The opera is set in the Tower of London, during the 16th century, and is the darkest, and perhaps most emotionally engaging, of the Savoy Operas, ending with a broken-hearted main character and two very reluctant engagements, rather than the usual numerous marriages. The libretto does contain considerable humour, including a lot of pun-laden one-liners, but Gilbert's trademark satire and topsy-turvy plot complications are subdued in comparison with the other Gilbert and Sullivan operas. The dialogue, though in prose, is quasi-Shakespearian, or early modern English, in style.
Critics considered the score to be Sullivan's finest, including an overture in sonata form, rather than as a sequential pot-pourri of tunes from the opera, as in most of the other Gilbert and Sullivan overtures. This was the first Savoy Opera to use Sullivan's larger orchestra, including a second bassoon and third trombone. Most of Sullivan's subsequent operas, including those not composed with Gilbert as librettist, use this larger orchestra.
After another attempt to interest his collaborator in a plot where the characters, by swallowing a magic pill, became who they were pretending to be (Sullivan had rejected this idea before), Gilbert made an effort to meet his collaborator half way. Gilbert claimed that the idea for the opera came to him while he was waiting for the train in Uxbridge and spotted an advertisement for the Tower Furnishing Company, illustrated with a Beefeater. He proposed a libretto set at the Tower of London, which Sullivan immediately accepted.
Although not a grand opera, Yeomen provided Sullivan with the opportunity to write his most ambitious score to date. The two set to work on the new opera, taking longer to prepare it than they had taken with many of their earlier works. Gilbert made every effort to accommodate his collaborator, even writing alternative lyrics to some songs. Sullivan had trouble setting one lyric in particular, "I have a song to sing-O!", with its increasing length in each stanza. He asked Gilbert if he had anything in mind when writing it. Gilbert hummed a few lines from a sea shanty, and Sullivan knew what to do.
The first act was rather long and contained an unusual number of sentimental pieces. As opening night approached, Gilbert became increasingly apprehensive. Would the audience accept this serious, sentimental tone from one of the duo's "comic" operas? Gilbert and Sullivan cut two songs from Act I and part of the Act I finale, partly to decrease the number of sentimental pieces near the beginning of the opera. Gilbert, always nervous himself on opening nights, came backstage before the performance on opening night to "have a word" with some of the actors, inadvertently conveying his worries to the cast and making them even more nervous. Jessie Bond, who was to open the show in a solo song alone on stage finally said to him, "For Heaven's sake, Mr. Gilbert, go away and leave me alone, or I shan't be able to sing a note!
The Times noted, "It should... be acknowledged that Mr. Gilbert has earnestly endeavoured to leave familiar grooves and rise to higher things. Some reviewers, however, suggested that Gilbert took too much of his story from William Vincent Wallace's 1845 opera, Maritana, in which a street singer is married in secret to a gentleman. Another antecedent of Yeomen is Gilbert's 1875 tragedy, Broken Hearts. There, the love triangle among Prince Florian, Lady Vavir and the hunchbacked servant Mousta parallels the triangle in Yeomen among Fairfax, Elsie and Point.
Yeomen concerns the "Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress, the Tower of London," popularly known as the "Beefeaters". These are guardians of the Tower of London (and the crown jewels) who are selected for this position as a reward for long and meritorious service to the crown. Today, they act as tour guides at the Tower of London. The Yeomen Warders are often incorrectly referred to as Yeomen of the Guard, which is actually a distinct corps of royal bodyguards. Gilbert shared this confusion (or didn't care to be precise in the matter) by naming the opera The Yeomen of the Guard. However, Gilbert and Sullivan were careful to replicate the historical Tower as closely as possible in the opera's in settings, costumes and music. For instance, during the Act I finale, the bell of St. Peter's tolls for the coming execution as was the custom at the time.
A monument in Sullivan's memory was erected in the Victoria Embankment Gardens (London) and is inscribed with a lyric from Yeomen: "Is life a boon? If so, it must befall that Death, whene'er he call, must call too soon". In 1962, 1964, 1966, and 1978, the opera was staged in the moat of the Tower of London.
