The musical Cats (1981), by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Trevor Nunn, recast Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats as a narrative musical comedy targetting an audience of all ages. The 2019 film adaptation, directed by Tom Hopper, aspired to continue the enormous international success of its theatrical antecedent, but it flopped and met caustic criticism. Claire Reihill, administrator of the T. S. Eliot Estate, declared that the poet “might have enjoyed the strangeness” of the trailer’s aesthetic. The press echoed this suggestion, raising expectations, but would Eliot really have liked the film?
Both Eliot’s Practical Cats and Webber and Nunn’s Cats draw on the music hall tradition – its taste for anecdote and incident, remarkable characters and teasing humour. In an early review, “The Beating of a Drum” (1923), Eliot praised Charlie Chaplin – who had begun his career in the music-hall – as a “great actor”. Chaplin’s slapstick gestural acting, which would become a characteristic feature of his pioneering films, was proposed by Eliot as a model for modern drama, where – he felt – the lack of rhythm was a major shortcoming.
One year before “The Beating of a Drum”, Eliot wrote “Marie Lloyd” (1922), an obituary tribute to the immensely popular music hall actress and a vindication of the genre that she came to personify. Eliot admires Lloyd’s unique rapport with her audience and the latter’s active role during performances. With Lloyd’s death, the music hall seemed moribund, but there was another threat to the continuity of its lively communal shows: the increasing popularity of cinema. Eliot resolutely rejects films as a stultifying form of entertainment, profit-based and mass-produced, a cheap alternative to the performing arts.
This dismissal was expressed at a critical juncture in the development of popular culture; we know that Eliot could be ambivalent, and his views evolved over a long career. As David Trotter (*) points out, Eliot’s early poems evidence a fascination with the technical and automatic (associated by the modernists with cinema), and he found Jean Epstein’s theoretical writings on poetry and cinema intellectually stimulating. At the same time, the author of “The Beating of the Drum” and “Marie Lloyd” enjoyed westerns and the comedies by the Marx Brothers.
And yet, Hopper’s Cats seems to exemplify what Eliot despised about cinema in “Marie Lloyd”: a film primarily intended to become a box office hit over the Christmas season, with a cast chosen on the principle of attracting large numbers of viewers and a lavish use of special effects technology. The latter aspect in particular (interestingly, one that is not essentially dramatic) has been the main butt of negative criticism, since the computer-generated cat fur on the actors’ bodies seemed disturbingly grotesque.
Webber has explained that, while discussing his project for the musical Cats with Valerie Eliot, he suggested that the costumes would reproduce the slinky style of the dance music group Hot Gossip. Eliot’s widow replied: “Yes, yes. I think Tom would’ve liked that”. Together with the coreography, John Napier’s costume design was one of the most innovative and memorable aspects of the West End production. As a genuine aspect of performance, I have little doubt that Eliot would have preferred it over CGI cat fur.
(*) David Trotter, “T. S. Eliot and Cinema.” Modernism / Modernity, vol. 13, no. 2, 2006, pp. 237-65.