When I embarked on this paper, I asked people if they knew the plot of Cats: The Musical. Unsurprisingly, the ones who do are musical geeks; by and large, even people who have watched the movie and enjoy the songs don't quite grasp that there is a central story beyond random songs about cats. Then there is a sense of embarrassment from some to admitting they liked it. It's fairly understandable—it's hard to take seriously a show featuring anthromorphized cats caterwauling on stage. There is a lot to take in, whether in the movie or in the live shows: the theater becomes an oversized junkyard, every actor is dressed in leotards with elaborate wigs and makeup, giant shoes drop on-stage, and if you're not busy being swept away or judging the attendant show tunes, there is often complex dance choreography with soloists who themselves are performing a wordless story. Plot becomes rather secondary in the whirl of affect generated by the whole spectacle.
Nonetheless, there is a plot, and there are protagonists. The musical is set at the Jellicle Ball, where Munkustrap, de facto leader and protector of the Jellicles, announces:
Jellicle Cats meet once a yearThis paper takes a close look at the 1998 musical film of Cats: the Musical, with an analysis of the lyrics in relation to the original T.S. Eliot poems that they draw from. Rather than offer a literary criticism of Eliot's work by themselves, for which there is already a significant body, the Eliot excerpts from his Four Quartets and "Rhapsody On A Windy Night" are interesting unto themselves within the context of the musical, especially alongside an analysis of the characters that they are now attached to. In short, rather than try to interpret Eliot, I asked, "what can we get out of the musical which uses these particular lyrics from Eliot?" In order to understand the Jellicle Cats, I frame their depiction as an interesting permutation of Hegel's dialectic of Human and Divine Law. Further, while most interpretations of the Cats plot involves the redemption of one of its central figures, Grizabella the Glamour Cat, I offer an interpretation of Grizabella as a figure of abjection, adapted from Julie Kristeva's definition of abjection, who reproduces the Jellicles' social identity and symbolizes a different and productive way of approaching concepts of enlightenment and reincarnation.
At the Jellicle Ball
Where we all rejoice!
And the Jellicle leader will soon appear
And make what is known as the Jellicle Choice
When Old Deuteronomy, just before dawn
Through a silence you feel you could cut with a knife
Announces the Cat who can now be reborn
And come back to a different Jellicle life
For waiting up there is the Heaviside Layer
With wonders one Jellicle only will see
And Jellicles ask, Because Jellicles dare:
"Who will it be?"
It is worthwhile mentioning what the source texts of the lyrics are, despite it apparently being general knowledge that most of the songs are directly lifted from T.S. Eliot's Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. In an introduction to Cats: the Book of the Musical, Valerie Eliot explains that the Old Possum book had its start in a letter to T.S. Eliot's godson Tom Faber. His initial approach was to "have different poems on appropriate subjects ... At the end they all go up in a balloon, self, Spats, and dogs and cats.
Up up up past the Russell Hotel,(These two lines will be important to us later.) Valerie Eliot's meeting with Andrew Lloyd Webber was fruitful: "Mrs. Eliot produced various other uncollected poems ... she also gave us a fascinating rough draft of an opening poem for what appears to have been conceived as a book about cats and dogs. ... it inspired us to write a lyric with the same intention of celebrating the supremacy of Jellicle Cats"(9). These lines, which are the lines quoted in the first part of this paper, are now part of the track "The Naming of Cats."
Up up up to the Heaviside Layer" (T.S. Eliot, quoted by V. Eliot 8).
Track 14 of the musical, entitled "Moments of Happiness," is intriguingly lifted from the Four Quartets. It is from lines 42 to 52 of the 2nd verse from “the Dry Salvages,” the third part of the work. The stanza is a meditation on the meaning of happiness and its relationship to memory. Memory is a a driving theme throughout the whole musical—songs about each cat are themselves exercises in memory of what the Jellicles know about the featured cat. Therefore, the theme of memory also shapes Trevor Nunn's adaptation of the poem "Rhapsody On A Windy Night," which would become part of two tracks: the first half of Track 6, "Grizabella the Glamour Cat" (see Appendix 1) and the song that would become the hit, "Memory." "Memory" also includes lines from T.S. Eliot's "Preludes". Some kind uncredited soul has already created a table comparing the lines from "Rhapsody" to the adapted lines in "Memory":
phrases T. S. Eliot wrote in "Rhapsody on a Windy Night" :: adaptation by Trevor Nunn for Cats
Twelve o'clock :: Midnight
The moon has lost her memory :: Has the moon lost her memory?
