In a famous photograph, T. S. Eliot stands outside the back door of the Cambridge Theatre in London (where the first production of The Elder Statesman was running in 1958), fondly looking down at a passing cat. It would seem to illustrate one of the most memorable poems of his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939): “Gus: The Theatre Cat,” which opens with the line “Gus is the cat at the theatre door”.
Gus (Asparagus) is an ageing cat. Old Deuteronomy, the feline Methuselah, “was famous in proverb and famous in rhyme / A long while before Queen Victoria’s accession”. Gus, however, is a creature of the Victorian era, and his acting career sums up the theatrical variety of that period. A narratorial voice introduces Gus in his present old age but also refers to the past, when he was “a Star of the highest degree,” alongside Victorian acting legends Henry Irving and Herbert Beerbohm Tree.
The poem’s second stanza conveys Gus’s own voice. His talent as an actor evokes the great days of music hall: “I’d extemporize back-chat, I knew how to gag”. In his “London Letter” on Marie Lloyd (1922), Eliot lamented the death of the music-hall star, which in his view was also the demise of a genre of performance enhanced by audience involvement. In this and other early essays (“The Possibility of Poetic Drama” or “A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry”), Eliot pointed to this factor as something that contemporary drama should aspire to emulate.
Gus’s broad acting experience includes most of the minor or so-called “illegitimate” forms of popular mid-Victorian drama, such as adaptations of melodramatic and sensational novels (“he once played a part in East Lynne“; “I have sat by the bedside of poor Little Nell”) or the pantomine (“I once understudied Dick Whittington’s cat,” a legendary story also featured in The Rock). The part that Gus remembers more proudly also seems to reflect the Victorian taste for the Gothic: “But my grandest creation, as history will tell, / Was Firefrorefiddle, the Fiend of the Fell”.
Eliot’s poetic work is often characterised – rather simplistically, perhaps – as a reaction against the Victorian. Conversely, the use of music-hall or drawing-room conventions in his plays represents continuity with nineteenth-century theatre. When it comes to drama, Gus’s nostalgia for “the days when Victoria reigned” might, after all, be also Eliot’s.