Let the Memory

One of the rare and long-anticipated treats of being near New York City is the prospect of a live show. For practical reasons we don’t go to shows very often—years separate the occurrences—but once in a great while we manage to afford such a boon. Yesterday we attended the penultimate performance of the Cats revival on Broadway. The experience was transcendent. I’ve seen the movie version a number of times, and over the years I’ve caught a few live performances here and there. For whatever reason, this musical speaks to me. Although it doesn’t really have much of a plot—it’s more a series of vignettes—it is about redemption and being comfortable in one’s own skin. T. S. Eliot was a poet who knew spirituality intimately. Andrew Lloyd Webber, no one needs me to say, writes stirring music.

Cats, unlike many shows I’ve seen, requires athleticism as well as vocal ability. The performers are in nearly constant motion as they play out their roles, often with acrobatic flourishes. Most of the parts are for the young, while those dwelling on the experience of older characters—Gus, Grizabella, and Old Deuteronomy—tend to be recollections of youth as a commodity that slips away leaving as residue the wisdom that comes with age. It’s quite biblical in that respect. Even the old can appreciate back flips and double cartwheels and the grace of ballet. For this particular production the lighting stood out as an integral part of the story. Illumination, I might add, is a powerful metaphor.

In our family discussions afterwards, comparison with other versions dominated. Although my wife and I saw a community theater production long ago (placing us, I reluctantly suppose, in the ranks of the older characters), our main introduction was through the filmed adaptation. Again, like the Bible, we tend to think of canonical versions. This is how it should go. Because of both its running time and its demands on the players, not all vignettes are included in each production. The character who narrates the story may change. Choreography is adjusted. Each show, as is the case with live theater, is a little different. Standing in the snow on a cold, New York City December afternoon awaiting the opening of the doors, we wondered what would be changed. The original Broadway run had ended while we lived in the Midwest, so this was both our first exposure but also our fourth rendition over the decades. None, it turns out, could be called canonical. That, however, took nothing away from the inspiration of the event unfolding before our very eyes.

Gods and Goliath

EyreAffairNot only gods are proficient at creating worlds. Writers, as readers know, are the creators of worlds too. I first discovered Jasper Fforde via a friend’s recommendation. With the depressing demise of bookstores, however, I end up picking up whichever one happens to be on the shelf. Not that this is a bad thing, but I find myself in a melancholy cast when I think of all the joy that is not being had by avoiding reading. It’s all rather hollow, wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Eliot? All of which is to say Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair was great fun. As usual when I read fiction, I kept an eye out for how religion appeared in this alternate world—most fiction that ignores religion completely somehow seems to be less realistic than Fforde’s fantastic tale. In the world of Thursday Next, the churches are dedicated to GSD, the Global Standard Deity. As one of the characters explains, the GSD is a combination of all religions intended to stop religious wars. It’s a great idea on paper, but religions are prone to wars as sparks fly upward.

Somewhat later in the novel Thursday encounters a crucifix-wearing vampire. Fooled by the sigil, she almost becomes a victim to the blood-sucker. When Thursday points out the supposed impossibility of a vampire wearing a crucifix, he replies, “Do you really suppose Christianity has a monopoly on people like me?” Although Fforde can be a great comic writer, some of his quips are quite profound. Indeed—does Christianity have the only vampires? All religions have their monsters, whether that’s what the author meant (score one for reader-response theory). The truth is the truth, no matter whether intentional or not.

The idealized world of The Eyre Affair is one in which religion has become universal. The great military conglomerate in the book is called Goliath not because of the Bible but because of its size and apparent strength. It is brought to its knees, however, by Thursday—a female David, if you will. In practical terms, throughout the book the military is much more powerful that the church of GSD. Perhaps that’s because people are afraid. Religion, which once upon a time allayed fears, has now become one of their main generators. “Nothing frightens me more than religion at my door,” John Cale once sang. In this rich complexity the reader is invited to bask as Jasper Fforde works his magic. Do yourself a favor and pick up one of his books. Before it is too late. You might find yourself learning a thing or two about religion. I did.

