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Cats and Greedy Bastards

Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer header 815 x 330

So, if there’s anything to be said about the last cat I discussed, it’s that, according to this stage show, prostitution is BAD. And so is wandering away to seek your own fortune apparently.

When talking about vices in this context, we could say that pride is something to be frowned upon: Grizabella was once a glamorous cat who, in her pride, “flitted about” and had to pay the price for it. And instead of showing any kind of pity towards her, all the cats appear to despise her for doing so.

Yet various other kinds of vices that are portrayed in Cats do not seem to be perceived as bad at all. And this is most evident when looking at the three song-accompanied cats that follow Grizabella’s stage exit.

As Bustopher Jones is the first cat to come up, let’s start with him. With his entrance, the sad music that accompanied Grizabella suddenly changes into a cheerful, yet slightly pompous tune which is clearly meant to signify that something is very comical. Which is quite peculiar when you listen to the song’s lyrics. It’s basically not only about pride and vanity, but also very much about gluttony.

Aside from (as I always interpreted the song) being a cat who probably eats the leftovers of fancy restaurants and clubs in their back alleys, you could say that Bustopher Jones is a cat-shaped parody of a pompous rich man who likes to eat. A lot. Sure, the other cats seem to mock him, or at least make fun of him behind his back. And the three lady-cats who sing most of the song may look like a small group of gossipers. Yet there’s no hostility in their behaviour towards him whatsoever. This song is clearly played up for laughs. But why? Because he’s overweight? Or is there actually more to it?

Well… seeing how the poem this song is based on is written by T.S. Eliot, of course there’s more to it. Although I’m not entirely sure whether the musical seems to grasp this as well. As we are told in both original poem and song adaptation, Bustopher Jones is known as the “St James’s Street Cat”. London’s St James’s Street is known for its exclusive shops, expensive properties, and most of all for its gentlemen’s clubs,1 and Bustopher seems to feel quite at home there. He certainly knows how St. James’s Street rules of conduct work: the Senior Educational and the Joint Superior Schools are two private clubs whose members differ on educational theories2 for example, so indeed it is quite difficult to belong to both.

Next to that, the poem states that Bustopher is “observed” (l. 35). This is an interesting point: the social circles he finds himself in judge his every move: what he wears, what he does, and yes: where and what he eats. This is why Bustopher is “found, not at Fox’s, but Blimp’s” (l. 18) “when game is in season” (l. 17). In fact: Bustopher’s entire life seems to revolve around being found and seen (and do note both poem and song’s excessive use of passive sentences). And it’s blatantly living up to what society around him expects of him that makes “all his life a routine” (l. 36). (I therefore don’t get why the musical changed this to Bustopher saying he himself has observed that all his life’s a routine; it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.)

But the fact that “he’s observed” also makes Bustopher Jones “so well preserved” (l.35). “‘I shall last out my time’,” he tells readers and watchers/listeners. And this brings up another interesting point: although Bustopher might simply state that he shall be remembered after he’s gone, he might also indicate that he will survive his time. Or rather, that his type will survive his time.

Thomas Stearns Eliot by Lady Ottoline Morrell (1934) via Wikimedia Commons
Thomas Stearns Eliot by Lady Ottoline Morrell (1934) via Wikimedia Commons

As I told in earlier blogs, Eliot wrote the poems of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats in the 1930’s. And the 1930’s certainly weren’t all ‘eggs in the coffee’. The Great Depression was a worldwide phenomenon, authoritarian regimes emerged everywhere, and eventually all this turmoil would lead to the outbreak of the Second World War a few months before the end of the decade. Everybody was affected by this. And when I say everybody, I mean EVERYBODY.

See, the 20th century also announced the age of the common man. It is said that this officially started at the Armistice Day ceremony of 1920, when the London burial of an unknown soldier became a national symbol of the shift of power to the common man, as the Great War had certainly changed the social order. Through the 1920’s and 30’s, the upper classes, and the aristocracy especially, therefore lost a lot of their influence. A lot of their men had died in the First World War, which also meant that they were forced to let ‘commoners’ into their social circles to get their daughters married. And by the end of the 1930’s, much of their interests, prominence, and political significance had disappeared as well.3

Many members of the upper classes certainly feared that things would never be the same again and tried to preserve their culture by all means, dismissing anything that was seen as improper. And you could say that Bustopher Jones is a good example of this: he is seen and found where he is supposed to be seen and found, he knows how to behave, and he knows how to dress. He is “well preserved” and therefore he shall last out his time.

It is therefore also of no coincidence that Bustopher wears white spats. According to Wikipedia, the wearing of spats is often used as “symbolic shorthand to represent wealth, eccentricity, or both.” But spats already had fallen out of frequent usage during the 1920s,4 indicating yet again that Bustopher is a remnant of a type that was starting to disappear at the time.