Fairfax enters under guard by an escort of Yeomen. Sir Richard Cholmondeley, the Lieutenant of the Tower, sees him and greets him sadly, as they are old friends. Fairfax bears his impending execution bravely and philosophically, prompting tears from Phoebe and even Sergeant Meryll. Fairfax asks a boon of the Lieutenant: the charge of sorcery was the doing of his wicked cousin Sir Clarence Poltwhistle, a Secretary of State, who will inherit his estate if he dies unmarried. He therefore wishes to be married by his confessor to any available woman, it matters not whom, who will receive a hundred crowns for her hour of matrimony. The Lieutenant agrees and leaves.
Jack Point, a jester, and Elsie Maynard, a young singer, are pursued by a rowdy crowd that demands merriment and threatens the two strolling players. Elsie, objecting to a man's rude attentions, boxes his ears, which gives Point a moment to quieten and amuse the crowd. The two entertainers offer to perform the song of The Merryman and his Maid: it tells of a lovelorn merryman who is jilted by a maiden in favour of an arrogant lord, but the latter rejects her, and returns on her knees to the merryman to beg for his love, and all ends happily. The song over, the crowd grows unruly again, and violence is averted only by the Lieutenant's arrival. Point and Elsie introduce themselves and explain that Elsie's mother Bridget is very ill and they seek money to buy medicine for her. The Lieutenant offers Elsie a chance to earn a hundred crowns (a very substantial sum) by marrying a condemned gentleman immediately. Point, who intends to marry Elsie someday, is assured that the groom will be beheaded directly after the ceremony. Elsie consents and is blindfolded and led off by Wilfred for the secret ceremony. The Lieutenant tells Point that he has a vacancy for a jester, and Point tells him of his skills and tries out some jokes. The Lieutenant leads Point off to discuss the employment further.
Wilfred leads Elsie back from her anonymous meeting with the priest and the prisoner and leaves her to reflect on her impending widowhood. Meanwhile, Wilfred wonders what they were up to in Fairfax's cell. Phoebe arrives and seductively distracts him as she steals his keys, which she gives surreptitiously to her father, who goes to free Fairfax from his cell. She keeps Wilfred busy until her father returns the keys, which she returns to Wilfred's belt, and leaves the confused and hopeful jailer to his fantasies of marrying her. Meryll disguises Fairfax as his son Leonard.
The Yeomen come to greet "Leonard", who insists that the tales of his bravery are exaggerated. He flounders when Phoebe greets him, not having been introduced to her, but Wilfred helpfully identifies her, telling Fairfax (with a strong dose of wishful thinking) that he, Wilfred, is betrothed to Phoebe. He commends her to the care of her "brother" until the marriage. The headsman enters, and all is ready for the execution. Wilfred, Fairfax (still disguised as Leonard) and two Yeomen go to fetch Fairfax. The Yeomen return and Fairfax announces his own disappearance. The Lieutenant blames the jailer, Wilfred, and declares his life forfeit instead. Wilfred protests his innocence and all wonder – not all honestly – how the prisoner could have escaped. Elsie is distraught, as is Point. The former faints in Fairfax's arms as all rush off to hunt for Fairfax.
Two days have passed, and the Yeomen continue searching in vain for the escaped prisoner. Dame Carruthers enters with her niece Kate and berates the Yeomen for letting Fairfax escape. Jack Point (now employed by the Lieutenant), sits brushing up on his jests and bitterly reflecting on his profession, when Wilfred comes by. Point taunts the failed jailer, and Wilfred says he'd rather be a jester. This gives Point an idea. He reveals the secret wedding and agrees to teach the oaf the art of jesting if Wilfred will publicly swear that Wilfred shot Fairfax dead as he swam across the river to escape. Wilfred agrees to swear to this lie.
