Gilbert and Sullivan Archive



BRUCE WALTON: Forget cooks' brain-pans and overwound clocks-Gilbert's best conundrum was definitely the Finale of The Yeomen Of The Guard!

When I directed Yeomen, I thought endlessly about this, and felt myself drawn to only one conclusion. Jack Point is a tragic character. He lives hand-to-mouth from one casual job to the next. He has too big a mouth and too little tact to keep a place for very long-one suspects the Archbishop who had him whipped and set in the stocks for a scurril rouge was not the first. As a result of being constantly on the move, he has no friends. Because he is expected to be cheery and witty at every turn even when he doesn't feel like it, he has become cynical about people and about humour. Herein is contradiction contradicted-the miserable jester.

Elsie is the only ray of hope in Point's life. Unpopular and unsuccessful as he is, Elsie's youth and beauty is a grail of hope in his hopeless world. It seems to me that when that hope is removed, there is nothing left for him to live for. To cap it all, Elsie is taken from him by just that same kind of unfeeling nobleman who has repressed and victimised him all his life. As if that wasn't bad enough, the deliberate deception which he and Wilfred perpetrated on the Lieutenant is certain to lose him his job again, or perhaps worse. Driven to the brink of despair, it is entirely consistent for Point to take his own life. It seems to me that a suicide is a natural way for Yeomen to end.

I wanted Point to end it all by hanging himself-an ending which I know to have been used in other productions. Unfortunately, the Vice Chancellor (= Principal) of the University which owned the theatre forbade this ending, because he apparently thought it in bad taste. In the end, I had Point stab himself and collapse over the ramparts of the tower, as Fairfax laughed and led Elsie away to a lifetime of being exploited and living with her guilt. Some people disagreed with the whole idea of this, but I'll swear upon anything you like that as theatre, it worked. The effect was the same on each performance, several seconds shocked silence, then rapturous applause (except for the last night, when Point dropped the knife sometime during the finale, and ended up having to ad-lib a heart attack!)

Thinking about this in retrospect, I feel it was excessively melodramatic. I don't think I would take the same approach again. Apart from anything else, people don't come to see G&S to be traumatised. With the benefit of hindsight, I think the ending is better toned down a bit from the extreme of public suicide. However, there is no shying away from the fact that Fairfax and Elsie have destroyed Point's life in a way which is utterly different from anything which happens to any character in any other show. That fact needs to be reflected in Point's fate.

I do not like the idea that Point's collapse is left deliberately ambiguous, leaving the audience to decide for themselves. That's just dodging the issue. The performer playing Point needs to know if he's playing a swoon or a death. If not suicide, I think I would prefer him dropping in a dead faint, and his unconscious body being taken away by the yeomen so the Lieutenant can deal with him at his leisure. I just don't buy him dropping dead on the spot of a broken heart-it's too ridiculous and unbelievable for my taste.

On reflection, I suspect that suicide might have been in Gilbert's mind when he wrote it. However, he couldn't possibly have written such a tragic ending for a famed comic actor at the end of a comic opera; it would have shocked Victorian England.

TOM SHEPARD: This is what I call "In your face" directing, which leaves no ambiguities for a thinking audience to ponder, but instead tells them exactly who is good, who is weak, who is sad, who is bad. It doesn't leave room for pondering or introspection, and it is clearly contrary to the wishes of WSG who seemed to be at his subtlest in The Yeomen Of The Guard.

GEOFFREY DIXON: Death from a weak heart, poor health, unreturned affection, and embittered introspection -is it not eminently believable?

TIM DEVLIN: On the one hand, Gilbert's stage direction reads "Fairfax embraces Elsie as Point falls insensible at their feet." On the other hand, there is clearly some belief that the author's words can, in this instance at least, be disregarded and his intention (however ambiguous) ignored. I am wondering if there is a general concurrence, especially among stage directors out there, about the degree to which a playwright's own stage directions (including setting and time) can be set aside.

IAN HOLLAMBY: Personally, I haven't in any of my productions, as I try to stay true to what I conceive to be Gilbert's original intentions (One reason why I am sometimes moved to 'tinker' with his original words-I want the modern audience to appreciate what he was getting at). I digress-sorry. With regard to the ending of Yeomen, when I recently produced it, Point did indeed fall 'insensible at their feet'. What I did however, was to tell the actor that he should consider this to be Point's death. This actor, (exceptionally gifted, and sensitive to the role) eschewed any overt melodrama and "died" magnificently. The Chorus Yeomen then carried him offstage as pall bearers, and the ambiguity for the audience was left intact. I think that this was successful, as the curtains closed in complete silence and there was a pause before the audience applauded.

WILLIAM FLORESCU: It's interesting that many authors (including Gilbert) are inconsistent with how much direction they give the director...everything from nothing at all to very specific...the way I tend to interpret that is that when they go to the trouble of being specific...they have something definite in that instance, a director should either heed it, or be consistent within the framework of his or her production as to why he or she is disregarding...I have played Point and also directed the show...I heed the direction by Gilbert, and leave it ambiguous as to whether he is dead or passed out.....

BRUCE I. MILLER: This position is one which I heartily endorse, but it should be borne in mind that Gilbert approved more than one approach to the ending-all three instances (of which I am aware) in deference to the actors involved.

Grossmith felt incapable of making a really tragic finish, so Gilbert allowed him to lighten Point's collapse. Then, Mr. Thorne asked if he could really die, and Gilbert said yes. Then later, because a soprano didn't want to seem too much of a b----h, he allowed her to modify the words she sang from "laughed aloud" to "dropped a tear." To me, this implies that any of those approaches has Gilbert's imprimatur. It demonstrates how concerned he was that any of these versions work and that he took the pragmatic approach-that is, if the actor is uncomfortable with a particular focus, he would rather modify it so that the actor would be able to do a convincing portrayal.