What is remarkable though is that Bustopher isn’t the only person said to be wearing white spats in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats: amongst others, Eliot also dedicated the book to “the man in white spats”.5 But who is he? While some think he is simply a cat with white paws,6 others have several theories about this. In BBC’s Arena documentary T.S. Eliot, Susanne Morley, one of Eliot’s godchildren who is also mentioned in the book’s dedication, states that she’s almost certain that the man in white spats is her father.7 Frank Morley was one of Eliot’s fellow directors at Faber and Faber and Eliot lived in a small cottage next to him and his family during the 1930’s.8 I couldn’t find much information about Morley’s background. His father was a highly regarded mathematician, however, who taught at Hopkins University. So the family probably was well connected.9

But Eliot had also written a poem about “a man in white spats” in 1936. The previously unpublished poem is called “Pollicle Dogs and Jellicle Cats” and is thought to have been held back by the Eliot estate in fear of damaging the poet’s reputation. It shows how Eliot was influenced by nonsense writers like Edward Lear. Apparently this poem was intended to be one of a number of poems voiced by a man in white spats that Eliot wanted to publish, and this concept was also announced by Faber and Faber in their 1936 spring catalogue. But Eliot allegedly ran into difficulties when working on the project and decided to focus on his cat-poems instead.10

Andrew Lloyd Webber did write a demo version for a song based on the poem though, which he recorded in 1979. And its tune might actually sound familiar:

But what is Eliot trying to convey here? Are the man in white spats from “Pollicle Dogs and Jellicle Cats” and “Bustopher Jones” both criticism of the rich elite? About them being in a society that they didn’t seem to fit into anymore? You could say that both Bustopher and the man seem to live rather empty lives. Bustopher’s only concerns are his looks and where (and what) he eats. His life is nothing more than a vapid routine. The man in white spats has been everywhere and seen everything but does not seem to be impressed by any of it. In fact, the only thing that makes his life worthwhile, and the lives of his brother and sister for that matter, are “Pollicle dogs and Jellicle Cats”. And if you think about it, that’s actually very sad: he has everything in the world, but the only thing that makes him happy is the unrequired love and company of little animals, there’s no depth to his life. Yet it’s also maddening: here are these rich society people concerning themselves with how they are being viewed by others and not appreciating everything that is handed to them on a silver platter in a time when a large part of the world is struggling and starving.

So yes, there’s a lot of sarcasm in “Bustopher Jones”. But is this also something that has been handed down to the musical adaptation? You can say that time has certainly taken the sting out of this poem. As I said earlier, the cats seem to mock him, yet it appears to be more played up for superficial laughs than for anything else. And the emphasis now simply seems to lie on the fact that he’s obese and doesn’t appear to notice this himself because of his pride and vanity. Sure, perhaps Bustopher himself may think he’s of a higher class than the other Jellicle Cats, and they jokingly play along with him in in his delusion, but at the very same time he is also clearly part of their tribe.

And you know who else are part of this tribe? Thieves! I’m not even kidding, the next two cats who come up in this musical are two heavily cockney accented criminals:

So, we don’t like prostitutes but thieves are okay? In fact, this song is played up like it’s the most comical thing ever. And although I must admit that this is actually one of my favourite parts of the musical because it has one of the most brilliant and over the top theatrical dance routines of all time, this does annoy me.

Yes, I get that Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer (or “Rumpelteaser”, as she is called in Eliot’s original work) also represent real life house cats who knock things over and steal food off the table when they get the chance, but on stage they’re represented as cheeky little delinquents. And although I also must admit that I usually enjoy the occasional scoundrel character, like for instance a Robin Hood, a Walter White, or a Rinaldo Rinaldini, there is a difference between them and these two little thugs: Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer/Rumpelteaser don’t break the law to fight a dishonest system of some kind, they simply do it because they enjoy doing it.

222px-BrummellDighton1805
1805 caricature of Brummell by Richard Dighton via Wikimedia Commons

So why are a vain gluttonous snob and two thieves proud Jellicle members while a wrecked prostitute isn’t? An interesting fan theory I found online suggests that it actually has nothing to do with Grizabella’s implied profession; it’s because she left.11 As I certainly can’t come up with a better answer myself, let’s sink this one in for a moment: Grizabella is despised and mistreated because she left the Jellicle Cats… Is this a ‘cat cult’?

No seriously, think about it: they have a leader who chooses one person a year to die in order to be reborn, and this is something that is ‘rejoiced’. Leaving is considered the worst thing a person could ever do, and people who leave are treated like pariahs. Loyal members on the other hand can essentially get away with anything as long as they stay… Sounds pretty much like a cult or sect to me.

Besides: how else can you also explain that a fine upper class dandy like Bustopher Jones wants to be seen with the likes of Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer/Rumpelteaser? What else is there to connect them?

Well… coming to think of it there are actually several manners in which Bustopher Jones and Mungojerrie& Rumpleteazer/Rumpelteaser can be connected.

The most straightforward way is by taking another close look at the poems and lyrics. In both poem and song Bustopher Jones is described as the “Brummel of cats”. This is actually a reference to George Bryan “Beau” Brummell, who was quite an iconic figure in Regency England.

