Lancer Letter: Happiness and the work of T.S. Eliot with ‘Old Possum’s Book of Cats’ from 1939

Category:  News
Friday, November 15th, 2019 at 11:50 AM
Lancer Letter: Happiness and the work of T.S. Eliot with ‘Old Possum’s Book of Cats’ from 1939 by Richard Scaletta | General McLane School District Superintendent

What is happiness? Where do we find it? Who is worthy of a life redeemed?

In the limitations of our old age, can we only find happiness in the memories of our younger life, or are we still capable of creating happy moments even with the limitations brought on by age?

These are questions I will not answer in this letter (stick around for next week), but for now you can come explore these themes ... with a bunch of cats.

In 1939, English poet and author T.S. Eliot published “Old Possum’s Book of Cats.” It was a collection of whimsical poems, which he wrote for his godchildren. Each poem was dedicated to a different cat, which was given a silly name and was ascribed certain characteristics. Some would describe it as a sociological and psychological study of cats — and people.

Famed Broadway composer Andrew Lloyd Webber grew up in England where “Old Possum’s Book of Cats” was his favorite childhood book. He originally set the poems to music to be performed in a concert setting and later turned it into a Broadway musical, which first opened in London and then in New York (1983) to wild acclaim (It won 7 Tony Awards, including best musical).

To make the loosely associated whimsical poems of Eliot into a musical, Lloyd Webber weaves themes through the show based on the questions I posed above. He focuses the show on a large cat family known as “Jellicle cats.” Jellicle is a word used by Eliot in an unpublished poem, which was created from a young niece’s mispronunciation of the word Pollicle, also used in the show.

Each year, the Jellicle cats have a ball at which their leader, Old Deuteronomy, selects one cat to go to the “heavy-side layer” and be reborn. All the cats (who are his offspring in one way or another), have great respect for Old Deuteronomy and hope to be the one chosen by him to be worthy of a new life. His selection may surprise you and gives Lloyd Webber’s answer to the question: who is worthy of a life redeemed?

I think the character of ’Gus (short for AsparaGus) most aptly addresses some of the issues we face as we age. In his younger days, ’Gus was a “theater cat” who had a very successful career. His age and “palsied paw” has left him reluctant to perform. With the help of Jellyorum, he reminisces about his glory days in the theater in one of the most beautiful and touching songs of the show. With prodding from Old Deuteronomy, he overcomes his loss of confidence in himself and reprises his role as the great Rumpus Cat. ’Gus finds that’s he still “got it,” and thanks to the confidence placed in him from Old Deuteronomy, he gives a performance worthy of his younger days.

Grizabella, known as the Glamour Cat, is another of the old cats. She was very beautiful in her youth and had left the Jellicle tribe. When she returns, she is seen as a has-been and the other cats reject her. She finds solace in her memories of her “days in the sun,” because she “was beautiful then.” Grizabella is the cat who sings the full version of the most famous song from the show, “Memory,” and who forces us to deal with our own mortality.

Are you a ’Gus, reluctant to take on what you did when younger, allowing age to dictate your state of mind? Are you a Grizabella, looking to restore that feeling of vivaciousness from your youth and once again be accepted by the group? Are you Old Deuteronomy, recognizing that your age and wisdom can be a benefit to younger cats?

In addition to the old cats I’ve described, the show is replete with younger cats and kittens — in short, there should be a cat to which everyone can relate. And, if you prefer a real cat, you can take home a live one as two local pet adoption agencies will be on hand at intermission with cats available to adopt.

At the end of the opening song of the second act, “Moments of Happiness,” the final word sung is “ineffable.” It means, “too great or extreme to be put into words.” Having seen our students practicing for this production, I promise you an experience that will be ineffable if you are among the audience when the show is presented on Nov. 21-24. Don’t miss it — everyone will be purring about it!

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