With Yeomen this works particularly well, precisely because Gilbert seemed to deliberately leave the ending vague.

SARAH MANKOWSKI: Elsie's line change, was no small change! Considering Point's state of mind, "Laughed aloud" would be cruel, whereas "Dropped a tear" shows compassion.

BRUCE I. MILLER: Gilbert's allotment of the "laughed aloud" line was wholly intended to include Elsie as among the "thoughtless crew." This does, indeed, impart a certain cruelty to Elsie and why not? It makes her a more rounded personality, with degrees of good and bad just as reside in all of us.

It is, of course, understandable why an actress playing the role would feel uncomfortable, but, baby, that's life.

ROBERT JONES: Thanks for an abundance of insights. That simple change of words does indeed alter the mood of the ending. Either way, I had thought that married life for Elsie would be extremely unpleasant. Comes another pretty maid of seventeen and off goes Fairfax, "You cheat!"

ANDREW CROWTHER: Of course Point is the victim, not Elsie-the victim of himself as well as of events outside him. As to the ending-Did he die, or did he faint? If these things can be decided by deed-poll, I vote that he just "falls insensible", as Gilbert wrote. I know the argument that he only wrote that because the public wouldn't accept Grossmith in an out-and-out tragic ending, but even so it seems to me a more restrained ending fits better.

The option of suicide seems to fit even less. The idea that someone could just kill himself in the full view of the crowd and no one would notice or care seems excessively cynical.

ED GLAZIER: I feel that it should probably be between the actor playing Point and the director whether or not Point dies. I like the ambiguity for the rest of the world-the townspeople and the audience. My own belief is that he does die. Rather than falling like "a sack of potatoes", the metaphor I chose for myself was a marionette that suddenly has all its strings cut simultaneously, leading to a general crumbling and collapse. I don't know, maybe someone imitating a sack of potatoes would fall the same way? The blocking for the rest of the ensemble should not give away the choice made. My own choice would be general merriment during the final "Heigh-dys", Elsie and Fairfax leaving followed by the joyous crowd, Point attempts to follow, but collapses, remaining alone on the empty stage. But I didn't get to do it that way.

The first time I did Yeomen, I played Shadbolt. There were bitter arguments between some of the cast and the director, who, I believe, played devil's advocate and asked the question, "What if Point doesn't die?" I had my own opinion (see above) but decided that since whether or not Point died, it should have impact on how I played Shadbolt, I would try to keep my mouth shut. Ultimately, I think the decision was that Point dies.

HENRY M. ODUM: I do think though if one has Jack faint, that of course could leave the door open for a possible reuniting of the two in the speculative future-or not-but I see how one could argue that position-if they followed the foreshadowing of "I Have a Song to Sing, O!" to a tee. This is not to say that I personally think this should be the interpretation.

DANIEL KRAVETZ: This is why I much prefer that Point remain alive, so that the audience can imagine a "righted wrong-o" as soon as Elsie learns not to trust a man just because he's a tenor in a uniform. I also prefer that Elsie sing "laughed aloud" instead of "dropped a tear" because she hasn't learned the lesson yet. Or if she's going to drop a tear, it probably ought to be of the crocodile variety, since she has a long way to go before she could really care that Jack Loser is about to check out. It takes the Elsies of the world time to learn how to avoid falling for cads and to appreciate nicer guys.

I'm also quite partial to a theory (by David Eden?) that Point symbolizes Gilbert and Elsie Sullivan (take it easy, everyone!), and Gilbert's fear of losing his partner (whose tunes, like Elsie's looks, are the real draw of the dual act) to the more enticing and attractive world of "serious" music, symbolized by Fairfax. With this in mind, its all the more reason to keep a ray of hope in the proceedings.

MARC SHEPHERD: My only difficulty with this argument is that the connection David Eden's suggesting is just too obscure to be perceived by the audience. Indeed, Eden seems to have been the first to make this observation, and the opera was a century old at the time. It's difficult for me to endorse a staging that presumes a psychological connection that no one in the audience is likely to notice.

NICK SALES: Anyone fortunate enough to have seen Alistair Donkin's interpretation of Point's demise is left in no doubt whatever. I have been so for two different runs of Yeomen (as Fairfax both times), and the effect (at close range) is electric. For those with unillumined eyes, it was thus wise:

Point re-appears during the finale looking, if you'll pardon the expression, like death. Make up is used to great effect, and tears are visible upon the face. All his movements are slowed, and his whole demeanour is that of a broken man. He re-enacts the earlier miming during the reprise of "Merryman" with Elsie, but she breaks off during this, unable to continue, and rushes back to Fairfax's waiting arms. Point is now utterly crushed, and, makes one further move towards Elsie which is repelled by Fairfax's outstretched hand. He falls to his knees as Elsie and Fairfax move towards centre stage (as if to go off). On the final three chords of the opera, the following happens: 1st chord: chorus turn away from the scene; 2nd chord: Point falls dead/insensible at Elsie/Fairfax's feet; 3rd chord: Elsie and Fairfax turn round, observing Point, horror-struck. Spotlight on these three characters; remainder of stage black. Curtain. No curtain calls.

This may sound overly dramatic. It's not. It's right enough. Believe me, with a great actor, it really is something.

CELIA PERRY: My Chicago friend Linda's reaction to the Alistair Donkin interpretation-when she saw him at the 95 Buxton festival-she cried for week! This performance converted her instantly to a G and S fan. AD gets better every time. I have seen it with curtain calls but with Point remaining insensible. This leaves everyone wondering if he's dead or not, but having a chilling suspicion that he is.

Page created 6 June 1997