Cats: Bureaucracy, Tap-dancing, and… Mick Jagger?

Cats 6

And Jellicles ask, because Jellicles dare:
“Who will it be?”1

As I discussed to great length in my previous blog, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats contains a ‘storyline’ that revolves around a Jellicle leader named Old Deuteronomy who chooses one cat once a year to go up to the Heaviside Layer in order to “be reborn, [a]nd come back to a different Jellicle life”.2 In other words: someone gets chosen to die in order to be reincarnated. This apparently is something that the Jellicle Cats “rejoice”.3 From now on, most of the musical’s ‘plot’ will therefore center around this one question: “Who will it be?”

Fortunately the grey cat with black stripes, who I guess acts as some kind of a narrator in this musical, has a suggestion:

Who is he to make these decisions? No seriously, who is this?! If you watch this 1998 film version of Cats all the way to the credits, you will find out that this cat is called Munkustrap. His name is never mentioned in the show itself, neither is it in any of the Old Possum’s poems. Yet he is there, acting all important. Which he apparently is, judging from the other cats’ reactions.

[CORRECTION: the name Munkustrap actually is mentioned in Old Possum’s Book of  Practical Cats, in Eliot’s poem “The Naming of Cats“. Many thanks to Maxim for pointing that out to me in the comments section below! (Edited nov. 9th 2015.)]

But here we are: this is the manner in which Andrew Lloyd Webber and colleagues decided to incorporate Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats poems into the musical. As a death audition.

And the first candidate is a Jellicle Cat named Jennyanydots, who is “a Gumbie cat”. This song is based on Eliot’s Old Possum’s poem “The Old Gumbie Cat”. What the hell is a Gumbie Cat?!

Whatever it is, it’s obviously not something that that black and white cat is, as he immediately appears to be very disappointed at the prospect he is not (yet) in mind for this death selection. Furthermore, it is not a qualification measured by a sort or colour of fur, as “her coat […] of the tabby kind” (l. 2) is what is immediately being described after the fact that she is a Gumbie Cat. No, “what makes her Gumbie Cat” is apparently the fact that “she sits and sits and sits and sits” (l. 4, 16, and 23), but, again, it is never fully explained.

Curious and determined as I was to sort this mess of a musical out, I tried to conduct some more internet research. But the only thing I found was the word “Gumby”.

And here I’m not talking about the stop motion animation character Gumby who is apparently some form of children’s entertainment from the 1950’s up to the 1980’s that I never heard of before because it wasn’t aired in the Netherlands during my childhood (or ever, for as far as I know).4 (And I’m very grateful for that. Seriously, I watched an episode on YouTube and what the fuck is this shit?! Melting in the shower when you stay in there too long?! That’s just terrifying! And why are the male characters naked while all the female characters wear clothes?! Does he live amongst someone’s toys? How can he jump into books? This stuff makes even less sense than Cats does!)

Although the Google NGram viewer tells me that the words “gumbie” and “gumby” were both around in the 1930’s,5 I couldn’t find any useful information concerning the definition of the former. An internet forum I found suggests that “Gumbie” is probably a word that Eliot made up himself, and might not mean anything at all.6

The word “gumby”, however, actually turns out to have several meanings, including being a slang word for marijuana, “[a] stage for the male penis in between a soft limpless penis and a rock hard one”, “a blowjob given by a woman/man with no teeth”, and “a really bad haircut in the 80s”.7 Yet in the context of the poem, I want to focus on a few other definitions:

/guhm’bee/, n.

1. An act of minor but conspicuous stupidity, often in gumby
maneuver or pull a gumby.
2. [NRL] n. A bureaucrat, or other technical incompetent who impedes
the progress of real work.8

Even though it is very possible that these definitions are from (long) after the 1930’s (as I couldn’t find any information about that), they might relate to Jennyanydots’ “Gumbie”-ness. She does nothing during the day except sitting around, and thus appears to be a complete nitwit. As the poem and the song both indicate that she is a housecat (she lives with a family and likes to wind the curtain cord), she appears to be a common family pet. Many people who have a cat might recognise this kind of behaviour. Even her name suggests that she is very ordinary, she could be anyone’s housecat. You might therefore call her an ‘everycat’.

“But”, as both poem and song emphasise several times, this first impression you get of her is actually very wrong: she turns out to be quite active at night-time, ordering the mice and cockroaches around to keep everything in the house organised. Even though we don’t seem to notice it, it is she who pulls the strings behind the scenes.

Remember when I explained in one of my previous blogs that Eliot’s cats might represent people from all layers of society? An interesting theory that I found suggests that Jennyanydots appears to represent the little man or the ‘working class’: the ordinary people with their ordinary jobs. The people who sit in offices doing the administration or answer the phone, the blue collar workers who build and maintain everything around you, the shelf stackers at your local supermarket, or the people who collect your garbage. Even though many people complain about the fact that they don’t appear to do much (I mean, who hasn’t complained about construction workers doing nothing but sitting around, or about office employees mooching about behind their desks), they are the ones who create order in our lives without us even noticing it.9

Thought-provoking as this theory is, I wonder whether it’s completely sound. What about the fact that she is the one who teaches the mice all these skills, and who makes the beetles march? The fact that she is of opinion that the cockroaches “just need employment/ To prevent them from idle and wanton destroyment” (l. 31-32)? She might sit during the day, but she is the one who puts others to work. I therefore think that the link that I made earlier between the word “Gumbie” and “gumby” in meaning bureaucrat is very interesting. The word bureaucrat often indicates a government official, and, even more often, a government official who is more concerned with rules and regulations than with people’s actual needs. This makes sense in a way: who is she to decide what the mice and cockroaches need in order to ‘behave better’? In fact, who is she to decide that their behaviour is bad in the first place? Is she someone who actually “impedes the progress of real work” with putting mice to “music, crocheting, and tatting” (l. 12) and beetles to tattooing (l. 36)?

