The nine lives of Cats: how poetry became a musical, then a film …

When Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats appeared in the first week of October 1939, it might have been thought that its author had lost the plot. It was only 17 years since TS Eliot had published The Waste Land, his cryptic lament for the moral and psychic disintegration that both caused and followed the first world war. Now, a mere month into renewed hostilities in Europe, here was Eliot, the man with more claim to cultural authority than almost anyone living, wasting his time (not to mention everyone else’s) with light verse about cats.

The first edition featured TS Eliot’s own illustrations on the cover.

Practical Cats consists of short verse profiles of 15 rambunctious felines with fanciful names, including Rum Tum Tugger and Growltiger. It stands in a classic tradition of catty nonsense, reaching back through The Owl and the Pussy-Cat (Edward Lear) and the Cheshire Cat (Lewis Carroll) to Christopher Smart’s “My Cat, Jeoffry”, an 18th-century epic that Eliot himself regarded as the Iliad of cat literature. Yet, despite the fact that he had such a pedigree, literary critics of the time couldn’t help feeling that Eliot, who was not only the author of Practical Cats but, by virtue of his job at Faber, its publisher, too, had misjudged the nation’s mood. At this very moment many families were contemplating euthanising their pets for fear of not being able to feed them properly once wartime rationing kicked in. Death and destruction were clearly on their way, and here was one of the country’s leading intellectuals writing stuff for kids. The view that the book was a significant indiscretion was shared in Eliot’s native US where John Holmes of the Boston Evening Transcript snapped that Practical Cats “should have been prevented”.

Nor did that judgment change significantly even once the book’s popular success became clear (right from the start it outsold The Waste Land significantly). “Pleasant, inoffensive and unremarkable”, sniffed the distinguished Eliot scholar Burton Raffel, and this remained the dominant view throughout the postwar period. It was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s determination to bring Eliot’s creatures to the stage in 1981 that changed all that. Confronted by the melancholy of the material, critics were jogged into wondering whether there might be more to Cats, practical or otherwise, than meets the eye. Now, with Tom Hooper’s much-anticipated film version starring Taylor Swift and Idris Elba to be released on Friday, it is worth thinking again about the magnetic darkness that keeps us returning to TS Eliot’s feline universe at times of deep disturbance.

Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber at the London Palladium in 2014.

‘This piece of musical theatre would take place in a broken down post-industrial dump.’ Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber at the London Palladium in 2014. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Initially conceived of throughout the 1930s with his young godchildren in mind, Eliot’s cat land is every bit as bleak as The Waste Land. Both share a sense of chronic disorder, where violence simmers just beneath the surface, regret drowns optimism and wilful self-interest trumps finer feeling every time. Above all, here is the moral grubbiness of what Eliot’s younger friend WH Auden dubbed “a low dishonest decade”.

In Eliot’s text Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer are two young thugs who destroy property for the hell of it – dislodging tiles “loose on the roof / Which presently ceased to be water-proofed”, anticipating the blitz by several months. The juvenile delinquents wantonly smash items in the dining room and library (the sites of the civilised body and mind respectively) and think nothing of stealing food from families who can afford it least. Rum Tum Tugger, meanwhile, is a contrarian who takes joy in creating “domestic muddle” just as Macavity, the master criminal, wrecks national security by stealing treaties from the Foreign Office and plans from the Admiralty. Growltiger, “the Terror of the Thames”, is an outlaw who preys on cottagers, canaries, geese, hens and the “bristly Bandicoot that lurks on foreign ships”.

If Eliot’s cat book spoke to the terror of the times, it also mapped the continuing disintegration of his personal life. In The Waste Land his unhappy wife Vivienne appears in pleading glimpses. “Stay with me / Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak”. But by the time of writing Practical Cats in the early 1930s, the couple were separated. The histrionic Vivienne, who had taken to dressing up in a fascist uniform, pursued Eliot aggressively around London, accompanied by her snappy yorkshire terrier, Polly (Eliot, by contrast, remained a dedicated “cat man”). On several occasions Vivienne and Polly laid siege to “Tom” in the Faber office; he would escape by slinking down the backstairs of the Bloomsbury office. It is no wonder, then, that in Practical Cats, dogs appear not as individuals but as a barking mob, mindless brownshirts reined in only when the Great Rumpus Cat appears and swiftly restores order with nothing more than a “fearfully blazing” look and a warning yawn.

‘A dedicated cat man’ … TS Eliot in 1941.

‘A dedicated cat man’ … TS Eliot in 1941. Photograph: Rex Features

This sense that Eliot’s Catland has important things to say to a world falling apart explains why Lloyd Webber set about adapting the book for the musical stage 40 years after its original publication. 1981, just like 1939, was hardly a time when there was much to sing about. It was the year when ferocious riots in Brixton and Toxteth suggested that Britain really was a nation divided. The very posh and the very rich seemed to be having a lot of fun, settling down to watch Brideshead Revisited on the television or else hoping for an invitation to the royal wedding. The markets – we had just learned that word – were apparently going to make us all very rich (or perhaps very poor). Meanwhile many others worried about the sharp swing to the political right – Margaret Thatcher was getting settled, while President Reagan was just getting started. What’s more, in an echo of 1939, by the very next year we would be at war once again, this time with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.

So, when the lights went up on stage at the New London theatre on 11 May 1981, and this piece of musical theatre appeared to be set in a broken down post-industrial dump – in which characters are mostly engaged in telling stories about their more glorious pasts and the hopelessness of their futures – it seemed exactly right.

Whether Tom Hooper’s new film, which comes out 80 years after the original publication of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, will prove as enduring as Lloyd Webber’s original stage production remains to be seen. There have already been murmurs about the way that the dear old 1980s leg-warmers have been replaced by “creepy” digital fur. Swift’s new song “Beautiful Ghosts” may be better even than “Memory” or it may be no good at all. That, really, is not the point. What matters is whether enough of the uncanny anguish of Eliot’s original work remains. Every age gets the Cats it deserves, and what we need, now more than ever, is one with soul.

Kathryn Hughes is writing a book about cats in the Edwardian age.

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