Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

T. S. Eliot and his Jellicle Cats

By Levi Asher on Thursday, June 24, 2010 06:57 pm

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.

6 Responses to "T. S. Eliot and his Jellicle Cats"

Thanks for the review... but no thanks! I woulda barfed! No disrespect (to you, not TS)... Eliot's descent into religious kitsch was the death of his poetry.

by Dan on

I first saw Cats in NYC in the early 80s, and liked it a lot. In the years since I've taken various kids to see it, and it holds up well on repeated exposure. Having been owned by a number of cats in my time, it's clear to me that Eliot was just describing different cat personalities in poems for kids - but there are undertones, layers to the work that reflect Eliot's power as a writer. This takes the show beyond simple song-and-dance (cats have three names, for example - including a secret name that no one knows).

by Steve Plonk on

I saw a video of the play, "Cats", which I enjoyed very much,
along with my wife and daughter. I believe, we saw it around five years ago. My wife liked the score and I got it for her as
a present a while back... My wife plays the piano as a hobby and
I think she is quite good. She has resisted me recording her.
She's been playing piano since she was a child.

by Coerulescent on

I think you have expressed an implication that many people consider but find it too bizarre or embarassing to state outright: that Grizabella is a representation of Vivienne Eliot. I first studied Eliot in the 70's at college, where i was fed the official party line, by his true admirers, that Vivienne was a shrew and a slut who tormented him beyond reason. Time has revealed that quite a bit of that official line was distortion, plain and simple, and based upon the recollections and statements of people who either had reason to dislike her, or reason to try to ingratiate themselves with him. The play Tom and Viv, based upon a historical statement from the 50's that Eliot went crazy and had his wife certified and institutionalized instead, broke the ice; and the recent biography of Vivienne, while sometimes off-target (accusing Eliot of being gay, repeatedly, based upon hints and guesses, as he would put it, nothing more), demonstrates that the offical, politically correct assessment of Vivienne, as I learned it, was propoganda only.

I suspect that the creators of Cats are carefully reticent about admitting who Grizabella actually is because of the present Mrs. Eliot's aggresive attempts on behalf of the estate, to squelch all rehabilitation of Vivienne's reputation, with the attendant implication of Eliot's intentional or passive allowance of the falsification or obfuscation of the appropriate facts. Apparently she has filed several suits, on behalf of the estate, to prevent open inquiry into the issue. My question is. to paraphrase Shakespeare, does she perhaps protest too much? After all, what is to be lost by an inquiry into what really happened in the 20's and 30's between Eliot and his first wife? (As an aside, I think it quite amusing that the Emily Hale letters, Emily being Eliot's girl friend from his college years, will be published in 2019, and are apparently beyond the reach of Valerie Eliot and her suit-happy attorneys to prevent or interfere. It is believed that the Hale letters will shed great light on what actually happened between Tom and Viv during those troubled days.) The author's introduction to Tom and Viv documents an organized resistance, centered around Faber and Faber, to any inquiry into what actually happened in that troubled relationship. Furthermore, the present Mrs. Eliot, suit-happy as she is against all who would question her deceased husband's sacrosanct position in literature, apparently claims to have authority over Vivienne's papers---authority sufficient to prevent their open publication. I believe her position is based upon Eliot's guardianship of his wife during the incarceration---a guardianship which, apparently, is presumed to be retained by the estate upon Vivienne's papers at the library at Oxford University. It is my understanding that this case is being heard in the British judicial system, because a sufficient number of scholars are being stymied by the Estate in their attempt to find out what happened; or, if not what happened, what Vivienne believed to have happened. It is well known that, at the end of her life, her brother openly repented, on his deathbead, of his part in the incarceration, stating that he realized, upon his last visit to her prior to her death, that she was as sane as he was. Furthermore, there is the difficulty of the 1947 report, by an American psychiatrist attached to the U S Army, in England at the time, who interviewed Vivienne over the course of several days. Due to political machinations, he was not permitted to publish his report in England, but, after being transferred stateside (a transfer implied to have been requested at very high levels in response to possibly Eliot's concern of "the truth will out"), he published the report in a professional journal. In it, he suggested that Mrs Eliot's history of manic behavior could be attributed to the meds, several of which were in conflict, prescribed to her by two doctors who, for purposes of an old disagreement, refused to consult together about any patient. The American psychiatrist also found it odd that Vivienne's own income was being diverted to the mental institution for her upkeep---although, ostensibly, Eliot paid for it out of his own pocket. Another tragic fact that screams for reparation is that Eliot's office was six miles, by bus, from the institution, but he never once bothered to visit.

I was taught at college to admire Eliot. I even had a letter from the present Mrs. Eliot in response to my sophomoric inquiries about certain sources in The Waste Land. Eliot's conversion to Anglicanism helped me to navigate my own conversion to the liberal side of the Baptist faith---as he had to face accusations, from family and friends, of betraying shared values, just as I did. I am therefore furious against the memory of a man who, while being so intimately involved in my own spiritual experience, was so blatantly unChristian toward his first wife. The parable of the unjust servant comes to mind here.

Eliot has a line in one of his poems about being moved by the idea of "some infinitely gentle / infinitely suffering thing." After over three decades of acquaintance with his work, and of finding in Wallace Stevens a welcome antidote and relief to Eliot's tiresome poetic whining, I wonder if, on balance, he simply needed to torture some infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing---in order to feel human. He wrote something, in Sweeney Agonistes, about a man needing to---wanting to----once in a lifetime--do a girl in, and I think, in some respects, he immolated Vivienne as surely as if he had murdered her in some tawdry fashion.

wow. very interesting, indeed.

by Jane on

JACOB! Can't believe I found you on a random search!!!

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