Meanwhile Fairfax, still disguised as Leonard Meryll, laments his hurried marriage to a bride he cannot identify, for her face was concealed by the blindfold. Sergeant Meryll says that Elsie, the girl who fainted at the execution, and who has been placed in Meryll's charge, has recovered, but that her illness gave Dame Carruthers an excuse to take up quarters in his house while she nursed the girl. He has spurned the old woman's obvious overtures for years. Carruthers then happens by, together with her niece Kate, and notes that the latter heard Elsie talking in her sleep about her secret wedding. The other three leave Fairfax alone, pleased to find that his mystery wife is the fair Elsie. He decides to test her loyalty by pretending to woo his own wife, still disguised as Leonard. She rejects "Leonard's" overtures, as a married woman should, and he is about to reveal himself to her.
Just then, a shot is heard from the wharf and everyone enters. Wilfred, with the jester's corroboration, declares that he struggled with someone creeping about, discovered it was Colonel Fairfax, who dove into the river, and seizing an arquebus, Wilfred shot him dead. The Lieutenant orders the Yeomen to search for the body, and Wilfred is celebrated as a hero. Elsie, Fairfax, Phoebe and Point are left alone, and Point asks Elsie, as she is now free, to marry him. Fairfax, still disguised as "Leonard", tells Point that he doesn't know how to woo (it is not to be done in the manner of a jester!), and he undertakes to instruct Point in this art, following this up with a most effective demonstration on Elsie. Point, slow to see that Fairfax is wooing the girl for himself (and that Elsie has fallen for the heroic "Leonard"), finally protests. Fairfax tells Point that he has shown him how to woo and that he should apply the teachings "elsewhere". Phoebe, seeing her adored Fairfax pledged to another, bursts into tears, while Point, shocked by the turn of events, wishes he was dead.
Wilfred sees Phoebe weeping and she, rendered incautious by anger and hurt, and by her scorn for the jailer, inadvertently reveals that "Leonard" is in fact Fairfax. Realizing the game is up, she desperately buys Wilfred's silence by agreeing to marry him (after a long engagement). The real Leonard then returns and announces that Fairfax's reprieve has finally arrived. Sergeant Meryll enters, followed surreptitiously by Dame Carruthers. Phoebe tells him of her folly and goes with Wilfred, whereupon Dame Carruthers reveals herself to Meryll and threatens to expose the three schemers who had freed Fairfax illegally. He resignedly buys her silence with his offer of marriage.
Elsie arrives joyfully for her wedding to the man she still knows as "Leonard", but the Lieutenant arrives and announces that her husband Fairfax lives. Fairfax arrives dressed for the wedding, but Elsie, distraught over the loss of "Leonard", does not turn to see his face. He teases his wife, keeping up the pretence for another minute. Elsie begs for his mercy, to free her to go to her love, "Leonard", but he says that his heart is like a "massive rock" and claims her as his bride. Finally Elsie turns to see his face, and finally recognises him as her adored one. All once again erupt into joy, except the broken-hearted Jack Point. Tearfully, he reprises the song that he had earlier sung with Elsie, The Merryman and his Maid, with wrenching sorrow. Elsie "drops a tear" for Point, but turns back to her love. As the chorus turns away to celebrate the marriage of Fairfax and Elsie, Point falls insensible at their feet.
Wilfred's solo about his unrequited love for Phoebe, "When jealous torments rack my soul", was cut in rehearsal when Savoy Theatre favourite, Rutland Barrington, took a leave from the company to try his hand as a producer and theatre manager. It was intended to be sung after Phoebe's opening solo in Act I, "When maiden loves", and the ensuing passage of dialogue between Phoebe and Wilfred. In recent decades this song has been occasionally restored.
Just before Leonard's entrance in the first act, Sergeant Meryll originally had a nostalgic solo about his son Leonard's childhood, "A laughing boy but yesterday". This number did not please Gilbert, who called it an "introduced and wholly irrelevant song. It was sung in the first night performance, but was cut thereafter. It was restored, possibly for the first time, in 1962, for a production at the Tower of London, and has been heard in a number of recordings and productions since, without becoming part of the standard score.