She is alone :: She is smiling alone
Every street lamp that I pass / Beats like a fatalistic drum :: Every street lamp seems to beat a fatalistic warning
The street lamp sputtered / The street lamp muttered :: Someone mutters and a street lamp sputters
With all the old nocturnal smells :: The stale cold smell of morning
Memory! :: All alone with the memory
Sleep, prepare for life :: Look, a new day has begun
From "Preludes," Nunn took the images of "burnt-out ends of smoky days" (line 4) and "withered leaves about your feet" (line 7). These images are crucial to creating the atmosphere of decay, mortality, sadness and nostalgia which make "Memory" such a hit. They are also important in understanding Grizabella's character and role within the story.
Grizabella the Glamour Cat appears in only three parts of the entire musical, but she is arguably the major character of interest within the story. She first appears in Track 6 ("Grizabella the Glamour Cat"), during the Jellicle Ball (after which she performs the first on-stage version of "Memory"), and again right before the Jellicle Choice (when she reprises "Memory" with Jemima). It is generally accepted that Grizabella is the outcast of the Jellicle tribe, and she is often depicted wearing a short black sequined dress, mis-matched shoes, and a grey fur coat; the coat usually has clumped fur, representing how unkempt and uncared-for she is. Her entire outfit is ragged, as in the lyrics and poem: "You see the border of her dress / Is torn and stained with sand" ("Rhapsody," lines 19 and 20).
The lyrics to Grizabella's song are comprised of, as mentioned, lines from "Rhapsody On A Windy Night" and "an unpublished fragment of which only the last eight lines were written because TSE realized she was developing along the lines of Villon's 'La Belle Heaulmiere' who fell on evil days and he felt it would be too sad for children" (Valerie Eliot 8). Grizabella is a cat who "haunted many a low resort / Near the grimy road of Tottenham Court" and "flitted about the No Man's Land" around several well-known London pubs such as "The Rising Sun to the Friend at Hand" which implies that she represents the "fallen woman" trope.
Grizabella's outcast status is reflected not just in her outfit, but also in the reactions she receives from almost the entire cast when she appears. In the "Grizabella the Glamour Cat" sequence, many of the younger cats attempt to approach her, but the adult queens and toms deny them: Munkustrap pushes Mistofelees back, Skimbleshanks herds Jemima away, Jennyanydots slaps Electra on the wrist for trying to reach out to touch the graying queen, while Jellylorum hovers over Victoria and Etcetera, as if Grizabella would harm them. The older cats, more likely to know her history, treat her with contempt: Pouncival scratches her and Bombalurina circles around her, smirking before turning away in disgust. The only exception among the older cats is Demeter, who attempts to touch her, but cannot bring herself to, fleeing and looking back in fear. The whole process of physically demonstrating their rejection of her is repeated in the first "Memory" sequence, after she has disrupted the Jellicle Ball with just her presence: Tantomile and Coriopat, the first to sense her presence, hiss at her; Rum Rum Tugger tosses his mane up as he passes her; Jellylorum pulls a compassionate Victoria away, and Jemima has to be hustled off twice. I will touch on Jemima and Victoria later. When Pouncival shoves her, Demeter rushes to her side, but stops, seemingly recalling who Grizabella is, and Bombalurina pulls her away.
What then, defines an outcast that incites such a visceral reaction? To explore this, I turned to Hegel's dialectic of Human and Divine Law in his articulation of ethics. In this dialectic, Human Law is individual, rooted in the self-conscious reality that men as actors move in, coded as masculine and public. Divine Law is collective, and an intrinsic unconscious being of the social order that nonetheless imposes itself on individual freedom, presenting Human Law with something to define itself against. It is coded as feminine and domestic. Connected but not the same, the Nation is conscious, negotiated through reason, universal, and masculine, while the Family is unconscious, negotiated through blood relations, particular, and feminine. The Family produces the son, nurtures him, and inducts him into the Nation; later when the son has died, the Family re-iterates his citizenship by inducting him into death.
