888, on Jessie Bond as Pheobe Meryll, instead of the usual chorus, it was clear the The Yeomen of the Guard was a new departure for Gilbert and Sullivan. Pheobe sits alone on stage, at her spinning wheel, singing the melancholy ‘When maiden loves’; Gilbert was a bundle of nerves, and kept asking Jessie if she was alright, and she eventually told him to leave her alone or she wouldn’t be able to sing her song.

The succession of serious numbers at the beginning of Act 1 involved some strain for both actors and audience; but the ‘heighdy’ duet between Jack Point and Elsie Maynard, settled the fate of the opera; its success was tremendous, and three times encored. By the time the final curtain went down, the audience had forgotten its early hesitations and decided to accept Yeomen. The first production ran for 423 performances. The Yeomen of the Guard received some outstanding notices – ‘Sir Arthur Sullivan has never written anything more delicately melodious and elegant. Mr Gilbert is a man of genius, and even at his worst, is head and shoulders above the ordinary librettist. Sullivan’s music follows the book to a higher plane, and we have the genuine English opera, forerunner of many others, let us hope.’