Maybe I’m going off topic here a bit, but this poem reminds me of something that’s been going on in the Netherlands for a couple of years now: the so-called ‘reintegration projects’ that local governments use to put, or rather force, people who live on unemployment benefits to work. In order to keep their benefits, they are put to fulltime work as ‘volunteers’, usually doing manual labour in factories or parks. Although in theory this might sound as a good means to get some work rhythm back and get some purpose in life (“[w]ith a purpose in life and a good deed to do” (l. 35), remember?), it basically means that these people work fulltime for the equivalent of about 2/3 of a minimum wage, in the meanwhile losing time to look for work that actually gives a more decent pay. Quitting such a ‘voluntary job’ is often not an option as your unemployment benefits are pulled when you do. Companies benefit greatly from this as they get free employers and therefore don’t need to hire and pay people. Thus indirectly actually creating even more unemployment. Talking about gumby manoeuvres!10

Viewed as such, Eliot’s closing lines of this poem might even sound sarcastic:

So for Old Gumbie Cats let us now give three cheers –
On whom well-ordered households depend, it appears. (l. 37-38)

Not that these possible definitions or meanings behind this poem seems to matter much to Lloyd Webber and colleagues: they replaced about 1/3 of it with a cheerful tap-dance routine! (Although I find the fact that that one of the ‘beetles’ appears to do a ‘stabbing attempt’ with his fork at 3:13 quite an interesting detail… )

But back on topic to this “who will it be”-question: why her? We are, at first glimpse, supposed to believe that she’s old I guess, as she is helped out of this disposed car’s trunk. But further on we can see her tap-dance and boss around these mice and beetles. She appears to be quite content with her life, and have a lot of life in her. So why would she want to pertain in this death audition? Which she seems very happy to do just so…

But the musical leaves no room for further explanation, as another cat barges in. His name is the Rum Tum Tugger, another poem from Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats:

When reading the poem, the Rum Tum Tugger sounds a lot like Simon’s Cat. He’s a cat who wants to go out as soon as you let him in and who jumps on your lap when you’re busy with something and really don’t need him there. Again, typical cat behaviour.

As a metaphor, you could say that the Rum Tum Tugger stands for those who are spoiled and therefore easily bored and dissatisfied. Those who do not want to conform.11 (If given shape in our time, he would therefore probably be a hipster.)

In the musical however they turned him into… Mick Jagger. I’m not even kidding here! According to Wikipedia, Andrew Lloyd Webber has stated that the Rum Tum Tugger is meant to be a tribute to him, something that is clearly visible in the way he moves on stage.12 I get it, in a way, Mick Jagger is the Rum Tum Tugger: he also “can’t get no satisfaction”.

And I must say… I like it! The song’s accompanying rock music and dance routine are energetic and fun. It almost makes you forget that you’re watching something with a weird ‘storyline’ containing a celebration of death and rebirth. And that this Rum Tum Tugger character, who, again, appears to have so much joy in life, is supposedly a willing candidate for this cult-like selection process.


I think I actually get it: this is all about vices!

Why haven’t I seen this before? Without even knowing it themselves, these two cats represent bad qualities that we can find everywhere in mankind. The short-sighted bureaucrat who is too stupid or stubborn to look behind the rules and regulations, probably harming countless in the process; the spoiled nonconformist who doesn’t care or appreciate that others wait on him hand and foot and who is nothing but a superficial asshole always looking for the next best thing… Of course they should be cleared from society! Think about it: how many times did you not want to strangle a government official or a spoiled brat?!

But then again: the person who is eventually chosen to die also gets a new life, a clean slate. Does this then mean that this is a musical about (punishment and) redemption? It does not appear to be one, at least not at this point (I will come back to this in a much later blog). Old Deuteronomy’s annunciation appears to be more of an honorary thing than a judgement. So… maybe I’m just reading too much into this?

But hey, why would an audience want to break their head over something that hard? And why would we go to length to analyse/explain everything if it is mostly replaced by cheerful dancing and tongue in cheek Rock and Roll references?

As I said before, these upbeat songs almost make you forget that you are watching a musical about a nightly death sentence audition. And up to this point, the musical is still quite entertaining to watch.

Too bad that fucking ‘plot’ has to return again…

More about this in my next blog.


Gigengacks reizen
De dame met het hondje
De Wetten
Het Beest
Gabrielle Pinkster

Gabrielle Pinkster

Gabrielle Pinkster (a.k.a. The Reading Dutchwoman) studied English Language and Culture at the University of Groningen and specialised in early 20th century literature and poetry. Like most (former) students of literature she is ‘currently working on her novel’.
Gabrielle Pinkster
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  1. Cats, “Invitation to the Jellicle Ball” 

  2. Ibidem 

  3. Ibidem 

  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gumby 

  5. Google NGram viewer on 13-7-2014: https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=Gumbie%2C+gumby&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2CGumbie%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cgumby%3B%2Cc0  

  6. As found on http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=1518092 

  7. As found on http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Gumby&defid=918785 

  8. I actually found this exact definition on several websites. Among others: http://www.refdictionary.com/dict.php?name=gumby, http://life.familyeducation.com/computers/jargon/G/gumby.html, and http://www.science.uva.nl/~mes/jargon/g/gumby.html  

  9. As found on http://rosenstein.wikispaces.com/  

  10. Although I couln’t find any English sources on this subject, the Dutch action committee Dwangarbeid Nee has a very interesting blog in Dutch that explains everything about this. 

  11. Also found on http://rosenstein.wikispaces.com/  

  12. As found on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rum_Tum_Tugger