Written by Natalie Nobile
One of the stranger things Tom Hooper said about Cats (2019) was that it was “about the perils of tribalism” (Vulture). Director Hooper, you are a bold one. Unfortunately, between all the CGI and Jason Derulo and catnip and snot, Hooper’s ‘message’ seems to have failed to reach the audience. To assert that Cats comprises such relevant social commentary, Hooper must be convinced of Cats’ potential to actually mean something, anything, at all. Does Cats really hide some deeper meaning?
The musical adaptation called Cats, whether on stage or film, has roots in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot. Surely he, author of such cryptic works as “The Hollow Men” and “The Wasteland,” could not aimlessly meander through descriptions of cats without inscribing some hidden coding, some indelible mark on his material which must appear in all its iterations. What secrets may we discover by plumbing the depths of the Jellicle soul? Are Jellicles really “allegorical cats” and “political cats,” as stated in “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats?” To truly analyze the soul of Cats, we must cast our minds back—back to before Judy Dench (as Old Deutoronomy) propositioned Ian McKellen (as Gus the Theater Cat). Back, to before “Memory” so paradoxically juxtaposed realistic snot and emotive CGI cat ears. Back, to the version where Mr. Mistoffelees has only two speaking lines (AS IT SHOULD BE). I speak, obviously, of the 1998 filmed performance.
Here we must search for meaning. First, allow me to set the scene for you: a variety of cats introduce themselves in a junkyard. Ignore the temptation to dismiss this as Dada, and you will discover a rich plot hidden under the… what’s on their heads, anyway? Are those stripy merkins? A helpful guide amongst the Jellicles lays out the purpose of their gathering, the Jellicle Ball. At this ball, various cats will perform in hopes of impressing their leader, Old Deutoronomy. This old kitty cat gets to choose who ascends to “the Heaviside Layer” and is thus “reborn”(“Invitation to the Jellicle Ball”). Grizabella, apparently an outcast, appears intermittently with sad songs and a mysterious past. At one point Macavity, “the Napoleon of Crime” (“Macavity the Mystery Cat”), cat-naps Old Deutoronomy. Shenanigans ensue. Finally, Old Deut chooses Grizabella to ascend, granting her new life and re-acceptance.
A mess. A stinking, furry mess, incomparable to any created by your own personal feline, yet a mess nevertheless. What motivates these characters? Why do they want to ascend—doesn’t that mean dying? Ha. Cats concerns itself not with such petty matters. We must look beyond trite conventions like ‘plot’ or ‘characterization’ to discover its secret message. And to that end, we have at least one common thread to follow. First and foremost, the thread of introduction: each Jellicle cat hoping to ascend presents either the story of their life or the foundation of their identity. For “The Old Gumbie Cat,” this means sleeping on “any place that’s smooth and flat,” but also directing mice and beetles towards “gainful employment.” For “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer,” it’s mischief and mayhem, with a heaping side of theft. Etc., etc. Clearly the cats like to ham up their oversized personalities.
The second main thread pulls us closer to the truth. The Jellicles define—and debate, and defer—the meaning of ‘Jellicle’ throughout the musical: Are Jellicle cats “rather small,” or “not too big,” or “roly-poly” (“The Jellicle Ball”)? Some say they’re “black and white,” but I have observed, “with my very own eyes,” a number of other colorations (“Jellicle Songs”). Both the threads of introduction and ‘Jellicle’ shall guide us through this musical’s jumbled contradictions.
Now the first thread of ‘introduction’ implies an audience, which appears in the songs as ‘you.’ You who? “The Rum Tum Tugger,” between smokin’ dance moves from John Partridge, lets slip a frightening fact about the mysterious ‘you,’ via the line “if you put me in a house…” And who would put cats in a house? Humans, of course! Strange though it may seem, the final number confirms our suspicions. In “The Ad-dressing of Cats,” Old Deut breaks the fourth wall—or at least, whatever ruins of it remain—and instructs his human audience on “how… you ad-dress a cat.” Old Deut explains it thusly: having “learnt about [cats’] proper names,” we (humans) now know that “a cat is not a dog.” Excuse me? He further demands that we supplicate each cat’s “personal taste” with “some caviar or … salmon paste”; what gives him the right?! And more importantly, why leave us with this injunction? The introductions make even less sense when directed at humanity—Why do I need to know their ‘proper names?’ We must accumulate more evidence. We must watch the whole thing. Out of all the Jellicle songs (and there are many), no clear theme emerges but for the aforementioned introduction one, and the fact that apparently, everything from tap-dancers to railroad assistants to magicians counts as ‘Jellicle.’ No straightforward answers as to why they’re letting humans observe, or what the limits of their tribe might be. But maybe the exception to the rules can instruct us: Grizabella, who strayed from the Jellicle way. Grizabella, whose introduction comes neither from herself nor her friends, but from her enemies, loaded with loathing and fear.
By comparing the outcast Grizabella to her Jellicle rejectors, we can discover what qualities she lacks, and thereby reconstruct the definition of ‘Jellicle.’ Grizabella, who “was Grizabella the Glamour Cat” (“Grizabella”), visually diverges from the others. She has red nails and heels, a ragged coat and a sparkly dress; but these by themselves seem acceptable in Jellicle society, considering that celebrated members like Jennyanydots, Bustopher Jones, and Mr. Mistoffelees all wear some article of clothing (tap shoes and a hat, a full suit and spats, and a luminous jacket, because magic). But only Grizabella has ‘ears’ which are, in fact, clumps of hair from her wig. A highly human-hair-looking wig— not furry or fuzzy, but curly. Does the Jellicle identity depend on ears and fur? Do Grizabella’s follicular challenges justify her expulsion? If Jellicles truly despised human characteristics to the point of shunning her on that basis, they would hardly put on a performance introducing themselves to humans, would they? Grizabella’s earlessness simply hints at another feline failing.
