Dr. Larson is assistant professor of English and director of composition at Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey.
This article appeared in the Christian Century May 5, 1982, p. 534. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Cats appeals to those latent religious impulses through dance and dramatic ritual, interwoven patterns of words and music, archetypal motifs and other intimations of a deeper order at the heart of things. It celebrates with equal intensity the word and body of the world.
Every poet would like, I fancy, to be able to think that he had some direct social utility. . . . to be something of a pop entertainer [T. S. Eliot, “Poetry and Drama,” 1951].
From his Harvard undergraduate days until shortly before his death in 1965, T. S. Eliot exchanged spooling rhymes, bawdy limericks, and “Bolo poems” with Conrad Aiken. The high priest of modern poetry loved vaudeville, the patter of the old music-hall comedians, pop-music clichés, and jingly rhymes of all sorts. During the ‘30s as “Old Possum” — an avuncular apologist for cats — he composed and illustrated sly little lyrics about his favorite pets in private letters to his godchildren.
Collected in 1939 as Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, these children’s poems for adults introduce a dozen or more cat personalities who secretly run well-regulated households — or make a shambles of them, perform vanishing acts and high-wire entrechats, erupt into epiphanic transformations, reminisce about their several former lives, and meditate on their own ineffable names. In a whimsical reading for Decca records, Eliot himself once exploited the theatrical potential of these poems; but they so obviously call for more ambitious musical performance — given their inventive meters, choric refrains, and many ballad styles — that it is surprising no one has done it before.
With Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, the London dance-musical based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Eliot has re-emerged as a popular entertainer commanding huge general audiences of children and adults. Since this immensely successful show opened on Drury Lane last spring, it has become the most highly acclaimed English musical since Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, Lloyd Webber’s earlier collaborations with Tim Rice. Cats’ nostalgic score draws upon the collective memory of the audience through an impressive range of musical allusions — to the jazz of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s as well as to folk, rock, Latin, western, big band, blues and cafe society tunes — all mounted in a work that sounds like the 1980s. Superbly directed by Trevor Nunn and choreographed by Gillian Lynne, the show has also been praised for the witty and charming performances of Wayne Sleep, Brian Blessed, Paul Nicholas, Elaine Paige and two dozen more in the lively company.
Cats is incessantly dancy and lavish in psychedelic spectacle. Yet almost miraculously, Eliot’s poetic lines (nearly all the lyrics and dialogue) are scarcely ever lost on the big revolving stage at the New London Theatre. This feat has much to do with the company’s remarkably disciplined voice work, but first of all it is a triumph of conception: Cats is not a parasitical version of a minor literary classic, theatricalized to cash in on the latest crazes for cats and for dancin’, but an affectionate and faithful interpretation of Eliot’s work: not only of Practical Cats, but also of unpublished material that his widow, Valerie Fletcher Eliot, generously contributed to this production; and more broadly, of the poet’s religious vision. The mysteries of community and identity; the incursions of the strange into the everyday; rebirth, memory and desire; the luminous potential of lost moments and the ironic awareness that they are over: these familiar themes from the Eliot canon bring some depth to this supremely playful evening in the theater.
Like the Royal Shakespeare Company’s recent adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, Cats envelops its audience in a mythic world. Designer John Napier’s set establishes a mythic space that looks like everything the cat dragged in, poetically magnified. The partially gutted and reconstructed interior of this modern theater has become a gigantic cats’ playground where ordinary objects look strange on the round stage and against the walls curving around behind the audience. Outsize car tires, trash cans, an electric radio, discarded toothpaste tubes and other barely recognizable refuse from the urban wasteland evoke a setting Eliot knew from his own aloof, catlike wanderings through the red-light districts of Boston, Paris and London. At the same time the nightclub ambience of this blackened theater in the round is just right for the slinky characters and occasional jazz numbers. Animal and human, ragged and sophisticated at once, the set is flavored with a peculiarly Eliotesque irony.
During the overture, the stage takes a turn in one direction, the backdrops in another, and the ceiling strung with lights becomes a cityscape, a starry night sky coming alive as cats’ eyes watching us from their secret places. David Hersey’s lighting begins the metamorphosis of worlds in a musical that draws repeatedly upon archetypes and transformation. On this night of nights, an annual ritual for a “Jellicle” breed of cats (sound affinity with Eliot), we are promised the revelation of their secret lives — and more, we may glimpse that other world only creatures who “see in the dark” can see:
Jellicle cats come out tonight,
Jellicle cats come one come all:
The Jellicle moon is shining bright
Jellicles come to the Jellicle ball. . . . .