You could say that Brummel (1778-1840) was a real life 18th and 19th century version of Becky Bloomwood. Although he came from a middle class family, he managed to climb up the social ladder and even became close friends with the Prince of Wales. His biggest accomplishment however was influencing men’s fashion. In fact, he is credited for introducing the modern men’s suit, worn with a necktie, to upper class society. Nowadays his way of life and style of dress are often referred to as dandyism: he claimed to take five hours a day to dress, and recommended polishing boots with champagne. How he managed to maintain his excessive lifestyle: he was up to his ears in debt. He even had to flee to France at some point to escape debtor’s prison. After years of living in exile there, he died of syphilis in an asylum. Penniless.12

But apart from his achievements in fashion, Beau Brummel also certainly left his mark on western culture, particularly in literature. He had hardly fled England when a collection of stories and anecdotes about him appeared under the name “Brummelliana”. And over the next decades he appeared in several stories, novels, and essays. His popularity as a character lasted well into the 20th century, where he can be found in ads and pop songs. And, of course, in musicals: next to a reference in Cats, his name for example also appears in this song from Annie:13

But back on topic: although the expression “Brummel of cats” might simply refer to the fact that Bustopher is a cat, and therefore not an actual member of the human gentlemen’s clubs he visits, Bustopher’s clothes are clearly a mock attire of what Brummel said was the right thing to wear. And he is also obsessed with his looks, as we can see him mirror himself in his oversized spoon. So maybe he is also living above his standards? Is he, in fact, a fake and therefore not that different from Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer/Rumpelteaser?

Maybe Bustopher is lying altogether: I tried to look up the names of the clubs that are mentioned in both poem and song and none of them appear to be real London gentlemen’s clubs. Even more so: the Drones Club mentioned in both poem and song is known to be a fictional club. It’s a recurring fictional location in the comic short stories of British writer P. G. Wodehouse, one of whose story collections is actually titled Young Men in Spats.14 Quite a coincidence if you ask me.

mungojerrieSo on the one hand you could argue that the reason why you can find such social opposites as Bustopher Jones and Mungojerrie& Rumpleteazer/Rumpelteaser in each other’s company is because they are in fact both liars and con-artists. The musical, however, has also provided its own solution to this problem in the past: in the original Broadway production that followed a year after Cats first West End appearance Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer/Rumpelteaser aren’t Jellicle members. Their song is acted out by other Jellicle Cats in the form of a little play they perform for Bustopher Jones.

In this version, Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer/Rumpelteaser are two puppets made out of junk that are brought to life by the magic of Mr. Mistoffeles (don’t worry, I will get to him in another blog). This alternative take on the characters lasted for about 5 years. In 1987 the song was given back to a real life Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer/Rumpelteaser.15

Unfortunately I couldn’t find any footage of this Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer/Rumpelteaser Broadway puppet show. And although I do think it’s very creative and well thought out, seeing how Mungojerrie is also mentioned in “Macavity: The Mystery Cat” and they decided to turn Macavity into this musical’s ‘antagonist’ (again, something I will get back to in a later blog), I also think it’s a pity that this solution is actually at the expense of the best dance routine this show has. Maybe a better fix had been to make Bustopher a more obvious fraud. I mean, it’s not as if this Jellicle tribe/cult/sect had such a flawless reputation before these two songs.

So as you might have noticed by now, this musical is slowly working itself into a messy pile of plot holes, and it will only get worse…

What about a children’s poem full of good old fashioned 1930’s anti-Semitism for example? You see, there is one more vainglorious bastard in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. And through either political reasons or sheer ignorance he has now become a Jellicle hero.

His name: Old Deuteronomy.

More about this next time.

 

De uitvreter
8.75
Zomerhuis met zwembad
21.95
Zingo Poetry Slam
13.15
Meneer Heineken, het is voorbij
18.35
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, last checked 11-11-2014. 

  2. Found on http://www.pytnet.org/shows/Cats11/Dramaturgy/language.html, last checked 11-11-2014. 

  3. The Aristocracy – Never the Same Again: 1919-1945 (BBC)  

  4. Wikipedia, last checked 11-11-2014 

  5. The book’s dedication can be viewed here 

  6. Found on http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2000-09-10/entertainment/0009090040_1_cat-poems-practical-cats-eliot, last checked 11-11-2014 

  7. ArenaT.S. Eliot (BBC)  

  8. Ibidem 

  9. Found on http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Morley.html, last checked 11-11-2014. 

  10. Found on http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1382102/Now-Lloyd-Webber-puts-Eliots-dogs-to-music.html, last checked 11-11-2014 

  11. Found on http://fantasyecho.livejournal.com/496497.html, last checked 11-11-2014. 

  12. Wikipedia, last checked 13-11-2014 

  13. Ibidem 

  14. Wikipedia, last checked 13-11-2014 

  15. Wikipedia, last checked 11-11-2014.