Beginning with this framework, I will now articulate what I call, in relation to the Jellicle tribe, Cat Law. It is closer to Divine Law than to Human Law, a space of the home. It is halfway between discursive and affective: discursive as the Cats are obviously using a form of language to introduce their various members auditioning for the Jellicle Choice, and affective as they have a non-verbal, "terpsichorean" language of sorts. Cat Law is decidedly not much like Hegel's Human Law: Jellicle cats are what Hegel might describe as "rooted and settled in isolation" (266) despite their interactions with humans. Remaining in Cat Law, Jellicle Cats never stray far from the tribe, like most of the cast, or if they do, they return to participate and continue to embody the description of what Jellicle Cats should look like, such as having "cheerful faces" and "bright black eyes," "are not too big" and "roly-poly" and "know how to dance a gavotte and a jig". This is how characters such as Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, who are connected to the villain of the show, Macavity, continue to remain part of the tribe despite their "wicked deeds" ("Macavity" 85). Thus, Human Law and the human world is beyond Cat Law, and to become too embedded in the human world is to become an outcast like Grizabella or a villain like Macavity.
Grizabella, in order to become the Glamour Cat, has left the hearth and home, moved beyond the tribe into the human world, the world of Human Law. Hegel's Human Law is the space of ethics, which Cat Law obviously has no need of. More importantly, in Hegel's articulation, ethics requires the flux of self-consciousness—to ensure self-consciousness and the use of reason, Hegel asserts that War (or conflict) is necessary to prevent all the elements of a thinking society from falling into complacency. War, or conflict, being inherently destructive, is the anti-thesis of the nurturing space of Divine Law, to which Cat Law is most closely aligned. Thus, due to the ravages of the human world, Grizabella becomes abjected, and thus can no longer fit into the Jellicles' world: she no longer has a "cheerful face" and in the film, demonstrates that she no longer knows "how to dance a gavotte and a jig" ("Song of the Jellicles" 58).
The responses Grizabella elicits in the Jellicle Cats are that of what Julie Kristeva would call "that twisted braid of affects and thoughts [which] has only one quality of the object—that of being opposed to I" (1). Grizabella is what no Jellicle wants to be, and her very presence can be disturbing—at the Jellicle Ball, after they have seemingly calmed down to rest, her presence intrudes on their repose; the abject "disturbs identify, system, order" (4), and, as if to banish her presence, or to re-iterate themselves as that which she is not, the Jellicles resume dancing. Her mangy coat, formerly a province of happiness, and formerly a sign of what might have defined Jellicle life and identity for her, is now a province of decay, and as a result, the Jellicles no longer recognize her as kin.
Grizabella's abjection becomes productive, however, because it provokes affective responses from the mystical member of the tribe, Old Deuteronomy. The leader of the Jellicle Cats, Old Deuteronomy is "a cat who has lived may lives in succession," which is of great relevance given that he is the one who makes the Jellicle Choice of who will be reborn. He is so old, and has lived so many lives, that "he was famous in proverb and famous in rhyme / a long while before Queen Victoria's accession" ("Old Deuteronomy" lines 3 - 4). A large shaggy gray cat, Old Deuteronomy is portrayed with slow, measured movements, singing specific songs that dispense wisdom. As the one who makes the Jellicle Choice, he is the ultimate keeper of Cat Law; his choice is the cause for celebration, and the cause for the Jellicles to come together in an affirmation of their identity. Adored by all the Jellicle Cats, his is the presence that negotiates Grizabella's abjection. After Grizabella's second appearance, and unable to move fast enough to comfort her before she leaves, he sings "The Moments of Happiness," a philosophical song drawn from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets.
In this song, Old Deuteronomy sings that "we had the experience but missed the meaning," that the Jellicle Cats, presumably, have had experience of happiness, but missed its significance in their lives. This follows Grizabella's lines in the previous track, in which she sings "I can smile at the old days, / I was beautiful then. / I remember the time I knew what happiness was." However, Old Deuteronomy pushes the definition of happiness further: "approach to the meaning restores the experience / in a different form, beyond any meaning / we can assign to happiness." This is consistent with the context of T.S. Eliot's original poem; in the preceding lines, Eliot states several things that happiness is not, but which is usually associated with happiness: "not the sense of well-being, / Fruition, fulfilment, security or affection, / or even a very good dinner, but the sudden illumination" ("Dry Salvages, Part II, lines 42 - 44).
