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Would Eliot have enjoyed the recent ‘Cats’ film?

Hot Gossip may have inspired the original Cats costumes

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.

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Pizzetti’s “Assassinio nella Cattedrale”

Nicola Rossi-Lemeni as Beckett in Assassinio nella Cattedrale

The Italian opera Assassinio nella Cattedrale, by Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968), premiered at the Teatro alla Scala (Milan) in 1958. It was also produced, a few months later, at the Teatre del Liceu (Barcelona). According to a note on the programme of this production, Pizzetti’s son had read Eliot’s play in English and recommended it to his father. In 1948, Pizzetti and his wife attended a performance of Eliot’s play, and she remarked that Murder in the Cathedral seemed perfect for him to adapt to opera.

In the early twentieth century, the young Pizzetti worked in close collaboration with the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. Some of his operas were inspired by Greek drama and myth; spirituality and symbolism were characteristic elements of his lyrical dramas. As his son and wife felt, Pizzetti seemed destined to compose Assassinio nella Cattedrale. He also wrote the libretto, drawing on the Italian translation of Eliot’s play by Alberto Castelli. The structure of the original text is mirrored by the opera: two acts and an intermezzo in which Beckett’s Christmas sermon, somewhere between operatic and liturgical singing, is accompanied by an orchestral arrangement both lyrical and full of foreboding.

Before this intermezzo, the conclusion of Act I illustrates what Pizzetti’s opera offers: Beckett’s soul-searching and his final surrender to God’s will can be heard as a dramatic aria, sung in a powerful bass voice; the choir of Canterbury women warn the Archbishop, singing at the top of their voices, or in whispers and glissandos (two of them, prima and secunda corifea, soprano and mezzosoprano, singularize the choral lament); the polyphony of the tempters (two basses, a baritone and a tenor who also play the knights in Act II) contribute to the growing tension; finally, a full orchestra brings the first half of the opera to a climactic close, echoing the protagonist’s leitmotif.

A review of the Liceu production of Assassinio nella Cattedrale cautioned those accustomed to nineteenth-century bel canto: they would find Pizzetti’s opera challenging. He was, after all, a Modernist, a contemporary of Stravinsky or Bartók; curiously, he became Olga Rudge’s mentor and friend in Rome. Despite its high reputation, the opera adaptation of Murder in the Cathedral has seldom been programmed (Pizzetti’s fascist sympathies have not helped). A recent production, filmed at the Basilica di San Nicola di Bari and with Ruggero Raimondi as the Arcivescovo Tommaso di Canterbury, can be viewed here.

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Eliot and Comedy

In reviewing Eliot’s first comedy, The Cocktail Party, the critic John Peter remarked that “only the incidentals” were comical. The character with the highest comic potential is Julia Shuttlethwaite, a talkative and nosy old lady with a talent for creating confusion:

JULIA
Edward! How lucky that it’s raining!
It made me remember my umbrella,
And there it is! Now what are you two plotting?
How very luck it was my umbrella,
And not Alexander’s – he‘s so inquisitive!
But I never poke into other people’s business.
Well, good-bye again. I’m off at last.

The situation and language is typical of drawing-room comedy, which Eliot chose as the element for his last three plays and is by definition light. He evolved from pageant (The Rock), to historical biographical drama (Murder in the Cathedral), tragedy with a ray of hope (The Family Reunion) and finally naturalistic and sophisticated comedy (The Cocktail Party, The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Statesman).

With The Cocktail Party, Eliot adopted a different genre because he was not fully satisfied with the tragic elements of The Family Reunion (the choruses, the Furies), because this second play had been coldly received, because he realised comedy could make the depth of his transcendent vision more palatable and, last but not least, because he was aware that it attracted audiences. And Eliot wanted his drama to be profound, yet popular, successful, commercial. Tragedy became comedy, but the aristocratic / bourgeois drawing-room remained as spatial and social setting.

Peter accurately suggests that Eliot’s comedy is Dantean in quality. Its heroes and heroines succeed in finding their ways to commune with the divine. Precisely in The Cocktail Party, Celia Copplestone achieves this union through martyrdom and sacrifice – so gruesome and inimical to comedy in its details, that it shocked early audiences and still baffles contemporary readers. Paradoxically, and in the context of the dramatist’s vision of the temporal and the timeless, Celia’s tragical death is comical.

In Eliot’s next comedy, The Confidential Clerk, Colby Simpkins’ existence intersects with the eternal in a more placid way. Comic relief tends to be provided by Lady Elizabeth’s absent-mindedness, whims and esoteric practices, in which she has been instructing one of the maids:

LUCASTA
I thought I heard someone singing in the pantry.
LADY ELIZABETH
Oh, I forgot. It’s Gertrude’s quiet hour.
I’ve been giving her lessons in recollection.
But she shouldn’t be singing.

The Confidential Clerk, because of its misunderstandings and mistaken identities, is reminiscent of The Importance of Being Earnest, although it lacks Wilde’s pungent satirical wit. Lady Elizabeth is no Lady Bracknell, Eliot’s humour is gentle, perhaps incidental – his priority is to lead Colby to his rose garden.