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Cats: A Celebration of Death?

Cats 5 bijgesneden kleur en tekst

To summarise everything we’ve learned about the musical Cats up to this point: Jellicle Cats are a tribe of black and white or multi-coloured magical and immortal(?) cats with three different names who become active at night and then … sing I guess?

Except for this specific night it turns out, as, afterJellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats, “The Naming of Cats”, and a small mating ritual-ish ballet performance that follows that, it is announced that there is a “Jellicle Ball” taking place. And what is the reason to have this ball:

Wow… that’s actually… quite heavy. Think about it: they are, in fact, having a ball to select someone who gets to die. And yes, be reborn again after the dying part is over, but still, this is heavy stuff! And the strange thing is that they’re rejoicing this! It almost sounds like some kind of ancient sacrificing rite.

And what’s this Heaviside Layer thing anyway? It appears to be some kind of reference to Heaven but this is never officially established. When doing research for this article I found out, to my surprise, that even though this is never mentioned in any of the poems that got published in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, it was Eliot himself who once had proposed the idea of the cats going there.

According to Wikipedia, the Heaviside Layer, or the “Kennelly–Heaviside layer, named after Arthur E. Kennelly and Oliver Heaviside, also known as the E region […], is a layer of ionised gas occurring between roughly 90–150 km (56–93 mi) above the ground — one of several layers in the Earth’s ionosphere. It reflects medium-frequency radio waves, and because of this reflection, radio waves can be propagated beyond the horizon.” Although already theorised by Kennely and Heavisde in 1902, its existence was not proven until 1924 by Edward V. Appleton.1

Eliot also mentions the Heaviside Layer in his play The Family Reunion, which came out in 1939,2 the same year Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats was published. This mentioning goes as follows:

We do not know what we are doing;
And even, when you think of it,
We do not know much about thinking.
What is happening outside the circle?
And what was the meaning of happening?
What ambush lies beyond the heather
And behind the Standing Stones?
Beyond the Heaviside Layer?
And behind the smiling moon?
And what is being done to us?
And what are we, and what are we doing?
To each and all of these questions
There is no conceivable answer.
We have suffered far more than a personal loss ̶
We have lost our way in the dark. (Choir, Part II, Scene III)

The Family Reunion is a play about guilt and redemption. Keeping in mind that Eliot’s words must usually be taken quite literally (as is also explained in this wonderful lecture by professor Thomas Howard), I guess that the Heaviside Layer in this segment is simply an indication for something that is far away and therefore out of reach.

According to Andrew Lloyd Webber himself, Valerie Eliot presented him with a number of poems and letters written by her late husband that had never been published, when she gave her consent to make the musical. He tells: “what was most thrilling was to find a reference in one of Eliot’s letters to a coherent, albeit incomplete structure for an evening; he proposed that eventually the cats were to go “Up up up past the Russell Hotel, up up up to the Heaviside Layer”.3

I couldn’t find the date of this letter anywhere, neither could I find the letter itself, and therefore I don’t know which reference to the Heavyside Layer came first. But its use and subsequent meaning appear to differ a great deal. Being something far and away in one and probably a symbol of Heaven or afterlife in the other. And as I don’t know what’s exactly in this letter, or in most of the other unpublished letters and poems that it came with,4 maybe Eliot didn’t intend the going up to the Heaviside Layer in a going to Heaven sense at all.

And why is there only one cat once a year who can go to heaven/ be reborn? Taking aside that whole nine life crap (which, by the way, isn’t really mentioned in any of the Old Possum’s poems),5 cats die all the time. And although you could argue that in the nineteen thirties when these poems were written there was less road kill etc. because there was less traffic, the musical is clearly set in the present, or at least in the early eighties. It also doesn’t seem to compete with the information we get to hear in the musical’s opening song “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” which appears to suggest that all Jellicle Cats are “everlasting” and ‘were and are’. So what does this tell us? That there’s only one Jellicle Cat a year who gets to die and be reborn while the others patiently await their turn? In the meantime gloomily suffering from all the pain and discomforts of old age?

Aside from that and even more important: Eliot wasn’t into this reincarnation stuff at the time he wrote this. Yes, he had a short period in which he was interested in Buddhism, but he already was a devoted Anglo-Catholic during the nineteen thirties.6 Four Quartets and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”, two poems that were used (as I will, again, explain in later chapters of this blog series) as the underlying source for all the other songs that weren’t taken from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, are both quite explicitly about the topic of mutability (the fact that everybody dies and life is therefore nothing more than a process towards death) and this is also (or maybe therefore) a theme that is sort of carried out throughout the musical (as I, yet again, will explain in a later blog). So why are they talking about reincarnation and is there only one cat a year who will be reincarnated?

The fact that there is a ball was taken from “The song of the Jellicles”, so it makes sense to put that in there. Especially when taking into consideration that the entire musical consists of song and dance. But why the Heaven and rebirth-part? I get that the Heaviside Layer part was in one of the letters that Valerie Elliot gave Lloyd Webber and colleagues, and that Elliot himself suggested an ending involving the cats going up there, but still, it clashes so dreadfully with all the cheerful children’s poems that it keeps puzzling me how they came to the conclusion that it was a good idea to combine the two in this specific manner. It simply doesn’t make much sense.

Neither does the rest of this choosing-someone-to-die-and be-reborn ‘storyline’, but, yet again, I’ll come back to this later.

 

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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. Wikipedia on the Kennelly–Heaviside Layer, last viewed 2-7-2014 

  2. Ibidem 

  3. As found here: http://www.reallyuseful.com/show-blogs/t-s-eliot-and-the-inspiration-behind-cats/  

  4. As I will explain in a later blog, Eliot’s unfinished poem about “Grizzabella the Glamour Cat” is discussed online a lot 

  5. Old Deuteronomy’s nine wives might allude to something like this, but still this is never clearly indicated. 

  6. Wikipedia explains that Eliot converted to Anglo-Catholicism in 1927; the BBC Arena documentary T.S. Eliot tells that Eliot was almost converted to Buddhism at the moment when he wrote The Waste Land 

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