Nine Lives

A warm and wet holiday weekend is a good time to watch movies. Since my daily work schedule leave scant time to view anything from most Monday-to-Fridays (and it would claim even more if I’d let it), relaxing often involves watching. I first saw Cats as an ambitious stage production for a local outdoor theater some years ago. Andrew Lloyd Webber has acute talent when it comes to mixing show tunes and popular music; so much so that even a vague storyline will do to carry a show. Cats, of course, is based on a set of children’s poems by T. S. Eliot—Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. There is no narrative, and they show’s emotionally charged hit “Memory” had to be culled from among Eliot’s other poems. Nevertheless, the musical, now long off-Broadway, exists in a film version that is heavily endowed with religious themes. This weekend I watched it for the n-th time, and each viewing brings out new nuances.

The “story,” such as it is, has two very basic events: Jellicle Cats choose who can be reborn on the night of the Jellicle Ball, and Old Deuteronomy, the patriarch of Jellicles, is kidnapped (cat-napped?) and must be recovered before the choice can be made. The vignettes feature cats dealing with loss, love, and crime. The character who resonates with many viewers is Grizabella, the glamour cat. She is the has-been who sings “Memory,” the cat who was somebody before her fame and fortune faded to a tawdry existence among questionable society. The musical is about transformation, however. Transformation is a religious theme, the desire we have to be something more than we are, to transcend the hand life has dealt us. Now, I’m no theater or film critic, but I have to wonder whether the obvious fades and duets of “Memory” point to Grizabella as the older but sadder version of the young and lively Jemima.

Certainly as the finale builds, Grizabella is chosen to be reborn and is sent to the Heaviside Layer, but the camera keeps coming back to Jemima. She is often framed in the center and the suggestion is made that the new life has already begun. Religion thrives on transformation. I suppose that is the reason I find it so ironic that in politics religion, Christianity in particular, is championed as the pillar of the status quo. Whether they are new or old, religions serve no purpose if they do not challenge the “business as usual” model of the secular world. Perhaps that’s why successful artists such as Andrew Lloyd Webber thrive—they can pack theaters of seekers weekend after weekend, even for decades sometimes. Even those of us watching on the television at home click the eject button with a sense of hope that seems possible only on a holiday weekend.

A stray Jellicle cat?

Abbey Rood

On the long flight home from London, experiences during my brief free time play back in my head in a continuous loop. One monument to civilization I wanted my daughter to experience was Westminster Abbey. I would liked to have taken her to St. Paul’s as well, but churches are just too expensive to visit. I’ve written before about our drive to visit places of significance, the urge toward pilgrimage that is as old as humanity itself. (Perhaps even earlier.) Because of the reach of the British Empire, events that have taken place in Westminster have affected people all over the world. The cream of the British crop is buried there. To see them, however, you need to pay an unhealthy sum of money. “Money changers in the temple,” as my wife aptly observed. And once inside photography is prohibited. How easy simply to become a slab of marble hazily remembered in the mind of an overstimulated tourist. There is no way to absorb it all.

The church has fallen on hard times in much of Europe. Speaking to several Brits the real interest seems to be in Islam, a religion clearly on the rise in the United Kingdom. During a brief respite from work, during which I ducked into the British Museum, the queues were out the door for an exhibit on the hajj. Tickets for the exhibit were sold out. Meanwhile, across town, the Church of England charges a visitor 16 pounds even to enter the great minster with roots in the eleventh century. Christianity and capitalism have become inextricably intertwined. A building as massive as Westminster, let alone St. Paul’s, must be costly indeed to maintain. These have become, however, icons to culture rather than religion. Their value in that regard cannot be questioned.

Standing beside Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, and T. S. Eliot, it is noteworthy how few clerics buried in the Abbey maintain such a draw. Kings, queens, knaves and aces of many suits may abound, but apart from the eponymous Archbishop of Canterbury, few men and women of the cloth stand to gain our attention. The nave soars high overhead and the crowds of sightseers jostle one another to get a view of the sarcophagus that now houses the dusty bones of those whose names endlessly referenced from our childhoods vie for admiration. The sign says “no photography,” and the docents throughout the building cast a suspicious eye on anyone holding a camera. How jealous Christendom has become in a land of secular advance. I stand next to Sir Isaac Newton and contemplate how the seeds of destruction are often planted within the very soil that surrounds the foundations of mighty edifices of yore.