We are quiet enough in the morning hours
We are quiet enough in the afternoon
Reserving our terpsichorean powers
To dance to the light of the Jellicle moon.*
Dancing their eccentric stories, the cats disclose foibles and vices we recognize as our own, while some characters also mock the human world we only imagine we control. Choreographer Gillian Lynne has created a very flexible dance style that conveys these double messages and adapts extraordinarily well to the spectrum of musical modes. Avoiding a Walt Disney cuteness, these cats are realistically feline: they arch their backs, parody prancing, dart out their limbs to scarify or trifle with each other, stretch in lazy curves, nose ‘round curiously, stare autistically at the audience. Even so, the animal movements are projected through dancers’ bodies as expressions of human emotions.
John Napier’s allusive costuming, cleverly blending the catlike and the human, also avoids a cartoon-cat look: fluffed-up hair suggests ears; tails are ropy, braided or rolled-up cloth tied round dancers’ waists; shuffled-down leg warmers hint at furry catlegs; and strips of bright cloth, beads, feathers and fur sewn on painted bodystockings make multipatterned coats. We also see a range of human types: the weirdly attired punk youth who parade down King’s Road in Chelsea, springy carnival acrobats, slinky street-walkers, clowns, pirates, music-hall entertainers, a nanny and a portentously furry patriarchal cat, Old Deuteronomy, who lumbers about like a kindly Grandpa Moses.
Cats celebrates the mythical and the ironic from the start with its “Prologue: Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats.” Written by Trevor Nunn and Richard Stilgoe, inspired by an unpublished Eliot draft, this opening number flaunts Jellicle feats in an anything-is-possible world:
Can you ride on a broomstick to places far distant
Familiar with candle, with book, and with bell?
Were you Whittington’s friend? the Pied Piper’s
Have you been an alumnus of Heaven and Hell?
Members of the company trade such questions across the stage, then gather their forces for the syncopated chorus that breaks with the verses’ regular prosody, and works into Latin rhythms backed by a big band sound. This increasingly strenuous opening number climaxes in a long rhyming catalogue of attributes:
Practical cats, dramatical cats,
Pragmatical cats, fanatical cats,
Oratorical cats, delphicoracle cats,
Skeptical cats, dispeptical cats. . . .
A child’s game of improbably pairing sound-alike words, this is also a distinctively British sort of performance for adults, recalling the verbal acrobatics in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas. From the start the company makes us pay attention to the language of Cats: they have us on the edge of our seats listening for the double entendre, the witty word choice, even as we are caught up in the sheer physical joy of the dancing and in the music s suspenseful expansions as it ascends the scale. From its powerful opening, Cats rewards concentration by celebrating with equal intensity the word and the body of the world.
Eliot’s poems challenged Andrew Lloyd Webber to find a musical style for each distinctive character. Eliot’s virtuosity as a musician of words also sets interesting problems for the composer: for example, Eliot’s singsong meters are often broken or opened up by surprises of syncopation, which fit the cats’ leaps and quick-changes of identity but also demand certain musical modes and not others; in addition, he sets his jingles ajar by slant-rhyming — an effect which requires enough time and breath for the singer to enunciate with perfect clarity. Lloyd Webber’s formal achievement has been to make songs that do not waste these poetic effects in a muddle of verbiage or notes, or undermine them with inappropriate melodies.
For “Macavity the Mystery Cat,” he has built an original score on a basic Henry Mancini style (that of Peter Gunn and The Pink Panther) which is just the right witty mode for this cat’s “deceitfulness and suavity”:
Macavity’s a Mystery Cat: he’s called the
Hidden Paw —
For he’s the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He’s the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the
Flying Squad’s despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime —
Macavity’s not there!
Among others with stories of perfect crimes are the incredibly agile cat-burglar pair, Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer (John Thornton and Bonnie Langford), who have “really a little more reputation than a couple of cats can very well bear.” The music indulges their incurable “gift of the gab” with a more flexible Mancini line that slides out saxophone notes for their knowing asides, stretches out or bounces up in jazzy grace notes to match their antics on stage.
