Cats: What’s in a Name?

Cats 4

When a Cat adopts you there is nothing to be done about it except put up with it until the wind changes.
(T.S. Eliot)

In 1939, the London based publishing house Faber and Faber published a collection of children’s poems about cats named Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, written by their chairman T.S. Eliot who also happened to be one of the greatest and most influential poets of the 20th century. Eliot had written these poems over the course of the 1930’s in the form of little newsletters that he sent to his godchildren.

For those among you who have read my previous blogs about Cats, this is probably old news. So why am I telling you this again? Well, in 1939 Eliot wrote an introduction to these poems entitled “The Naming of Cats”.1 And, being Eliot, this introduction was also written in verse.

As I also explained in my previous blogs, Andrew Lloyd Webber adapted Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats into the musical Cats, but was only allowed to do so by the Eliot estate under the condition that he would only use the book’s original text as his lyrics. He basically did just so (with some slight adjustments here and there), but he also added a few extra songs to these existing lyrics. Strangely enough, one of these new songs is an introductory song. (And a rather confusing one as well, as I, again, already discussed this to great length in my second and third blog.)

So, in essence, Cats has not one, but TWO introductory songs: Lloyd Webber and colleague’s opening song “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Naming of Cats” that follows it. And if we also take the musical overture into account that precedes these two songs, we even have three musical pieces that serve as introduction! Quite a lot for a rather plot-less musical…

Why did they add so much extra introduction to an existing anthology of cat-poems that already had one? The only reason I could come up with is that Eliot’s beginning, although adequate in verse-form, is not catchy or inviting enough to start a musical off with. Just watch (and listen to) it and you’ll see what I mean:

These lyrics were taken word-to-word from Eliot’s poem. Which is admirable, but possibly also harder to set to music. This is probably the reason why they ended up being spoken instead. And to be honest, I also wouldn’t know how else these lyrics could be turned into a song. What kind of tone should they be set in? You could make them cheerful, but somehow, that wouldn’t seem fitting, neither would making them sad, or jazzy or rock and roll.

In spoken form the poem has been given an air of mystery. It’s like the cats are letting you in on a little secret, just as the book seems to do. Which is nice and in tune with its source material, but not a good way to open a show full of singing and dancing. I have to admit therefore that, as much as “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” is nonsensical, it makes sense to have it as the show’s opening. Its ‘we’re magical and immortal(?) cats who sing’- message tells the audience almost everything it needs to know at that point (except for, of course, what the fuck a Jellicle Cat actually is), and treats them to a nice accompanying ballet performance to set the mood.

“The Naming of Cats” tells you that a cat “must have three different names”: “the name that the family use daily”; “a name that’s particular, […] peculiar, and more dignified”; and “the name that you never will guess […] [b]ut the cat himself knows, and will never confess” (l. 4-24).

This is actually quite an interesting introduction. Names often are an important theme in literature, especially one’s true name being kept secret, as knowing one’s true name often gives you power over the name’s owner.2 Rumpelstiltskin is a good example of this. And I think Eliot might have written this poem with a same kind of intention. Everybody who owns or has owned a cat knows that they are unruly animals. You cannot train them and they often will not listen when you call them. So what Eliot might tell us here is that we cannot control cats because we don’t know their real names, thus having no power over them.

Does this interesting and highly intellectual message about (well hidden) true names lead to anything in this musical? Nope. Okay, you could argue that the musical’s closing song (which is also the book’s closing poem) that centres around the question how a cat should be addressed takes up the theme of names again, but does it really? As with the book, the lines situated in between the introduction and the conclusion do not seem to carry out much of a unifying message about the topic of names, apart from the fact that some of the characters have them.

Moreover, apart from the cats who are specifically mentioned in the songs that are about them, the cats’ names are never mentioned. Yes: if you watch the film version all the way to the end their names are given in the credits, just as they are probably mentioned in the theatre’s guide book when you watch the musical there, but on stage itself most of them remain nameless.

Furthermore, of the few cats who are named on stage, and in the book for that matter, most only have one name, which is probably “the name that the family use daily”. The exception here being “Gus: the Theatre Cat” who is, as is told to us, really called Asparagus (l. 3), and “Macavity: the Mystery Cat” who is “called the Hidden Paw” (l. 1).

In all fairness, as I said before, the book doesn’t do anything with this theme after its introduction until it reaches its conclusion either. And whether it actually does in its conclusion anyway is a question in itself which I will discuss in a later chapter. So, you might ask, what’s my problem with Mr Lloyd Webber and co. not including it in the musical’s plot more specifically? Because it might, in my opinion, bear a better red thread throughout the entire thing than the thing they came up with instead.

At this point we’re one musical overture and two songs into the musical and what is told on stage? That the show is about magical and immortal(?) cats, Jellicle Cats, who sing and must have three different names, one of which no one will ever know except they themselves.

Curious what happens next? Be careful what you wish for. For your curiosity might very well kill the cat…


Wij waren daar niet toen wij daar waren
Joe Speedboot
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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. Found here: https://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20081111161441AAi9aEB  

  2. As is also explained on TV Tropes