Old Deuteronomy

Last night my family attended a performance of CATS. We can seldom afford shows, or even movies for that matter, but when CATS comes to town it is non-negotiable with my daughter. It is a must-see musical. Anyone who has seen the show knows it is all just for fun with only the thinnest of plots and the most colorful of non-religious characters (they are, after all, cats). T. S. Eliot and Andrew Lloyd Webber, however, were/are solidly C of E, and that orientation comes through in both some of the characters from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and the arrangement of the poems into the lyric of CATS. The basic message of the show is redemption, but the angle that I particularly noticed last night was the mosaic aspect of Old Deuteronomy.

Old Deuteronomy, the patriarch of jellicle cats and father of many of the cats in the junkyard, is a hobbled, old character who assumes the aspect of a law-giver to the younger generation. He has been to the Heavyside Lair and knows the path there. He leads Grizabella to her rebirth with the Everlasting Cat. Even his name suggests his association with the Torah, famously summarized in the book of Deuteronomy. When he is kidnapped (cat-knapped?) his return leads directly to the culmination of the show, the return to Mount Sinai.

No one would claim that CATS contains a profound religious impact, and yet the show conveys an unexpected emotional power. T. S. Eliot was not particularly known for his religious poetry, yet his personal beliefs permeate the children’s poems that form the basis for the show. His Moses is non-judgmental, a cat who was quite frisky in his younger years and who knows the value of a life well lived. A cat that believes in second chances. That simple message kept audiences returning to Broadway to see CATS on its incredibly long run. For those of us whose careers have run aground in mid-course, a Moses more like Old Deuteronomy would be a hopeful religious leader indeed.

Redemption through work

Everlasting Cats

“The mystical divinity of unashamed felinity, round the cathedral rang ‘Vivat!’ Life to the Everlasting Cat!” I’m not sure if this is T. S. Eliot, Andrew Lloyd Webber, or a chimeric mix of the two, but it is an interesting bit of mythology. My daughter is the consummate Cats fan and has been asking me to write a post on Cats and religion. When I read (or hear) the above lines of poetry, I must confess, my mind wanders to Xenophanes who stated that if horses could draw they would draw their gods like horses. Ditto for cats.

Everlasting cats, however, have their roots deep in religions of the ancient world. Although the word “cat” never occurs in the Bible (“dog” is there plenty of times, with even a “bitch” or two) cats are certainly within the biblical culture. Eternal Egypt knew of an everlasting cat — Bastet, the “cat goddess.”

Bast to see this as an everlasting cat

Bast to see this as an everlasting cat

Hailing from Bubastis, Bastet (I just can’t call her Bast, since it sounds like slathering meat with some kind of ambiguous liquid, something I can’t stomach as a vegetarian) seems likely to have some connection with the sun. Regarding yesterday’s post, the ancient Egyptians had a plethora, a veritable superabundance even, of solar deities. Bastet was called the Eye of Ra. She was also associated with war, appropriate enough to anyone who’s read Erin Hunter’s Warrior series. As a goddess, Bastet qualifies as an everlasting cat.
Little Bastie doesn't seem so playful any more

Little Bastie doesn't seem so playful any more


So do the numerous cat mummies from ancient Egypt. Preservation of the body was an aspect of realizing life beyond life for the Egyptians. It would also obviously help to keep the mice out of heaven. T. S. Eliot was C. of E. (Church of England, not Copt of Egypt) and had a savvy sense of wit. Ignoring the biblical snubbing of cats, he named the wisest and most respected of Old Possum’s Practical Cats with a biblical name — Old Deuteronomy. Although I am not a cat owner (is anybody really a cat owner?), I do have great respect for felines, mystical or not. And I am not alone as long as the ancient Egyptians kept a mummy or two around and an Eye of Ra to keep that solar barque on its course.