Lloyd Webber and director Trevor Nunn have given Eliot’s Rum Turn Tugger, a contrary cat who is “always on the wrong side of every door,” a post — Elvis Presley/Mick Jagger style that wins the squeals of his feline fans. “The Tugger” (Paul Nicholas) bursts out on stage, microphone in hand, wagging his thick curly mane and strutting in his tight black leather outfit (trimmed in leopard fur) to punched-out rhythms:
. . . If you offer me pheasant I’d rather have grouse,
If you put me in a house I would: prefer a flat,
If you put me in a flat I’d rather have a house. . . .
Remarkably, Eliot’s mechanical meter, with its one-syllable words, anticipates the Presley style so copied in the late ‘60s, and it is perfect for the bump-and-grind Nicholas works into his performance.
Eliot’s mock epic ballad in an older style, “Growl-tiger’s Last Stand,” is a big production number made bigger with a barroom ballad interlude, and all of it is framed by another story. Old Asparagus the Theatre Cat (Stephen Tate), a down-and-out Cockney actor, reminisces about his old roles to a tenderly sympathetic piano and oboe — especially the time when he “once played Growl-tiger, could do it again. . . .“ In a flash he sheds his tatterdemalion coat to reveal a fearsome wharfside pirate, with a smart bandanna and a rakish patch over “one forbidding eye”:
Growl-tiger was a bravo cat, who travelled on a barge;
In fact he was the roughest cat that ever roamed
From Gravesend up to Oxford he pursued his
Rejoicing in his title of ‘The Terror of the Thames.’
Growl-tiger will soon face his Waterloo at the hands of the enemy Siamese cats, but first he and his winsome dance-hall lover, Lady Griddlebone, must sing “their last duet, in danger of their lives.” Here space is made for Eliot’s unpublished “The Ballad of Billy McCaw,” a song in the genre of the working-class sing-along and the sort of thing Eliot had praised in the ‘20s. The wonderful quasi-operatic manner in which Tate renders this song suggests the precariously collected dignity of the performing drunk.
Oh, how well I remember the old Bull and Bush,
Where we used to go down of a Sattaday night —
. . . A very nice house, from basement to garret
A very nice house, ah, but it was the parrot —
The parrot, the parrot named Billy M’caw,
That brought all those folk to the bar.
Ah! he was the life of the bar.
Of a Sattaday night, we was all feeling bright,
And Lily La Rose — the barmaid that was —
She’d say: ‘Billy! Billy M’Caw!
Came give us come give us a dance on the bar!’
And Billy would dance on the bar
And Billy would dance on the bar…
Eliot was a wonderful imitator of voices and popular forms; his barroom song has all the assumed intimacy with subject and audience, and the irrational episodic connections that such songs naturally develop through their affectionately muddled associations. And while our balladeer gets deeper into his muddle, the neglected Lady Griddlebone (Susan Jane Tanner) goes all fluttery in her ostrich feathers and twitchy in the face, to launch the best comic acting of the show. All this is rudely halted by the full-scale attack of the enemy Siamese — a band of martial-arts cats swirling immense rice-paper fans and colorful scarves to the marching music of piccolos.
If this number presents the most inventive comic acting in Cats, the most dazzling dancing is Wayne Sleep’s minting tricks and fancy body work as Mr. Mistoffelees, the “Original Conjuring Cat.” Near the end of Act II, the audience is well-primed to join in on the choruses, led by The Tugger:
And we all say: Oh!
Well I never
Was there ever
A cat so clever
As magical Mr. Mistoffelees!
The magic of collaboration has recreated in the London audience a sense of the community that Eliot sought to evoke in the performance of his verse dramas. The joyous abandon of participation prepares us for the show’s climax — a scene not in Practical Cats (which has no overall plot) but built out of hints from some previously unused Eliot material about dogs and cats in a hot-air balloon soaring “up up up past the Russell Hotel” to a magical country just beyond the landmarks of the known world. Without using balloons, Cats’ climax fulfills the promise of the Jellicle Ball: the communal acceptance of one elect cat and her ascension to a fantastical feline heaven.
