Ask ev'ry person if he's heard the story: A Visual Summary of 'Camelot'

By Douglas Reside, Curator, Theatre Collection
April 21, 2023
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
A group of people sit in rows in a large room holding pages of a script.

The cast of Camelot, including Julie Andrews, on the first read-through of the script.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 58487159

The book of the musical Camelot has never been exactly stable. When the show first opened on Broadway in 1960, it featured a book by the lyricist Alan Jan Jerner, which was revised frequently during the preview period. In its first try-out in Toronto, the show famously ran for three-and-a-half hours and ended 20 minutes after midnight, requiring frequent additional revisions on the road to Broadway. During this time, lyricist Alan Jay Lerner was hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer. Moss Hart’s biographer Jared Brown reports that Hart refused to make any changes without Lerner, but then, a few weeks later, Hart suffered a heart attack. Lerner, with Hart’s blessing, was forced to take over direction of the musical and significantly revised the text both before and (somewhat unusually) after the opening of the show. The songs “Then You May Take Me To The Fair” and “Fie on Goodness,” both preserved on the original cast recording, were cut from the show in the early spring of 1961.  

The film version, with a screenplay by Lerner, incorporated a change the writer had considered but dismissed during previews—telling the story as a flashback, framed by Arthur readying for his final battle. This approach was used in the revival Frank Dunlop directed in the early 1980s (preserved on video for HBO). The scene between Morgan Le Fey and Mordred excised from the film was also cut in this revival, though “Fie on Goodness” was restored. 

The new Lincoln Center Theater version of the musical, with a revised book by Aaron Sorkin, is still in previews as of this writing. However, the song list in the Internet Broadway Database currently does not list the Mordred and Morgan Le Fey song, “The Persuasion” (though the character of Morgan is retained in the cast list). “Fie on Goodness” and “Then You May Take Me To The Fair”are retained but the “Jousts” number (a medieval reprise of My Fair Lady’s “Ascot Gavotte” not preserved on the original cast album or in the movie) has been dropped.

The libretto was published by Random House in 1961 with a preface by Alan Jay Lerner from July of that year. It was then reprinted in a paperback edition with Tennyson’s Idylls of the King in 1967 and in Stanley Richards’s anthology Great Musicals of the American Theatre, Volume 2. Each presented the post-opening version of the libretto from early 1961. The version of Camelot that played on Broadway from December of 1960 until around the spring of 1961 is not widely available, but it is well-documented in recently digitized color photographs from the Friedman-Abeles collection. The illustrated synopsis below describes this iteration of the show for those who wish to compare the original production to later versions.

Act One, Scene One

The scene is a “Hilltop near the Castle at Camelot. There is a large tree….A light snow is falling.” Sir Dinadan watches through a telescope for the coming of Lady Guenevere. Merlyn enters and commands the assembled parties to meet the carriage at the foot of the hill. They disperse.

Women in medieval costume run across a stage as a man dressed in a pointy blue hat walks downstage.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 58498278

King Arthur appears in the tree. Merlyn commands him to come down and chastises him for his immaturity. 

Arthur sings “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight,” in which he imagines the thoughts of his subjects as they contemplate his present activities. Arthur confesses that, contrary to their expectations of bravery, he is shaking with fear at the prospect of meeting his bride.

A man in a blue, vaguely medieval costume stands in a white tree.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 58498171

Suddenly, he hears Guenevere approaching. He hides in the tree again. Guenevere nervously runs on stage, as if pursued, and stops beneath the tree to sing a prayer to St. Genevieve asking for deliverance from her arranged marriage and expressing a desire, instead, to be warred over by knights in armor. (“The Simple Joys of Maidenhood”)

A woman in a pink cloak stands with hands clasped beneath a tree

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498155

Arthur drops out of the tree, startling her, but he assures her that he means no harm. She protests that he will carry her off. Arthur swears he will not. Guenevere, “hurt,” asks “Why not? How dare you insult me in this fashion. Do my looks repel you?” Arthur acknowledges her beauty and the two banter, setting up one of the central conflicts of the play. Arthur considers himself a chivalrous man who follows social conventions. Guenevere longs for someone who will flout these conventions and carry her away. 

