Peter Goffin's Designs
In 1939, Rupert D'Oyly Carte asked Peter Goffin to design
new sets and costumes for The Yeomen of the Guard.
He would later remark:
Having previously regarded
the unique world of Gilbert and Sullivan opera
as a fixed star in a changing theatrical firmament,
the possibility of altering any of its familiar
features had hardly occurred to me. In common
with many others, I had supposed that its continuing
life depended on the perfect preservation of
the physical form in which it had been realised
three-quarters of a century ago. Here was something
already shaped and determined, always on view,
to be revered, ridiculed or merely ignored; but
surely immutable. With this conception of the
subject, I felt as if I had been asked to redesign
the Albert Memorial.
The fact that the D'Oyly Carte
Company have retained for themselves a monopoly
of professional stage performances in this country
has given rise to the popular assumption that
their interpretation of the operas must be in
every respect the original one; and certainly
most of the large and loyal following of people
who continue year after year to pack the theatres
visited by the Company, firmly believe this to
be the case. In truth, however, during the period
of twenty years between the wars, Rupert D'Oyly
Carte staged no less than fourteen productions
of the operas with new costumes and scenery.
When he succeeded his father, Richard D'Oyly
Carte, as director of the Savoy Company, he saw
that, apart from the essential spectacle of the
Soldiers, Sailors, Tower Warders, Peers and Policemen
in their traditional dress, there was nothing
in the conventional appearance of the original
productions that need to be preserved.
In the case of The Yeomen
of the Guard, the original stage spectacle
of 1888 had remained virtually unchanged. Even
when Percy Anderson, who had dressed the piece
for Gilbert, revised his work about thirty
years later, he made no appreciable change
in the nineteenth century style of presentation.
In view of the more serious nature of this
opera, with its romantic theme and almost tragic
implications, the conventional staging struck
me as being dramatically ineffective, both
as a visual interpretation of the given time and
place, and as a practical frame in which to shape the action. It was therefore
with the intention of meeting these requirements
that I started my own design.
By means of a pictorial drop-curtain,
illustrating the Tower of London, to be exhibited
during the playing of the overture music, I suggested
something of the shape and colour of things to
come, and opened the correspondence of sight
and sound. Moreover, having thus established
the physical nature of the entire scene in advance,
I freed myself from the restriction of actual
representation in the form of the stage setting
The play opens
with the acting area reduced to a small inset,
resembling a room in the Tower. By means of this
device, the incongruous effect of using the full
stage for the intimate scene between Phoebe and
Wilfred isavoided. The scarlet curtains which
mask the inset anticipate the colour of the Yeomen's
uniforms that will eventually dominate the stage.
The main setting, in which the rest
of the opera is performed, is an arrangement of
architectural forms suggesting the massive and
sombre character of the fortress. Its various levels
and areas are planned to facilitate the action
and grouping of the players. The scale of colour
values is determined by the grey of the stone and
the vermillion of the Yeomen. Against these, the predominant colours of the citizens'
costumes are graded in order of dramatic importance
from cool, low tones for members of the chorus
to more emphatic hues for the principal characters.
As the action proceeds, the various dramatic harmonies
The new set and costumes were
first seen in Edinburgh on 5 January 1940 and first
seen in London at the King's Theatre, Hammersmith
later that year. The use of the inset scene was later
discontinued, but it would make occasional reappearances.
1. The Studio, June 1955.
27 August, 2011
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