The next few lines are even more opaque, but not entirely incomprehensible if one remembers that Old Deuteronomy has lived "many lives in succession": "The past experience revived in the meaning / Is not the experience of one life only / But of many generations." This is a mystical element deeply connected to the reincarnation theme that is the point of the Jellicle Choice; grasping the meaning of happiness re-iterates not just the experience of happiness, but the experience of happiness from many previous lives. Yet this experience remains indefinable, not meaningless, but beyond "any meaning / we can assign to happiness," because it is "something that is probably quite ineffable."
Since this message is thus so ineffable, it requires apprehension through the affective members of the tribe, and in the film, these are the twins Tantomile and Coriopat, and one of the kittens, Jemima. After Old Deuteronomy finishes dispensing his wisdom, Tantomile crouches, and his hand flutters until Tantomile takes it, and she then takes Jemima's hand to help the latter up. Jemima then delivers a different version of "Memory":
"Moonlight, turn your face to the moonlightThis is not inconsistent with T.S. Eliot's lines following the excerpt in "Moments of Happiness": "The backward look behind the assurance / Of recorded history, the backward half-look / Over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror" ("Dry Salvages" Part II, lines 53 - 55). Both indicate that the experience has already been had; one does not have to re-create the experience in order to reach the meaning, but instead, one has to allow the memory of the experience to lead one towards the "sudden illumination" that is a moment of happiness. Trevor Nunn's lyrics, however, take the meaning of the excerpt into a different direction; while the rest of this Eliot stanza gestures towards the nature of time, "Memory" as sung by Jemima is an emphasis on the meaning of the experience as the source of happiness, and thus rebirth. Nonetheless, both versions articulate a form of enlightenment that is not a permanent state of being, but a moment of happiness.
Let your memory lead you
Open up, enter in
If you find there the meaning of what happiness is
Then a new life will begin"
Grizabella's arc demonstrates this difference between the re-creation of an experience, with the meaning of an experience. Her first attempt is after she has disrupted the Jellicle Ball. Left alone on the floor, with no one watching but Old Deuteronomy, she attempts to dance and mimic the younger cats' energy. Back pain stops her, then she stops shimmying in frustration. She tries one more time, sashaying across the stage, but slowly stops, realizing that her performance of coyness is not working. She throws her arms up to the moon in one last appeal to mimic the earlier dance before singing the musical's first version of "Memory" which ends with a plea to "let the memory live again" (see Appendix 2). As she leaves, Old Deuteronomy reaches out to her, which she senses, holding a hand out behind her.
Grizabella reprises "Memory" again towards the end of the musical, "just before dawn" when Old Deuteronomy is about to make the Jellicle Choice. At this second petition, the kittens no longer approach her, except Victoria, who has matured into a queen during the Jellicle Ball. At her second petition, she does not even attempt to seek acceptance with the other cats before making her petition to Old Deuteronomy. In this last version of "Memory," Grizabella begins with the verse Jemima sings as an interpretation of Old Deuteronomy's "Moments of Happiness," repeating the message to seek the meaning of the experience, rather than re-creating it. This is where Trevor Nunn's lyrics depart from T.S. Eliot's original poem: the latter encourages a connection to a larger history of connection with others, but when Grizabella sings "Memory," it is with an acceptance of an experience past, with "burnt out ends of smoky days, / the stale cold smell of morning. / The street lamp dies, another night is over, / another day is dawning." The mood changes at this point in the song; in giving in to the inevitability of the dawn and her fading life and memory, she piques the interest of the other cats, and in the background, they turn to face her with an interest not tinged with revulsion for the first time. Finally grappling with the abjection of her existence and its anti-thesis to Jellicle life and Cat Law, she falls to the floor in exhaustion.
Jemima, the affective conduit of the tribe, picks up the leitmotif, which encourages Grizabella to pick herself up and deliver the climax of the song: "Touch me, it's so easy to leave me / All alone with the memory of my days in the sun / If you touch me, you'll understand what happiness is." No longer interested in becoming part of the Jellicle tribe, Grizabella instead invites the Jellicle Cats to reach out and connect with her abjection, with her as an object of abjection. Touch, in this context, is a non-discursive form of recognition. Preparing to leave, Grizabella once again extends a hand behind her, and Victoria stands, gestures to Old Deuteronomy for permission, and approaches to touch Grizabella. The sequence ends with Grizabella sighing in relief and Victoria taking her hands before the other Jellicle Cats approach her.
