CATS upon the stage

cats the musical
The return of Cats to the West End stage has revived the old argument: Was T S Eliot a genius or a twat. This article may help you decide

On the back of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s successful revival of cats there was an article in The Daily Telegraph over the weekend about the poetry of T S Eliot. here’s a taste:

Fifty years after TS Eliot’s death, the beauty of his verse shows how poetry can be appreciated before it is understood, by Allan Massie

The record-breaking musical Cats is singing and dancing again. The run of the new production has been extended – and there are plans to take it to France, Germany and Broadway. Yet when it was launched in 1981, even the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber wondered if he were out of his mind. A musical with no plot and the cast dressed as prancing felines, the lyrics drawn from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, light verses written by the otherwise famously difficult poet, TS Eliot – what could possibly go right?

Of course everything did, gloriously. It ran and ran and ran, and it still works today. [ …] I find myself thinking I would have liked to have had some such explanatory aid available when I first read The Waste Land 60 years ago. That was more than 30 years after its first publication, and yet it still seemed strange and baffling. I understood very little of it and was puzzled by its abrupt transitions. Yet, on reflection, I am not so sure that my perplexity was such a bad thing. It meant I had to surrender to the poem.

The comment thread followed the usual pattern of any discussion on the works of Eliot and that other literary wanker James Joyce, both of whom admitted that they wrote with the intention of being understood by literary or classical academics.

The sheeple who will believe anything sombody who waves an academic qualification around tells them to believe came down in support of the dogma that Eliot was the genius who dragged poetry into the modern age.

The other camp consisted of those who love poetry and read it regularlyand generally thought Eliot a pretentious, condescending elitist snob and an all – round twunt. Here’s my favourite:


When I was at school Eliot’s Wasteland was part of our A level English studies. Many questions were put to our English master on it, one of which has stayed with me when one of my classmates asked; “Instead of writing this, why didn’t this guy just top himself”?

One reference that came up several times was to John Carey’s book “The Intellectuals And The Masses” which is an exposé of the new elitism of the academic class.

Here’s one comment that recommends it:

Eliot’s poetry is quite deliberately obscure; the dense allusions to, and quotations from, other literature are designed to encode into it levels of meaning that make it inaccessible to all but the most highly-educated. This was a reaction to the rise of mass-literacy common to many modernist writers; they actively wanted to preserve literature as the preserve of a small elite. I highly recommend John Carey’s book, ” The Intellectuals and the Masses” – it’s quite extraordinary. None of this makes The Waste Land and Prufrock any less masterpieces – but in context, they are the last-ditch fight by the literary set against paperbacks and the sort of people who think Kipling’s “If” is a great poem.

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