A man in blue kneels next to a crowned woman in blue who is sitting in a stage forest.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498134

Finally, Guenevere decides to run off, but Arthur tries to persuade her to stay by extolling the virtues of Camelot where, by royal decree, “the weather must be perfect all the year.” (“Camelot”)

Sir Dinadan arrives with the royal court, and Arthur is revealed to be the king and Guenevere’s intended. He tells the story of pulling the sword from the stone and his rise to the crown.

A women in medieval dress kneels to a man in royal robes while a queen looks on.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498275

Guenevere warms to the idea of marriage to Arthur, especially when she is told a war would have broken out if the marriage treaty had been broken. (“War? Over me? How simply marvelous!”)

A queen looks at a king with a look of newly formed interest as he extends his hand and grasps hers.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498242

Merlyn celebrates what he perceives as Arthur’s growth for deciding to marry Guenevere, but he is lured away by the nymph Nimue. Knowing that he is destined to vanish forever with Nimue, Merlyn exits, regretting that he will no longer be able to help or warn Arthur. (“Follow Me”)

Act One / Scene Two

Arthur and Guenevere, now married for five years, discuss Arthur’s military success and his anxiety that it is not enough that “might makes right.” Instead, Arthur longs for a more peaceful approach to governance. Guenevere objects that “knights love” battles, and that “from a woman’s point of view, it’s wonderfully exciting to see your knight riding bravely off to battle. Especially when you know he’ll be home safe in one piece for dinner.”

Arthur realizes that it is wealth and power that gives knights the resources to wear armor and thus come back “home safe.” He decides that knights will only fight each other. Moreover, he creates a kind of oligarchy of knights who will meet at a round table where all are equal and will use their might for right. He decides to issue a call for knights to join the table. Guenevere sings Arthur’s praises in a reprise of the title song, claiming there is no spot “where rules a more resplendent king than here / in Camelot.”

Act 1 / Scene 3

In France, Lancelot has heard the call for knights, and travels to Camelot declaring that if the king seeks a virtuous and powerful knight, there is no one more virtuous and powerful than himself. (“C’est Moi”)

A man wearing a white shirt with a red crest of a lion sings on stage in front of a backdrop with a castle.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498227

Upon arriving in Camelot, he jousts with an armored knight whom he soundly defeats. The defeated knight is in fact King Arthur. Lancelot, dismayed, begs forgiveness (“Not because I deserve it, but because by forgiving me, I’ll suffer more.”). Arthur congratulates him and invites him to the round table, though is somewhat dubious of Lancelot’s claims that his “skill comes from training,” but his “strength from purity.”

A man in a white shirt and chain mail armor with a cape kneels before an armored man. An older man with a beard watches in the background.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498244

For the time being, Arthur invites Lancelot to the May Day picnic. Lancelot is suspicious of the idea of “knights gathering flowers,” but Arthur protests “it’s civilized.” 

Act One / Scene 4

The scene is a May Day celebration led by Guenevere. The knights and ladies of Camelot play “spring games” and frolic. Guenevere sings an ode to the licentious celebrations of the month (“The Lusty Month of May”).

A queen in blue spins a hoop on a stick in the midst of a crowd of men and women in medieval dress doing the same.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498131

Women leap into the air while men support them in a dance in front of a theatrical set.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498305

A man with a monocle, armor, and a shaggy dog enters in search of the Questing Beast. He introduces himself as King Pellinore and explains it is his family’s duty to chase the Beast (whom he refers to as “her”). He reveals he knew Arthur as a boy. Guenevere offers him and his dog Horrid lodging in the palace. 

A man with a lance wearing armor stands with a dog near a woman wearing a crown.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498333

Arthur and Lancelot then arrive. Guenevere is initially put off by Lancelot’s ego when he claims that his skill and purity could not serve as a standard for the round table, as no one could equal him. Seeking to humble Lancelot, Guenevere encourages several knights to challenge him at the next joust, promising that if they are successful she will accompany them as their date to the fair. (“Then You May Take Me To The Fair”).