Before opening night, the third and fourth yeomen's couplets in the Act I finale – in which they remind "Leonard" of his brave deeds – were cut, though they remained in the vocal score until around the 1920s. The third yeoman had also joined Fairfax when he tells the Lieutenant that the prisoner has escaped. When the solo couplets were cut, the third yeoman was deleted from this passage as well, leaving it a trio for Fairfax and two other yeomen.
Fairfax's first solo, "Is life a boon?", is the second version of that song. Gilbert thought that Sullivan's first setting (in 6/8 time) was too similar to many of the other tenor ballads in the Savoy Operas, and he urged the composer to rewrite it. Sullivan complied, but also saved the first version, leaving an unusual example of two separate settings of the same lyric. The revised version is invariably used in performance.
The Act II duet for Sergeant Meryll and Dame Carruthers, "Rapture, rapture", was often cut in 20th-century D'Oyly Carte Opera Company performances, apparently because it was thought to detract from the serious tone of the work. However, D'Oyly Carte eventually restored the duet, and in modern productions it is usually performed. As originally written, the duet ended with transitional music leading directly into the Act II finale. Those measures do not appear in vocal scores, and modern performances usually delete them, bringing the duet to a full close so that the opening bars of the finale are not covered by applause.
At some point, before 1920 or so, the "Oh day of terror" section had the parts for Kate and Phoebe significantly reduced. In the original conception, these characters echoed Elsie, with an "Oh, Leonard" solo for Kate, and cries to "Come thou to her side, and claim her as thy loving bride" sung along with Elsie. The modern version leaves Elsie singing her line by herself, puts Kate with the chorus, gives Phoebe a mixture of Dame Carruthers' part and her old one, and changes Phoebe and Dame Carruthers' lyrics. There was one other cut made after Gilbert's death: Separate lyrics for Elsie and Point, not found elsewhere, were cut during the "All frenzied, frenzied with despair they rave" section of the Act I finale.
The 1993 D'Oyly Carte recording includes all the cut music and both versions of "Is life a boon?"
The following table shows the history of the D'Oyly Carte productions in Gilbert's lifetime:
|Theatre||Opening Date||Closing Date||Perfs.||Details|
|Savoy Theatre||October 3 1888||November 30 1889||423||First London run.|
|Casino Theatre, New York||October 17 1888||January 18 1889||100||Authorised American production.|
|Savoy Theatre||May 5 1897||July 31 1897||186||First London revival|
|August 16 1897||November 20 1897|
|Savoy Theatre||December 8 1906||August 24 1907||87||First Savoy repertory season; played with three other operas. (Closing date shown is of the entire season.)|
|Savoy Theatre||March 1 1909||March 27 1909||28||Second Savoy repertory season; played with five other operas. (Closing date shown is of the entire season.)|
|Lieutenant||Wallace Brownlow||George Broderick||Jones Hewson||Alec Johnstone||Leo Sheffield|
|Col. Fairfax||Courtice Pounds||Henry Hallam||Charles Kenningham||Pacie Ripple||Henry Herbert|
|Sgt. Meryll||Richard Temple||George Olmi||Richard Temple||Overton Moyle||Richard Temple|
|Leonard Meryll||W. R. Shirley||Charles Renwick||Scott Russell||Henry Burnand||A. Laurence Legge|
