I've read a lot of T. S. Eliot in my life, and I write about him rather often too. But I'd never seen the musical Cats, based on his whimsical late work Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, until last week when Caryn took me and my stepdaughter to see a regional production in Northern Virginia.
The fact that I've avoided this extremely popular musical for so long is especially surprising since I also enjoy the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber, who wrote Evita and, a real old favorite of mine, Jesus Christ Superstar. I suppose I was put off by the proposition of watching grown men and women writhe pretentiously in cat costumes while calling each other Rumpleteazer and Rum Tum Tugger. The play was aggressively marketed as a lush visual marvel when it originally opened in the early 1980s. I disdained it as a sort of feline "Nutcracker Suite" -- precious, pretty and not for me. I suspect that many other T. S. Eliot aficionados out there have avoided the show for the same reason.
But I'm glad I broke down and finally saw Cats, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it and how substantial the show's treatment of T. S. Eliot's life's work turned out to be.
Old Possum's Book was hardly a serious book. The stuff about the one inscrutable, singular and ineffable name that each cat spends its life contemplating strikes a pleasantly metaphysical note, but the book was clearly written and published as a lark, a literary palate cleanser, with a juvenile audience in mind and no yellow smoke, Baudelaire quotes, tawdry East London sex scenes or prayers from the Upanishads anywhere in sight. It does seem, though, that Andrew Lloyd Webber and his collaborator Trevor Nunn brought the rest of Eliot's work into play when they created Cats. The spiritual plotline they constructed might have pleased the old critic himself.
T. S. Eliot's greatest literary role model was Dante, and many of his major works strive to emulate Dante's Divine Comedy by laying out the pathway from Earth to Hell to Purgatory to Heaven. The Waste Land and Prufrock dwell in Hell and Purgatory, but The Cocktail Party and many of the later poems reach with sincere hope towards Paradise, and Eliot's impassioned social and critical writings attempted to point in that direction as well. Cats presents an ascension to Paradise, here referred to rather cleverly as the "Heavyside Layer" (a pun upon a scientific term that appeared in Eliot's Family Reunion).
But anyone who knows their Dante knows that you can't climb to Heaven without first stepping through Hell, and the second act of Cats provides not only a descent but an entire tableau of a civilization in ruin -- a Waste-Land of cats -- after Macavity kidnaps Old Deuteronomy and short-circuits the electrical power in the alley, casting the stage into darkness.
Macavity appears in Eliot's poetry book as a merely dishonest cat, but Webber and Nunn turn him into a symbol for Satan himself (this becomes clear at the moment that he attempts to impersonate the godly Old Deuteronomy, threatening to subjugate the entire community of "angelical" cats into some kind of degraded servility). As Macavity here symbolizes Satan, so the cheerful, twirling Mr. Mistoffelees, the "conjuring cat" who saves the day, is certainly meant as a Christ figure.
Perhaps the entire pageant is meant to be taking place in the mind of a single character -- Grizabella, the miserable, decrepit "glamour cat" who sings the hit song "Memory" before literally ascending to the "Heavyside Layer", clasping Old Deuteronomy at her side. Cats is mainly the story of this pitiable character's moral salvation (or, at least, the second act is). As such it is fully consistent with the goals of T. S. Eliot's most serious work, in a way that even the poetry book it is based on was not.
It's also worth noting that Grizabella is one of the only characters in Cats that does not appear in Old Possum's Book. This may be too big a stretch (as if calling the cute and perky Mr. Mistoffelees a Christ figure wasn't already too big a stretch) but I wonder if Andrew Lloyd Webber and Trevor Nunn didn't invent this character to represent Vivienne Eliot, T. S.'s tragic first wife, who was considered brilliant and glamorous when Eliot married her, and lived out her last years in a mental asylum. Webber and Nunn may at least have had this connection in mind, and there probably weren't many worthier candidates for salvation in either the real or fictional T. S. Eliot canon.
It's too bad that T. S. Eliot died fifteen years before Webber and Nunn's Cats hit the stage. We'll never know if we would have liked it, loved it or hated it, or how he would have felt about the irony that Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, originally published only as a light-hearted afterthought, turned out to be the most widely known work of his career.