Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats is a collection of whimsical poems by T S Eliot about feline psychology and sociology. It is the basis for the musical Cats. Most of the songs from the musical can be found in their entirety in the book, with slight changes in tense and pronoun to suit the staging.
The poems were written by Eliot in letters to his godchildren from around 1932 to 1938, and the collection then published by Faber and Faber on 5 October 1939. Eliot's widow, Valerie, later told Andrew Lloyd Webber that Eliot had written all of the poems to popular tunes from his time, though she did not reveal what those tunes were.
Regarding the book's title, "Old Possum" refers to Eliot himself and was a nickname given to him by fellow poet Ezra Pound. A "Practical Cat" is a type of Cat according to Eliot, who in 1934 wrote to a friend:
|“||So far in my experience there are cheifly [sic] 4 kinds of Cat the Old Gumbie Cat the Practical Cat the Porpentine Cat and the Big Bravo Cat; I suspect that yours is a Bravo Cat by the looks of things.||”|
— T S Eliot
- "The Naming of Cats"
- "The Old Gumbie Cat"
- "Growltiger's Last Stand"
- "The Rum Tum Tugger"
- "The Song of the Jellicles"
- "Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer"
- "Old Deuteronomy"
- "(Of) The Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles (Together with Some Account of the Participation of the Pugs and the Poms and the Intervention of the Great Rumpus Cat)"
- "Mr. Mistoffelees"
- "Macavity: The Mystery Cat"
- "Gus: The Theatre Cat"
- "Bustopher Jones: The Cat about Town"
- "Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat"
- "The Ad-dressing of Cats"
- "Cat Morgan Introduces Himself" (added in the 1952 edition)
While Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats is by far the most famous adaptation of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, other composers have also adapted the poems to music. Most notably:
- Alan Rawsthorne musicalised six of the poems for a speaker and orchestra titled Practical Cats. They were recorded in 1954 with actor Robert Donat as the speaker.
- Humphrey Searle set the poems "Macavity: The Mystery Cat" and "Growltiger's Last Stand" to two movements for narrator, flute/piccolo, guitar, and cello. Titled Two Practical Cats, a recording was released in 1956.
The poems have been published in many languages with various illustrators. English-language editions include:
- First Edition (with cover illustrations by T S Eliot), published 1939 by Faber and Faber Limited, London
- Illustrations by Nicolas Bentley, published 1940 by Faber and Faber Limited, London
- Illustrations by Edward Gorey, published 1982 by Faber and Faber Limited, London
- Gift Edition (restored illustrations), published 2015
- Illustrations by Axel Scheffler, published 2009 by Faber and Faber Limited, London
- 75th Anniversary Edition, published 2010
- Illustrations by Rebecca Ashdown, published 2014 by Faber and Faber Limited, London
- Illustrations by Arthur Robins, published by Faber and Faber Limited, London
- "Mr. Mistoffelees: The Conjuring Cat", published 2015
- "Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat", published 2015
- "Macavity: The Mystery Cat", published 2015
- "Macavity's Not There!", published 2016
- "Jellicle Cats", published 2017
- "Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer: The Cat-Burglars", published 2018
- "Cat Morgan: The Pirate Cat", published 2019
- Movie Edition (tie-in with the movie), published 2019 by Faber and Faber Limited, London
T.S. Eliot Reads Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats is an audiobook that was released by Caedmon Records in 1957. It uses recordings made from readings given by Eliot in London in 1955.
- The only poem not used in the musical is "Cat Morgan Introduces Himself". Lloyd Webber had written a song for this poem but it was dropped during initial development. Lloyd Webber performed the song at the show's 6,138th Broadway performance, when Cats broke the record to become the longest-running Broadway show.
- Almost all of the cat names mentioned in the book have been used in a replica production. Of the more obscure ones, "Peter" was the name of the ensemble identity of Gus in the Broadway revival; "Jonathan" was a swing character in the World Tour, "Augustus" was a swing character in South Korea, "Grumbuskin" was an ensemble character in China, "Gilbert" is an ensemble character in Japan.
- T. S. Eliot's Autobiographical Cats, Henry Hart. 2012
- @OfficialALW: "She confided in me once that Eliot wrote all of the Cat poems to tunes of the day that were big hits." Twitter, 10 May 2020.
- T S Eliot's Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, The British Library
- The Poems of T. S. Eliot Volume II: Practical Cats and Further Verses. Faber & Faber, 17 November 2015. Page 44.
- Cats Breaks Broadway Record, Playbill. June 20, 1997.