Three men sing to a queen who looks as if she is pretending to consider offers.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498281

Act 1 / Scene 5

The next scene opens with Pellinore and Arthur playing chess. Lancelot expresses his enthusiastic support for leveling the playing field by insisting that knights only fight each other. Guenevere arrives and reveals, to Arthur’s dismay, her plan to have each of the knights joust Lancelot carrying her kerchief. He asks her to withdraw her permission. She refuses unless he commands her as king (and warns him that she will never forgive him if he does). Arthur does not. She leaves and he recollects Merlyn’s advice on “How to Handle a Woman.”

A queen sits on a bench holding a red rose while a king in a gold shirt holds the back of the bench and appears to speak or sing.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498229

Act One / Scene 7 & 8

Lancelot tells the knights he has “prayed for us all.” They mock him and prepare to fight.

Knights prepare for joust. A man in the back appears to stumble from the tournament.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498269

The jousts begin. The spectators watch the jousts from the lip of the stage, narrating what they see in song. 

Men and women in medieval costume stand at the front of a stage looking out as if watching something.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498273

Lancelot defeats Sir Dinadan and Sir Sagramore. In the final battle, however, Lancelot runs Sir Lionel through. Sir Lionel is thought to be dead. Lancelot prays over him and he rises again. Guenevere is sincerely impressed.

A man in armor and a cape prays over the body of a knight in red on a stretcher. A king and queen watch.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498270

Act One / Scene 9

Back at the palace terrace, Arthur and Pellinore discuss the jousts. Arthur is disturbed by the connection he observed between Guenevere and Lancelot. 

Arthur encourages Guenevere to take some time with her ladies in waiting, and leaves. Thinking herself alone, she sings a song both pining for Lancelot and wishing he would leave. (“Before I Gaze At You Again”). Lancelot enters and confesses his love for Guenevere. She admits that she loves him, too. Arthur returns and informs Lancelot he is to be knighted. He offers Guenevere and Lancelot drinks before the ceremony.

Man in gold shirt carries platter with goblet.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498170

Act 1 / Scene 10

The knights “parade to the Great Hall with banners aflying.”

A row of knights holding flags with flagpoles.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498304

Act 1 / Scene 11

Colgrevance, Bliant, Guilliam, and Lancelot are knighted by Arthur. 

A man in a striped shirt kneels before a king and queen for knighting.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498144

After the ceremony, Arthur, alone on stage, considers his love for both Guenevere and Lancelot, and his role as a civilized king who should not “destroy” those he loves. He expresses sympathy for the passion he knows Lancelot and Guenevere feel for each other in spite of themselves. He declares, “This is the time of King Arthur, and violence is not strength and compassion is not weakness. We are civilized! Resolved: We shall live through this together, Excalibur: They, you, and I! And God have mercy on us all.”

A man in a crown looks off into the distance.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498166

Act Two / Scene 1

Lancelot sings a song in French, and then in English, declaring “the reason to live is only to love, a goddess on earth and a God above.” Guenevere asks why he never writes songs about her. He tells her that if he did, he would have to leave, but that would be impossible (“If Ever I Would Leave You”). The ladies in waiting appear to lead Guenevere away.  

Morded appears from behind a column, having witnessed everything. 

Man in green robe looks menacingly at the camera with a throne set behind him.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498202

Arthur arrives with Pellinore. At first Pellinore and Arthur plan to throw Mordred out, but he introduces himself as “the son of Queen Morgause.”—in other words, Arthur’s own illegitimate son. Arthur is shaken and sends Pellinore away. Mordred snarkily compliments Arthur on how he has “mixed English with French” in the castle. He reveals that he knows his true parentage and of Arthur’s affair with his mother. Arthur invites him to join the round table if he can “earn the right to knighthood by virtue and proper deeds.”

Arthur leaves, and Morded sings mockingly of “The Seven Deadly Virtues”: courage, purity, humility, diligence, charity, honesty, and fidelity, saying they are “made for other chaps, / who love a life of failure and ennui.”

Man in blue listens with a troubled expression to a man in green who stands behind him but seems to be proposing something troubling.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498213

Act 2 / Scene 2

Arthur meets Guenevere on the terrace. He expresses his exhaustion and downheartedness. Pellinore arrives and warns Arthur that Morded is stirring up dissent among the knights. But Arthur notes that Mordred has not broken the law in doing so. Pellinore asks if “a chap has to wait till he’s killed before he can attack?” Arthur has no answer. Pellinore notes that chasing the Beast is easier than the struggles of ruling. Arthur suggests the two go on a hunting expedition the next day.