The candidate for this transformation is Eliot’s Grizabella the Glamour Cat (Elaine Paige), who had not appeared in the book (“too sad for children.” explains Mrs. Eliot in the program notes). Nunn has this shady-lady character, who has strong associations with Eliot’s early Prufrock period (1917). limp pathetically through the show in the pitying smoky lamplight that always encircles her, as old neighborhood acquaintances contrast her past and present selves. Since she is the outcast cat with the heaviest “memory,” her highly orchestrated chanteuse number by that title (written by Trevor Nunn) naturally becomes the theme song of the show. The singing style of Elaine Page (who was also the original stage Evita) blends Petula Clark with Barbara Cook: the well-trained but unadorned female voice singing her heart Out. The Grizabella songs, lacking the others’ wit or irony, stand out from the rest, but they are brought in with long musical transitions and provide the pathetic interlude we can expect sooner or later in most musicals.
As a playwright Eliot wrestled with the problem of how to dramatize transcendence on the gravity-bound stage. Lloyd Webber and Nunn meet the challenge of a transcendent Jellicle rebirth with sheer technological bravura. Given the show’s mythic premise, it is finally not too incredible to see Grizabella disappear into a rainbowy empyrean at dizzying heights above the stage, while below a gazing Jellicle choir belts out an “angelicle” crescendo of ascending scales: “Up up up past the Russell Hotel . .” Whatever theological sense or nonsense this revision of the nine lives legend might make, there is a lesson here which recalls Eliot’s vision in The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) of “a society in which the natural end of man — virtue and well-being in community — is acknowledged for all, and the supernatural end — beatitude — for those who have the eyes to see it.” If only one Jellicle is elected to paradise, all of us are granted a beatific vision of the event.
In a rare American review of this musical, Mel Gussow has scored its “bare minimum of social content” (New York Times, July 26, 1981). The British in wartime 1939 took Practical Cats to heart, just as Eliot repeated the lyrics under his breath whenever he was ill or sleepless. Is Cats then just escapist entertainment, without the “direct social utility” Eliot wanted in the popular arts?
With many ‘20s writers the younger Eliot shared the avant-garde passion for such popular entertainments as vaudeville and juggling acts; but his interest lasted long because it was rooted in his theology of community and in his perception that rhythm — “the beating of the drum,” he called it — is the primitive source of the arts, as of the religious sense. In his poetic dramas, he wanted to restore a rhythmic structure that might awaken people’s craving for ritual and appeal to what he called the “residual” spirituality of his jaded West End audiences. Cats appeals to those latent religious impulses through dance and dramatic ritual, interwoven patterns of words and music, archetypal motifs and other intimations of a deeper order at the heart of things.
Whatever questions might be raised about Eliot’s political and social allegiances, he understood that “social content” can lie more fundamentally in form and style than in topical issues; and, observing that the working man created his own community at the music hall, Eliot argued more generally that social utility might be gained through collaborative art. London audiences these days — caught in the grip of Britain’s economic troubles, fearful of American militarism in Europe and disturbed by new waves of IRA bombings — need the energizing imagination of a more benevolent social world. Practical Cats gathers a wacky community of eccentric, even anarchic creatures who know what it means to be vilified, preyed upon and patronized, but whose differences and pains are included in a finally generous vision. In Cats outlaws and outcasts are not just amusing but are caught up in this fundamentally comic rhythm of life.
Of course, other kinds of theater too are needed to help us see clearly what our communities are and what they could be in a better world. During the time I was in London, the Royal Shakespeare Company was staging Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Love-Girl and the innocent, a powerful play about the Russian camps with the rhythm of a steamroller. At Wyndham’s Theatre the Marxist Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist, a revolutionary commedia dell’arte farce, punctured Italy’s pretense of social justice and called for an abrupt, violent end to all such shabby business. At the Mermaid Theatre, Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God dramatized the awesome silences between the deaf and hearing worlds even when they do try to communicate; at the Piccadilly, Willy Russell’s Educating Rita played out the ironies of a relationship between a hairdresser student and a professor/failed poet in his cups, whose job it is to acculturate her. At the National, Bertolt Brecht’s The Life of Galileo (in its way also a musical) presented the hero’s critical conflict between telling the unsettling truth about the universe and living in community in history. And in Hyde Park, where a quarter-million people turned out in late October for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament rally, guerrilla theater groups entertained the peacemakers with a dozen versions of the end of the world.
Seeing this spectrum of theatrical performances within a short period put Cats into perspective. Even so, this dance-musical makes an indispensable contribution to our imagination and. communal life. Its theater, after all, is not a brightly lit ballroom on 42nd Street, but a dark space, where cats’ eyes still gleam at us from another world, and where we are invited to witness, on a specially luminous moonlit night, the complete crazy consort dancing together.