Cats… and Prostitution?!

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Although Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats main ‘storyline’ centres around the question who will be chosen to die in order to be reborn, the musical is smart enough to throw in some cheerful songs that almost make you forget this strange outline…

But unfortunately the ‘plot’ has to return again, as we suddenly see an old woman-cat falter unto stage. Most of the other cats hiss at her, and the ones who do want to get close to her are pulled back by the others. It’s Grizabella the Glamour Cat:

This character actually has quite an interesting background: although it’s not in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Eliot had written (parts of?) a poem about her that was intended to be in it. He decided to leave it out however, because he thought it was probably too sad for a children’s book. This poem was another of the unpublished writings that Valerie Eliot gave to Mr Lloyd Webber.1

Yet something else was added to the poem when it was turned into a song: its first part is an adaptation of an excerpt from “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” , another T.S. Eliot poem.2 Unadapted, this excerpt goes as follows:

The street lamp said, ‘Regard that woman
Who hesitates towards you in the light of the door
Which opens on her like a grin.
You see the border of her dress
Is torn and stained with sand,
And you see the corner of her eye
Twist like a crooked pin.’ (16-22)

Since some other parts of this poem are used further on in the musical in connection to Grizabella, I feel obliged to discuss this a bit more. “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” (first published in 1917 and composed in in 1911)3 is a poem about desolation, alienation, depression, and mutability. It portrays someone walking around, probably drunk, at night while observing the rottenness and emptiness around him, like people in ruin, dust, and dead flowers. The poem ends with the protagonist arriving home:

The lamp said,
‘Four o’ clock,
Here is the number on the door.
You have the key,
The little lamp spreads a ring on the stair.
The bed is open; the tooth-brush hangs on the wall,
Put your shoes at the door, sleep, prepare for life.’

The last twist of the knife. (l. 69-78)

I especially want to focus on these last two sentences. The protagonist is told (or tells himself) to “sleep” and “prepare for life”. Although these words can be interpreted as words of encouragement, they can also be seen as harsh orders, or grim realisation. The manner in which the protagonist has viewed the world around him while making his walk might suggest that he is feeling depressed, or even lost. When taking this into consideration, being told (or telling himself) to “prepare for life”, which to him is to prepare for more miserable days to come, miserable days that will eventually end in death (since life is nothing more than a process towards death, as shown in the poem’s imagery), these words have a bitter undertone. “The last twist of the knife” might thus represent this bitterness, this feeling that life and living are painful ventures that never end well. It might also literally mean that the protagonist kills himself because his feelings of desolation have become too overwhelming to bear.

In short: this is a poem about depression and death. The woman mentioned in the first part I quoted is very likely a wrecked prostitute who has reached the lowest possible point in her life.

So ‘let’s turn this into a song about a cat’, they thought:

Remark the cat
Who hesitates toward you in the light of the door
Which opens on her like a grin.
You see the border of her coat
Is torn and stained with sand,
And you see the corner of her eye
Twists like a crooked pin.

In all fairness, a lot of the feelings of depression in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” could also be attributed to Grizabella. Especially when it comes to a woman reaching the lowest point possible in her life, as the prostitute has. The song continues with Eliot’s words:

She haunted many a low resort
Near the grimy road of Tottenham Court
She flitted about the No Man’s Land
From “The Rising Sun” to “The Friend at Hand”
And the postman sighed as he scratched his head
“You’d really had thought she ought to be dead”
And who would ever suppose that
That was Grizabella, the glamour cat4

So, is Grizabella supposed to be a cat-prostitute?! According to the locations she has ‘visited’ she might very well be. “The Friend at Hand” not only has the suggestion in its name; it also is a real London pub that Eliot visited in his days. A pub that might have used to be known for its shady side businesses, as it lies in an area that was quite famous for its ‘ladies of the night’ in the Victorian Era.5

“The Rising Sun” is somewhat harder to pinpoint. Nowadays there are three London pubs by that name and I couldn’t find any information about their history. Yet “The house of the Rising Sun” is a familiar term that is related to prostitutes and brothels. Although many might think that this term originated from The Animals in the 1960’s, it is actually an old folk song with an unclear historical background. What is for sure, however, is that it was a folksong that English immigrants took with them to America, and especially New Orleans, in the 18th century.6 As T.S. Eliot grew up in Louisiana and moved to England in 1914,7 he probably knew it.

