RIP Jack Point

There’s always been a great deal of uncertainty regarding the fate of Schrödinger’s… I mean, G&S’s most renowned characters. When at the end of “YOTG” he, according to Gilbert’s stage direction, “falls senseless” at Phoebe’s and Fairfax’ feet, does he do just that – fall senseless – or does he actually die of a broken heart? Well, we now have a pretty clear answer. Or, rather, we’ve had it all along, but not many seem to have known about it. Here’s what Henry Lytton has to say on this subject.

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But now I must proceed with my story. When George Grossmith returned to the cast, I was sent out as a principal in one of the provincial companies, and in this work continued for years. Sometimes we played one opera only on tour – the opera most recently produced in town – and sometimes a number of them in repertory. It was towards the end of 1888 that I first played what is, I need hardly say, the favourite of all my parts, Jack Point in the “Yeomen of the Guard,” the opera which was Gilbert and Sullivan’s immediate successor to “Ruddigore.” And in connection with this part let us finally clear up a “mystery.” It has been a frequent source of enquiry and even controversy in the newspapers.

When at the close of “Yeomen” Elsie is wedded to Fairfax, does Jack Point die of a broken heart, or does he merely swoon away? That question is often asked, and it is a matter on which, of course, the real pathos of the play depends. The facts are these. Gilbert had conceived and written a tragic ending, but Grossmith, who created the part, and for whom in a sense it was written, was essentially the accepted wit and laughter-maker of his day, and thus it had to be arranged that the opera should have a definitely humorous ending. He himself knew and told Gilbert that, however he finished it, the audience would laugh. The London public regarded him as, what in truth he was, a great jester. If he had tried to be serious they would have refused to take him seriously. Whatever Grossmith did the audience would laugh, and the manner in which he did fall down at the end was, indeed, irresistibly funny.

The first time I introduced this tragic version of the part was at Cheltenham. For some time I had considered how poignant would be the effect if the poor strolling player, robbed of the love of a lady, forsaken by his friends, should gently kiss the edge of her garment, make the sign of his blessing, and then fall over, not senseless, but – dead! I had told the stage manager about my new ending. From time to time he asked me when I was going to do it, and then when at last I did feel inspired to play this tragic denouement, what he did was to wire immediately to Mr. Carte: “Lytton impossible for Point. What shall I do?”

I ought to explain that any departure from tradition in the performance of these operas was strictly prohibited by the management. Thus, while I might demur to the implication that my work was impossible, the fact that he should report me to headquarters was only consistent with his duty. But the sequel was hardly what he expected. The very next day Mr. Carte, unknown to me at the time, came down to Cheltenham. He watched the performance and, after the show, the company were assembled on the stage in order that, in accordance with custom, he could express any criticisms or bestow his approval. What happened seemed to me to be characteristic of this great man’s remarkable tact. He first told us that he had enjoyed the performance. “For rehearsals to-morrow,” he went on,” I shall want Mr. So-and-so, Mr. So-and-so, Miss So-and-so, Miss So-and-so,” and several others. The inference was that there were details in their work that needed correcting. Then he turned to me, shook me most warmly by the hand, and just said very cordially, “Good night, Lytton.” And then he left. No “Excellent”- that might have let down the stage manager’s authority – but at the same time no condemnation. It was all non-committal, but it suggested to me, as it actually transpired was the case, that he was anything but displeased with my reading.

Gilbert and I, when we had become close friends, often had long talks about this opera, and particularly about my interpretation of the lovable Merryman. I told him what had led me to attempt this conception, and asked him whether he wished me to continue it, or whether it should be modified in any particular way. “No,” was his reply; “keep on like that. It is just what I want. Jack Point should die and the end of the opera should be a tragedy.”

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So, here we go. It pains me just as much as it does you… or more.

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