The role of Jemima and Victoria are interesting to consider in relation to Grizabella. As part of the group of kittens, they have been pulled away from Grizabella throughout the show. At Grizabella's second appearance, Jemima does not approach Grizabella on the latter's third appearance as she was in another part of the stage. Despite her young age, Jemima delivers profound lines about memory and mortality: before Grizabella makes her final appearance, Jemima sings, "see the dew on the sunflower, / and the rose that is fading, roses wither away. / ... / I am waiting for the day." These are interesting lines; as a young cat, Jemima has plenty of reason to look forward to a new day, yet as a Jellicle, she is also looking forward to the end of the Jellicle festivities. Her calm acceptance of the end, and of the finitude of the roses that wither away, subverts expectations of youth, and marries the hope of newness with a recognition of the old as natural parts of life.
Victoria, unlike Jemima, only sings in the chorus. Much of her role involves dance solos portraying a young cat reaching adulthood; she is young and has all-white fur, thus could be read as pure, the opposite of abject. However, according to Kristeva, "purification is something only the Logos is capable of" (27), and since Victoria's role is non-discursive, she is neither pure nor impure in this dialectic. Moreover, part of her development as a character involves sexual maturation, symbolized by her pas de deux with a young tom at the Jellicle Ball. Her role is most in tune with rhythm and song, which "arouse the impure, the other of mind, the passionate-corporeal-sexual-virile, but they harmonize it, arrange it differently than the wise man's knowledge does. ... The abject, mimed through sound and meaning, is repeated" (Kristeva 28). Victoria the dancer, deeply aware of her body and sexual impulses, and even celebrating them, does not fear the abject—Grizabella—as a result. This is in opposition to the "transcendental idealism" of the West (Kristeva 30), in which philosophers, religious or not, attempt to purify the self in the search for enlightenment.
To reiterate Cat Law, it is opposed to Human Law which causes abjection since it is naturally destructive and thus contrary to the Cats' nature of playfulness. It attempts to bypass Human Law entirely by only entering discursiveness to express identity, as demonstrated by all the songs throughout the musical which introduce various cats. Even so, this articulation of identity is only expressed at the Jellicle Ball in auditions to become the Jellicle Choice, unlike Hegel's dialectic in which Divine Law nurtures the individual so that he can move from the collective, domestic space into the individualistic, public space of Human Law. In the domestic space of the Jellicle tribe's junkyard, major moments protecting the tribe are always expressed through dance, gesture and other affective actions. In her encounter with Human Law, Grizabella has undergone a form of self-destruction: her identity within the Jellicle tribe. However, Cat Law recuperates her by recognizing her affective pleas to, and significance in, the collective.
Representing and performing Cat Law is Old Deuteronomy, himself a subversion of Hegel's dialectic that insists on the femininity of Divine Law. The interaction of this re-incarnating figure alongside the two youthful affective characters of Victoria and Jemima with Grizabella's abject state leads to an understanding of enlightenment and reincarnation quite unlike most other paradigms. While in many transcendental ideals of enlightenment the goal is to attain an unworldly state of being which then hence avoid suffering, Old Deuteronomy hints that re-birth and decay are necessary to understand the meaning of happiness, because the continuous interaction of the two processes lends to the profundity of life itself. By accepting Grizabella, Victoria and Jemima touch the abject, and the synthesis of this encounter creates an ineffable moment of happiness that ends when Old Deuteronomy makes his Jellicle Choice in Grizabella. Contact with abjection is what leads to enlightenment and re-birth in Cat Law, not purification through Logos as in Hegel's Human Law; the latter involves exclusion and diminishment, while the former seeks inclusion and affirmation. As such, the acceptance of the abject remains consistent with Jellicle identity, rather than disturbing it, allowing the Jellicle Cats to express the affection that runs through the show as a dominant element in the cats' interaction with each other.
At the end, Grizabella ascends "up up up past the Russell Hotel, / up up up to the Heaviside Layer," escorted by Old Deuteronomy who inducts her into the next life as per Cat/Divine Law. The cats repeat a refrain from the beginning of the musical in an octave higher at this climax of the Ball: "The mystical divinity of unashamed felinity / Round the cathedral rang Vivat! / Life to the everlasting cat!" The glimpse of the Heaviside Layer re-inscribes the purpose of the Ball and the being of the tribe, as Grizabella finishes the journey by herself to her new life.