Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is a delightful collection of poems by T. S. Eliot. Today, they are best known because of the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical, but composer Alan Rawsthorne and actor Robert Donat gave us an earlier, equally splendid version.
Written during the 1930s and included by Eliot (right) in letters to his godchildren, the poems were published in 1939 with cover illustrations by the author. The cats display the characteristics and foibles of humans. The musical Cats premiered in London’s West End in 1981 and on Broadway in 1982. It went on to become the longest-running musical in history until it was beaten by another Lloyd Webber creation, The Phantom of the Opera.
Not many people know that there was an earlier version. In 1954 the English composer Alan Rawsthorne (1905-71) set six of the poems in a work for speaker and orchestra entitled Practical Cats. It was first performed that same year at the Edinburgh Festival. Rawsthorne (left) said, “I chose six of Mr Eliot’s poems which seemed to me might fit together in a musical pattern – ‘Old Deuteronomy’, for instance, as a slow movement, and ‘The Song of the Jellicles’ as a jig by way of finale.” The piece also includes ‘The Naming of Cats’, ‘The Old Gumbie Cat’, ‘Gus: The Theatre Cat’, and ‘Bustopher Jones: The Cat about Town’.
After the premiere, Rawsthorne recorded the work with the Philharmonia Orchestra and British actor Robert Donat (right) as the speaker. The recording was re-issued on CD in 1998 by EMI Classics in its series “British Composers”. J. C. Trewin in Robert Donat: A Biography (1968) says that recording Practical Cats was probably Donat’s toughest technical challenge as an actor. “He had a record of the music to which he rehearsed by himself, over and over, sworn to resolve the simultaneous equation: rhythms that were right for the music and also right for the poems.”
In the 1930s, Robert Donat was the British equivalent of a Hollywood star. Tall and handsome in the romantic manner, he had a beautiful speaking voice that can be heard in many films, as well as in the recordings of poetry that he did for the BBC and of T. S. Eliot’s play “Murder in the Cathedral” in which he played Archbishop Thomas Becket. Donat’s voice had the poetic intensity of the young John Gielgud and the timbre of Richard Burton.
Robert Donat came to the fore in dashing roles such as Thomas Culpepper in The Private Life of Henry VIII with Charles Laughton (1933), the dual role of laird and ghost in The Ghost Goes West (1935), the secret agent caught up in the Russian Revolution in Knight Without Armour (1937) and another, very athletic secret agent in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935).
Donat is probably best known today for four great characters. In Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939) he won an Oscar for the shy schoolmaster (left) who falls in love and becomes an institution for generations of schoolboys. He illuminated The Winslow Boy (1948) with his portrayal of the brilliant and flamboyant defence counsel, Sir Robert Morton. In The Magic Box (1951), a tribute to cinema, he was William Friese-Greene, the supposed inventor of the first movie camera. And, just before he himself died, he played the old and dying Mandarin in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958).
Robert Donat suffered from chronic asthma, so he probably didn’t keep a cat. If he had, he might have named it Gus, whose voice “would soften the hardest of hearts, whether he took the lead or in character parts.”