I have had the pleasure this month of performing in a local community theatre production of “Cats”, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s record-breaking Broadway musical.
Cats has been rightly criticized for its apparent lack of plot. But I’ll cut it some slack. After all, it is a collection of T.S. Eliot’s poetry set to music with great choreography and a stunning wardrobe.
But what it lacks in plot, it makes up for in its study of human behavior — vicariously through the minds of felines.
The musical concerns itself with the tribe of cats known as the “Jellicles” as they prepare for their annual gathering at the “Jellicle Ball”. Every cat in the tribe is introduced individually as the audience slowly becomes aware of the distinct behaviors and personalities of each.
I have been especially drawn to the three oldest cats of the tribe — and I have been intrigued by the treatment each of these cats gets from the younger ones.
Old Deuteronomy is the oldest and wisest of all the cats. He’s the patriarch of the clan; heck, he’s probably the father or grandfather of many of the kittens. He is held in the highest esteem, virtually worshiped by all as he makes his appearance.
Gus is a “theatre cat”. He’s like the old uncle that shows up at the family reunion with old war stories — except that Gus’ stories deals with all the great theatrical parts he’s has played through the years. The kittens adore Gus and clamor around his feet, purring over his every word.
And then there’s Grizabella, "The Glamour Cat". She has led a hard, hard life. Her coat is dirty and mangy, she walks with a weak shuffle, and her eyes are sunken and sallow.
None of the cats like Grizabella. They shun her. They ignore her. They gnash and snarl at her. The old cats pull the kittens away from her and the kittens shirk back in fear. It’s a sad, sad, sight.
I always wondered why the cats treated Old Deuteronomy and Gus with such high regard, but they were always downright mean to Grizabella. The director of our local production finally gave me the answer.
Grizabella made all the wrong life choices. She left the tribe many years ago, seeking her own fame and fortune. She once had a life of glamour and charm and beauty. But she gave that up, seeking something more. In the process, she turned herself into a shell of what she used to be. She spent her fortune, she wasted her life, she prostituted her body. In the process of seeking more, she lost everything she owned.
Now she has returned to the tribe, seeking kinship. But the cats will have none of that. They have spent their lives acting like respectable cats. They have played by the rules, they have led a good life, they deserve to be called whatever they want to be — and Old Deuteronomy reminds us in one song that the proper term is simply ... “Cat”.
The cats love Old Deuteronomy and Gus for what they are. But they hate Grizabella for what she did. Perhaps they show no mercy, but you can hardly accuse them of being bigots. They realize that cats are ultimately responsible for their own actions. And the lesson to be learned is that there are always consequences for one’s actions — even if those consequences are harsh by our human standards.
In the end, Old Deuteronomy, in his supreme wisdom, redeems Grizabella and allows her to enter the “Heaviside Layer” — a place of reincarnation for the most-worthy of all cats. In doing so, he teaches the tribe a profound lesson. Whereas they hated Grizabella for what she did, he loves her in spite of what she did.
That is a lesson we should all learn.