The “No Man’s Land” which Grizabella “flitted about” is a puzzle to me however. I couldn’t find anything when googling it. It might be a simple indication that Grizabella went far away, I don’t know. Or maybe it should be taken literally, and tells it that she had a short time in which she only had sexual intercourse with women, who knows? Flitting is also another word for dancing, so maybe she danced for a short time or was a dancer for a short time, but found herself without an audience at a certain point and had to resort to other measures to keep herself alive? Dancers often still had a kind of seedy reputation in the 1930’s, but were also admired at the same time. Something that often found the interest of poets, in belonging to the ‘bohemian’ lifestyle as well.

No wonder that Eliot decided to leave this out of a book of poems intended for children! Not only because the idea of a stray cat is quite depressing, but probably mostly because even though children wouldn’t get the references to prostitution, their parents certainly would.

Sad as this story is, there is something I don’t get. And maybe that’s simply because of my Dutch upbringing, but still: why do the other cats despise her that much? They seem to know her, but they don’t even have as much as pity on her. When you look at their faces you can see loathing and contempt. Again, this is never explained. Even though her name might just be an example of sheer sarcasm, it may also suggest that she once had a glamorous life, yet we never hear anyone mention anything about it. There is probably supposed to be some kind of hubris theme in here – someone who had it all but wanted more and paid miserably for it in the end, possibly even with her own body – but it is never addressed, except for the already being miserable part.

So… are we dealing with what you might call ‘celebrity slut shaming’ here? Was she, like a Britney or a Miley, once very successful and admired and did she fell off her pedestal by making some wrong choices? Or is it all about the implied line of work she is currently occupied in? If so: that’s just mean and prejudiced, if you ask me. Again this might be because of I am used to my country’s liberal policies regarding this subject, but: what is wrong with being a prostitute? I mean, as long as a woman (or man, for that matter) does the work in full consent, is not underage, and is paid and treated well, what’s the fucking problem? Being a prostitute does not make someone a bad person. Hell, I used to work night shifts as a bartender when I was a student and during those shifts I had several regular customers who worked in our town’s red light districts, and they all were genuinely nice people. This is one of the many reasons why Grizabella’s ‘story arc’ bothers me to no end.

Wait… what? Story ARC?!

Yup: this is a recurring character! In fact, this is the recurring character Andrew Lloyd Webber and colleagues decided to build this musical’s ‘plot’ around. And, as I have said, and will say over and over again, it makes no fucking sense.

But here we are: according to this musical, prostitutes need to be slut shamed and shunned. But wait, aren’t there characters in this musical’s world who actually do things that are far worse than overreaching and failing as a consequence? Characters who actually do things that can harm others? Yes: as it turns out, there are. So, what about them? Are they also discredited and rejected? Do they also get these stares of judgment?

Nope, they just get cheerful songs.

More about this in my next blog.


Alleen maar nette mensen
Joe Speedboot
Zingo Poetry Slam
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. Found on http://www.reallyuseful.com/show-blogs/t-s-eliot-and-the-inspiration-behind-cats/ (last consulted 20-7-2014)  

  2. Found on http://prezi.com/8plvqlmjlj_y/t-s-eliot/ (last consulted 20-7-2014)  

  3. Found on http://everything2.com/title/Rhapsody+on+a+Windy+Night (last consulted on 19-7-2014)  

  4. Found on http://prezi.com/8plvqlmjlj_y/t-s-eliot/ (last consulted 20-7-2014)  

  5. Found on http://www.taylor-walker.co.uk/pub/friend-at-hand-bloomsbury/c6713/ (last consulted 20-7-2014)  

  6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_House_of_the_Rising_Sun (last consulted 22-7-2014)  

  7. http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/eliot/life.htm (last consulted 20-7-2014)