Left alone, Arthur and Guenevere ponder the burden of ruling and wonder, in song, “What Do the Simple Folk Do?”

A king sits on a bench and a queen stands behind him with her hand on his shoulder, singing.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498185

Act 2 / Scene 3

In the Forest, Morded calls out for his aunt, Morgan le Fey. 

A man in pink calls in the forest.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498204

The curtain rises, and “before his eyes, weird and startling figures, half human, half animal, all members of Morgan Le Fey’s Court, appear in choreographic pantomime.”

People dressed as forest creates crawl and dance in a forest set.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498225

Morgan Le Fay herself then enters.

A woman in a wispy pink dress flanked by people in weird horned costumes stands with her left knee bent as if walking on stage. A pink umbrella is held above her.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498149

Mordred asks his aunt to help him play a prank on Arthur, “Make him drowsy and build a wall around him? The invisible kind you do so well.”

A woman in pink appears to consider the proposal of a man in pink standing with her in front of a forest backdrop.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498223

A man in pink speaks forcefully to a woman in a pink dress who holds her face in excitement over his proposal.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498324

Morgan initially refuses, but Morded bribes her with promises of sweets.

A man in red with a red felt top hat carries a crossbow in a forest scene.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498172

Arthur and Pellinore enter, seeking a bird they believe Arthur has shot. They are suddenly overcome by drowsiness and fall asleep.

A women in pink holds her cape over two sleeping men.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498265

Pellinore escapes, but Arthur is left, trapped by the invisible walls. Arthur urges Pellinore to return to the castle to warn Lancelot and Guenevere “to be careful.”

A man in a red felt hat and red cape sits near a tree trunk appearing to be sad.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles.  NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498221

Act 2 / Scene 5

Lancelot follows Guenevere into her bedchamber. Morded assembles the knights and prepares to barge in on them. Pellinore appears and asks where Lancelot is. Mordred mocks him and leads the knights towards the bedchamber.

Act 2 / Scene 6

Lancelot and Guenevere are together in her bedroom. Guenevere expresses fear that they are not alone. Lancelot tries to reassure her, but she expresses her fear and regret in song (“I Loved You Once in Silence”).

A women in a white gown sits on a bed with her hand on the back of a man in a red cape kneeling on the floor.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498294

Mordred enters with the knights and declares the couple under arrest for treason. Lancelot takes Mordred’s sword and flees through the open window, yelling to Guenevere that he will rescue her.

A man in green points a sword at the chest of a man in a red cape while a woman in a white gown stands nearby with her hands raised.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498260

The chorus sings a song narrating Guenevere’s trial before Arthur. Mordred mocks Arthur with a paraphrase of Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Do you kill the Queen or kill the law?” Arthur, dedicated as he is to law, has no choice but to impose the penalty for the jury’s verdict of treason: the burning of his wife at the stake.

He hesitates at the moment of the lighting of the fire, however, and Lancelot appears and rescues Guenevere, carrying her away to his own castle, Joyous Garde.

Four women in medieval clothes and crowns stand on a stair and look to the left with serious expressions.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498262

Arthur leads his forces to Joyous Garde and meets with Lancelot and Guenevere in a tent on the battlefield. Arthur describes the civil war that is now underway. Guenevere is to join the “holy sisters.” Arthur forgives them both. They leave, and as they do Arthur notices a young boy, Tom of Warwick. Realizing that Tom might retell the glory of Camelot and thus keep it alive, Arthur knights him, commanding him to return home and pass on the tales and ideals of Camelot.

A man in a white shirt with a red lion on it and a woman in a blue dress look troubled as they stand near a seated man dressed in armor who also looks sad and angry.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498285

The cast of Camelot in medieval costume stand facing the edge of the stage in a curtain call. The throne room backdrop is behind them.

Curtain call.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 58498236

Images used in this post from the Friedman-Abeles Collection have been preserved, cataloged, and digitized through the generosity of Nancy Abeles Marks and the Joseph S. and Diane H. Steinberg Charitable Trust.