Cats: Faking Eliot and Strange Beginnings

CATS illustratie deel 2 scan high def 2 touch up en letters 2“Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.”1

Yes, I know I’m quoting an entirely different musical here. But somehow it seemed oddly appropriate as Maria von Trapp had a good point. Since I’m discussing the very confusing (or maybe even barely existing) plot of Cats, the beginning is an excellent place to start, especially since its beginning is already confusing to begin with.

So, how does Cats begin? After a musical overture we open onto a fixed stage that consists of some kind of a… erm… junkyard at night? We then see several people dressed as cats running/crawling/rolling across the stage in a catlike manner for a short while until one of them rises and starts singing the opening song “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats”:

What’s happening here? We’re watching (and listening to) cats who sing about what kind of creatures cats are. They’re “blind when [they]’re born” can “see in the dark” etc. and follow with a chorus saying things like “because Jellicles are and Jellicles do” and “Jellicle songs for Jellicle cats”. In short: they sing about the fact that they are cats who sing. Who would have guessed…

Remember when in my previous blog I explained that Andrew Lloyd Webber and colleagues added a few extra songs to the already existing lyrics taken from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats? Well, this song is one of them. And it clearly shows, as its short and simple interrogating sentences are nothing like Eliot’s quick-witted and highly melodious lines.

For those among you who are not familiar with Eliot’s work, let’s compare the first lyrics of “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” to the first lines of an original poem from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats to illustrate what I mean:

“Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” (Cats)

Are you blind when you’re born? Can you see in the dark?
Would you look at a king? Would you sit on his throne?
Can you say of your bite that it’s worse than your bark?
Are you cock of the walk when you’re walking alone?

“Of the Aweful Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles” (Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats)

The Pekes and the Pollicles, everyone knows,
Are proud and implacable passionate foes;
It is always the same, wherever one goes.
And the Pugs and the Poms, although most people say
That they do not like fighting, will often display
Every symptom of wanting to join in the fray. (l. 1-6)

T.S. Eliot’s work has a unique style that is not only hard to imitate, but also quite hard to describe or to pinpoint. Though most of his poems are far from traditional, he was a skilled poet who knew how to use poetic techniques. His sentences are often long and complicated, but have a melodic flow in them as well. He carefully selected his words while usually having an auditory purpose in mind and most of his lines are therefore overflowing with alliteration, internal rhyme, and wordplay. Additionally, he was (and still is) well known for his use of elevated diction, a.k.a. ‘difficult words’.

As you can see in the example from “Of the Aweful Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles” given above, he also did not hesitate to use his complicated but clever poetic style and diction when it came to writing children’s poems. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is thus packed with words such as “perpendicular” (“The Naming of Cats”, l. 13), “terpsichorean” (“The Song of the Jellicles”, l. 23), “fastidious” (“Bustopher Jones: the Cat About Town”, l. 6), “physiognomy” (“Old Deuteronomy”, l. 9), and “gastronomy” (“Old Deuteronomy”, l. 40). Words that you would never find in any other text aimed at children.

As you can see in the excerpt from “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” I provided, the lyricist(s) who wrote this2 did use some alliteration (albeit that the best alliteration they could find is in fact a well-known saying and not something they came up with themselves). But the song is simply lacking the eloquence and wit that you can find in the poems-turned-to-songs that follow it.

Having said that, I have to give them credit for at least trying to add some other Eliot-ish elements here and there. Like in this next part for example, that suddenly comes up in the middle of the song, switching to organ music for a brief moment to accompany it:

The mystical divinity of unashamed felinity
Round the cathedral rang ‘Vivat’
Life to the everlasting cat!

How is this Eliot-ish? Well… there’s a cathedral mentioned, something T.S. Eliot did a lot, especially in later poems when he had converted to Anglo-Catholicism. They talk about “mystical divinity” which is also a grand theme in a lot of Eliot’s poems. And they use the Latin interjection “‘Vivat’”, just like Eliot used a lot of foreign language in his poems to make them more intertextual, which was a very Modernistic thing to do.3

And what about this part:

Practical cats, dramatical cats
Pragmatical cats, fanatical cats
Oratorical cats, Delphicoracle cats
Skeptical cats, Dispeptical cats

Which in my opinion appears to echo the internal rhyme from this section of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions (l.32-34)

So to conclude: T.S. Eliot’s work is hard to imitate. But they tried. (Oh, how they tried!) Am I nitpicking here? Erm… maybe a bit… Because lyrics aside, I must admit that this song is actually very entertaining to watch and listen. The music and dancing are great. And I love the fact that they threw a big shoe on stage when the cats are singing in their slightly wail-like choir assemble, I thought that was very clever.

Yet, at the same time I still haven’t got a clue what is happening! There are cats on stage, at night time, at some kind of junkyard, who sing. But why? And what the fuck is a Jellicle Cat anyway? So many questions and so little answers. And, at this point, we’re still only one song in!

So… does it get any clearer after this? Are we ever going to find out what these Jellicle Cats-creatures are? What it entails to be an “alumnus of Heaven and Hell”? Or what going “to the Heaviside Layer” means?

More about this in my next blog.


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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. From The Sound of Music, “Do-re-mi” (l. 1)  

  2. The music sheets I could find for this song state that its lyrics were written by Trevor Nunn and Richard Stilgoe “after T.S. Eliot” (http://www.musicnotes.com/sheetmusic/mtdFPE.asp?ppn=MN0077422 ). 

  3. Although I have not found any evidence to back this up, there might be a tiny possibility that this excerpt was actually written by Eliot himself. When Valerie Eliot gave her consent to make the musical, she provided Andrew Lloyd Webber with a number of poems and letters written by her late husband that had never been published. Some of the lyrics that didn’t come from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats actually came from these, as I will explain further in later episodes of these series. I couldn’t find if this is also the case with the lyrics I have quoted here, but since they do seem quite Eliot-esque I also can’t rule it out.