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Friday, January 11, 2013

Old Possum Strikes Back

From the Vault Dept.: The damn show never seemed to very far away, and after subjecting myself to it twice, I vowed never to see it again. I have stuck to that vow. Cats is a yawn-inducing mediocrity showcasing Andrew Lloyd Webber at his jukebox-tune-stealing worst. But I did agree, as it sailed into Proctor’s in Schenectady for its umpteenth visit in 1989, to write about it. While barely mentioning the music.


BEHIND THE ALLEYWAY, back of the garbage cans, there’s an essence to Cats, the musical, that was born in the 1930s. T. S. Eliot, the American-born poet, critic and playwright who repatriated to England, published a highly uncharacteristic volume of verse titled Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

T. S. Eliot
Old Possum was Eliot himself, a sobriquet thus acknowledged with uncommon alacrity. The practical cats, on the other hand, were revealed as a fanciful feline procession that astonished fans of The Waste Land and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.  Who would have thought this dour bard capable of such gossamer verse?

Cats returns to Proctor’s Theatre April 4-9, still going strong eight years after its opening. No small amount of credit is due to the original ailurophile responsible.

It’s not unusual that Eliot should have been a cat fancier: such seems to be a literary tradition, at least as recounted by a correspondent in Robertson Davies’ The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks. Diarist Marchbanks reports on the acquisition of a kitten, recalling that “Cardinal Richelieu gave his white cat seven names, after seven different Popes, but my motives might be misunderstood if I followed his example (not being a Cardinal).” He is informed by a friend that “every writer needs a cat ... The earliest cat known was Bouhaki, who belonged to King Hana of the eleventh Egyptian dynasty; and you must have heard of Mahomet’s cat Abuhareira. What about Mark Twain’s four cats, Apollinaris, Blatherskite, Sourmash and Zoroaster? What about Victor Hugo’s two – Chanoine and Mouche? What about Carlyle’s cat Columbine? What about Rosseti’s cat Zoe? What about Matthew Arnold’s cats Blacky and Atossa, and Horace Walpole’s two cats Fatima and Selima, and Theophile Gautier’s two, Seraphita and Zizi, and Swinburne’s Atossa, and Dickens’ cat Williamina (first called William by mistake) to name only a few?”

The fifteen verses in Eliot’s volume exemplify a style that reached its height in the hands of W.S. Gilbert (as in “and Sullivan”), whose gift of rhyme and rhythm is unmatchable. Light verse, as it’s unthinkingly termed, is mechanically more difficult than the freer versifying of Romantics, the angry and the lovelorn, and annoys the sentimentalist and critic (two mutually exclusive categories of reader) by the aloof nature of those mechanics.

Yet good light verse is a breathtaking experience. There is, for the reader, a sense of being flung unexpectedly into the air only to be confidently caught a stanza or two later. And it only works when the mechanics are precise. The rhyme must be exact; the rhythm must sing with consistency.

To appreciate Eliot’s contribution, consider what came before. Here’s Gilbert, considering the criminal life:
“When a felon’s not engaged in his employment
Or maturing his felonious little plans,
His capacity for innocent enjoyment
Is just as great as any honest man’s.”
The humor relies upon the twist of logic, buoyed by the ebullient flow of the polysyllabic vocabulary.

In the early 20th century this style was further refined – you might almost say corrupted – by the likes of Harry Graham, a seemingly upright member of the Coldstream Guards, who penned such horrible ditties as:
“In the drinking well
Which the plumber built her
Aunt Eliza fell.
We must buy a filter.”
An American (but fanatic Anglophile) named Guy Wetmore Carryl rewrote Aesop and the Grimms in his turn-of-the-century collections of verse that have lost none of their charm (unlike his weighty, turgid novels). It takes a certain virtuosity to begin a retelling of “Jack and the Beanstalk” thus:
“Without the slightest basis
For hypochondriasis,
A widow had forebodings
Which a cloud around her flung;
And with expression cynical
For half a day a clinical
She held beneath her tongue.”
Contemporary humorists like Peter DeVries and John Updike are keen practitioners of the art, but Eliot turned it on its ear by disguising his prolific inventiveness with language as children’s doggerel.   
“The Pekes and the Pollicles, everyone knows,
Are proud and implacable passionate foes;
It is always the same, wherever one goes.
And the Pugs and the Poms, although most people say
That they do not like fighting, will often display
Every symptom of wanting to join in the fray.
And they
    bark bark bark bark
    bark bark BARK BARK
Until you can hear them all over the Park.”
It has the lilt and borderline nonsense of an A.A. Milne lyric, but Milne was a writer too charmed by the sound of his own voice to cultivate a sense of audience. The light-verse writer must be something of a showoff, true, but with a sincere desire to entertain. Milne is easily outgrown; Eliot’s verse grows with you.

And sustains the ultimate compliment: a musical setting. Trevor Nunn, who directed the Broadway and West End productions as well as the current tour, fashioned the libretto with marvellous faithfulness to his source, a respect maintained by the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Thirty-two cat-costumed dancer-singers take to the stage on a set dressed with all the finery of a weatherbeaten junkyard. And render, with something more intelligible than the growls and eructations of typical nocturnal animal life, these ageless Eliot songs.

Performances are at 8 PM Tuesday, April 4 through Saturday, April 8 and at 7 PM Sunday, April 9. Saturday and Sunday also feature performances at 2 PM. Tickets are priced from $13-$30 and are available at the Proctor’s box office, CBO outlets, Drome Sound and all Carl’s suburban stores.

Metroland Magazine, 30 March 1989

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