Monique Rooney on CATS as Elemental Melodrama

Join us for the next CuSPP Seminar (taking place via zoom)

Thursday 9 December, 4.30 – 6pm (see CuSPP email or contact monique.rooney@anu.edu.au for zoom link).

Elemental Limits: Cats (2019), Melodrama and the Heaviside Layer

From its inaugural performance at the New London Theatre (1981), Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats has been a blockbuster success recognised for its role in sparking a new era of musical-theatre. Described as an ‘immense affective encompasser’ (Siropoulos), Cats became more than a performance as it offered both a (globalised) theatrical experience and an immersive environment. The original London theatre was redesigned to facilitate increased audience participation—its conventional proscenium replaced with a quasi-in-the-round and centrally-revolving stage and part of its roof opened to the sky and, by implication, beyond to ‘the Heaviside layer’. The latter term refers to the layer of ionised gas occurring 90 to 150 km above the ground, with the lyrical use of the phrase in Cats suggesting heaven. Beyond London, specifically designed theatres with ‘catwalks’ extending from stage to balcony sprang up across the globe. With its revolving stage and aperture, Cats’s earth-sky theatre design mirrors the plot that Lloyd Webber derived from both his source text—T. S Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939)—and references to the Heaviside Layer that he had found among Eliot’s unpublished papers. Eliot had removed from the 1939 published collection an alternative ending wherein the Book’s poet ascends with cats ‘Up up up past the Russell Hotel, / Up up up to the Heaviside Layer’. Reintroducing the deleted Heaviside layer, Lloyd Webber narratively repurposed it as the longed-for destination of the musical’s Jellicle cats, who dream of both ascension and rebirth.

In the context of the significance of the Heaviside layer to both Eliot’s Book and the stage adaptation, this paper focuses on the first cinematic adaptation of Cats (2019), exploring the ways in which the inclusion of the Heaviside layer affords both an atmospheric theme and a theatrical-design element to its screen melodrama of lyrical, theatrical and earth-bound promises and limits. I conclude the paper by considering the widespread, popular-critical panning of the 2019 film, asking whether present-day, seemingly limitless networked environments obstruct appreciation of Cats’s elucidation of ‘heaven’ and earth, birth and death.

Monique Rooney teaches US literature, film and new media in the English Program at ANU. She is the author of Living Screens: Melodrama and Plasticity in Contemporary Film and Television (2015) and, with Gillian Russell and Stefan Solomon, she is editing a collected volume on the topic of ‘elemental melodrama.’ A longer version of ‘Elemental Limits: Cats (2019), Melodrama and the Heaviside Layer’ will be published in the edited collection.

Zach Karpinellison is a PhD candidate in both the School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics (SLLL) and the Interdisciplinary Cross-Cultural Research (ICCR) program. For his PhD dissertation, Zach is researching the Australian film ‘version’.


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