Note that in previous songs, not only the Jellicle appearance was emphasized. Jellicle abilities take center stage in “Jellicle Ball,” in which they claim that they “know how to dance a gavotte and a jig” and can “jump like a jumping jack.” In “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,” ‘can’ appears 27 times; ‘do’ appears 21 times. They even explicitly claim that they’re “faithful and true/ To others who do what/ Jellicles do and Jellicles can”—whereas Grizabella’s attempt to dance fails (“Grizabella’s Rejection”). In comparison to the other clothed cats’ costumes, hers appears disheveled and dirty: “The border of her coat is torn and stained with sand” (“Grizabella”). Without a “merry and bright” appearance, or a “cheerful face,” or the ability “to practice [her] airs and graces” (“Jellicle Ball”), Grizabella cannot participate in the mutual performance at the Jellicle Ball, the mutual debate of what ‘Jellicle’ means. On her intrusion, the cats remark, “Who’d have ever supposed that that/ was Grizabella the Glamour Cat?” (“Grizabella,” emphasis mine). Her name and title lie in the past, because she is incapable of performing her own persona.
Aha! Our threads of introduction and ‘Jellicle’ converge! Persona, which must be performed to exist, provides both motivation for introduction and an explanation for the fuss over ‘Jellicle.’ Rather than any scientific category or duty-defined profession, ‘Jellicle’ is a shared persona created by its performers—the Jellicle cats. Thus arises the importance of performative ability, without which cats like Grizabella cannot participate in the mutual definition of what ‘Jellicle’ means. Despite her inability to actually perform the ‘Glamour Cat’ persona, Grizabella still clings to her previous moniker. In “Memory,” she can only “smile at the old days/ [she] was beautiful then,” because the ‘Glamour Cat’ exists in memory alone.
“Memory” poses an anomaly: out of 21 unique songs, only three draw from material other than Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. “Grizabella the Glamour Cat” and “Memory” were adapted from “Rhapsody on a Windy Night.” The inclusion of T.S. Eliot’s non-feline-centric work signifies a serious tonal shift, and the musical begins to focus on the serious message at the heart of all this cat tomfoolery. Grizabella’s tragedy—the loss of her established Jellicle persona—catalyzes the cats into moving from songs of comic frivolity to introspective contemplation. “The Moments of Happiness” represents a drastic departure from the self-concerned songs of the first act. Adapted from Eliot’s “The Dry Salvages,” this song explains—ostensibly to the Jellicles but mainly to us human observers—that “the past experience revived… is not the experience of one life only/ But of many generations.” Memory, then, forms not only the basis of each cat’s persona, but allows it to be revived, becoming part of all Jellicles’ memories and thus part of all Jellicles. “Let the memory live again,” said Grizabella; and that’s just what the Jellicles do.
For although our former Glamour Cat may “smile at the old days” (“Memory”), she can no longer cling to her old persona. As age encroaches, “the memory is fading” (“Memory: Reprise”). She must, instead, form a new persona—in the magical logic of Cats, a new life. And so Old Deutoronomy grants Grizabella that “different Jellicle life” (“Old Deuteronomy Chooses the Heaviside Layer”) via a trip to the Heaviside Layer. This literal rebirth hides metaphorical layers, for like a philosophical wardrobe, it opens to grant us passage along with our heroine. When a kitten reprises “Memory” just prior to the Jellicles accepting Grizabella, it revives and re-experiences the Glamour Cat’s ‘fading’ memory. Grizabella’s authentic self, laid bare in “Memory” alone, now joins the symphony of other Jellicle personae as a communal effort. Together, despite all their contradictory definitions, these cats perform a shared social persona of ‘Jellicle-ness.’
Still, why should the cats put their memories on display for humans to watch? We aren’t merely interlopers whose presence they tolerate, and decide to include at the last moment—it can’t be that simple. No, Old Deutoronomy has yet a deeper message for us. If our questions on the importance of introduction and the definition of ‘Jellicle’ lead to the answer of ‘persona,’ why should cats be instructing us on why their personas matter? More directly: why should the Jellicle persona matter to humans? Why should we take care of cats’ “proper names,” “personal taste[s],” and other details of personae (“The Ad-Dressing of Cats”)? Why must we remember that “a cat is not a dog?” If a cat isn’t a dog, could it be something else? And why should Old Deut so gently tell us, “Cats are very much like you?”
Like me? Not a dog? My god. I understand. A cat is not a dog! These cats are not dogs— they’re people! This is a musical! A false play, put on by people in cat costumes! Are you so easily deceived? Wake up, sheeple! Wake up and listen to the truth I proclaim: We are people in human costumes. Just as the cats fuss over the definition of ‘Jellicle,’ we too fuss over the definition of ‘humanity’—are we clever and tricky, or emotional and candid? Of moderate size, or roly-poly? Can we tap dance? Can we control the railway train? Can we sing sweet ballads of yore? Yet this too is nothing but “endless masquerading” (“Memory: Reprise”). We fear the social alienation that Grizabella experienced, but most of all we fear that unlike Grizabella, our memory will not be received, or remembered, or re-accepted. We fear that society, our shared persona of ‘humanity,’ will reject our authentic, tap dancing selves. In the end, then, maybe our Jellicle Journey has taught us something about the pitfalls of attempting to create one shared identity. Maybe it’s about the dangers of a cult narrative, or the hazards of groupthink, or the menace of… Um…
Screw it. It’s about the perils of tribalism.