|Jack Point||George Grossmith||J. H. Ryley||Walter Passmore||C. H. Workman||C. H. Workman|
|Wilfred||W. H. Denny||Fred Solomon||Henry Lytton||John Clulow||Rutland Barrington|
|1st Yeoman||J. Wilbraham||Charles Thomas||Cory James||Frank Beckett||William Davidson|
|2nd Yeoman||A. Medcalf||J. Priest||H. G. Gordon||Leo Sheffield||Fred Hewett|
|3rd Yeoman||Mr. Murton||M. J. Thomas||Iago Lewys||N/A||N/A|
|4th Yeoman||Rudolph Lewis||L. Roach||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|Headsman||H. Richards||H. Adams||H. Richards||H. M. White||Richard Shaw|
|1st Citizen||Tom Redmond||Edgar Smith||C. H. Workman||Richard Andean||Fred G. Edgar|
|2nd Citizen||Mr. Boyd||Stanley Starr||Edwin Bryan||Rowland Williams||Sidney Ashcroft|
|Elsie||Geraldine Ulmar||Bertha Ricci||Ilka Pálmay||Lilian Coomber||Elsie Spain|
|Phoebe||Jessie Bond||Sylvia Gerrish||Florence Perry||Jessie Rose||Jessie Rose|
|Dame Carruthers||Rosina Brandram||Isabelle Urquhart||Rosina Brandram||Louie Rene||Louie Rene|
|Kate||Rose Hervey||Kate Uart||Ruth Vincent||Marie Wilson||Beatrice Boarer|
|Lieutenant||Sydney Granville||Joseph Griffin||Leslie Rands||Leslie Rands||Donald Harris|
|Col. Fairfax||Derek Oldham||Charles Goulding||John Dean||John Dean||Leonard Osborn|
|Sgt. Meryll||Darrell Fancourt||Darrell Fancourt||Darrell Fancourt||Darrell Fancourt||Darrell Fancourt|
|Leonard Meryll||Hugh Enes Blackmore||John Dean||Thomas Hancock||Herbert Garry||Thomas Hancock|
|Jack Point||Henry Lytton||Henry Lytton||Martyn Green||Grahame Clifford||Martyn Green|
|Wilfred||Leo Sheffield||Sydney Granville||Sydney Granville||Richard Walker||Richard Watson|
|1st Yeoman||James Turnbull||Herbert Aitken||Leonard Osborn||Rhys Thomas||Frederick Sinden|
|2nd Yeoman||Henry Blain||Richard Eaton||Hugh Rowlands||Hilton Layland||Eric Thornton|
|1st Citizen||Allen Morris||C. William Morgan||C. William Morgan||C. William Morgan||Roy Roser|
|2nd Citizen||Harry Arnold||T. Penry Hughes||Richard Walker||Wynn Dyson||Peter Pratt|
|Elsie||Sylvia Cecil||Winifred Lawson||Helen Roberts||Helen Roberts||Muriel Harding|
|Phoebe||Catherine Ferguson||Marjorie Eyre||Marjorie Eyre||Marjorie Eyre||Joan Gillingham|
|Dame Carruthers||Bertha Lewis||Bertha Lewis||Evelyn Gardiner||Ella Halman||Ella Halman|
|Kate||Elsie Griffin||Muriel Davies||Margery Abbott||Margaret Mitchell||Deidree Thurlow|
|Lieutenant||Alan Styler||Alan Styler||John Broad||Clive Harre|
|Col. Fairfax||Leonard Osborn||Philip Potter||Colin Wright||Geoffrey Shovelton|
|Sgt. Meryll||Donald Adams||Donald Adams||John Ayldon||John Ayldon|
|Leonard Meryll||Frederick Sinden||David Palmer||Jeffrey Cresswell||Meston Reid|
|Jack Point||Peter Pratt||John Reed||John Reed||James Conroy-Ward|
|Wilfred||Kenneth Sandford||Kenneth Sandford||Kenneth Sandford||Kenneth Sandford|
|1st Yeoman||John Fryatt||Glyn Adams||Barry Clark||Barry Clark|
|2nd Yeoman||John Banks||Anthony Raffell||Gareth Jones||Thomas Scholey|
|1st Citizen||Glyn Adams||Jon Ellison||James Conroy-Ward||Clive Birch|
|2nd Citizen||John Reed||Alfred Oldridge||Jon Ellison||Alistair Donkin|
|Elsie||Jean Hindmarsh||Ann Hood||Pamela Field||Barbara Lilley|
|Phoebe||Joyce Wright||Peggy Ann Jones||Judi Merri||Lorraine Daniels|
|Dame Carruthers||Ann Drummond-Grant||Christene Palmer||Lyndsie Holland||Patricia Leonard|
|Kate||Jennifer Toye||Jennifer Marks||Anne Egglestone||Jane Stanford|