Etymology of the name
The name Macavity is a pun by T. S. Eliot, the author of the poem, on Macheath — a supervillain who appears both in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, its sequel Polly and roughly 200 years later as Mack the Knife in The Threepenny Opera written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill in 1928, macuahuitl — the Aztec obsidian sword, and Moriarty — the surname of a supervillain-scientist from the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. Lastly, the word 'cavity' implies a hole or void or absence of something, and he is described in the poem as being "not there" at the time or location of any crime.
In the poem
The poem Macavity the Mystery Cat is the best known of Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, the only book Eliot wrote for a younger audience. The poem is considered particularly suitable reading for 11- and 12-year-olds.
Macavity (also called the Mystery Cat, the Hidden Paw and Napoleon of Crime) is a master criminal, but in the poem he is too clever to leave any evidence of his guilt. There is a resemblance with Professor James Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. In a letter to Frank Morley, Eliot wrote, "I have done a new cat modeled on the late Professor Moriarty, but he doesn't seem very popular; too sophisticated perhaps." Sherlock Holmes describes Moriarty as "the Napoleon of Crime" in The Adventure of the Final Problem and a "Napoleon gone wrong" in The Valley of Fear. Evidence that Macavity was based on Moriarty was first presented by HT Webster and HW Starr (Macavity: An Attempt to Unravel His Mystery, 1954), and later rediscovered by Katharine Loesch.
According to the poem, even when the Secret Service decides that Macavity was behind a loss, they can't catch him, as "he's a mile away", "...[or] engaged in doing complicated long division sums". Doyle wrote that Moriarty "is never caught" as at the moment of the crime he is probably "working out problems on a blackboard ten miles away" (The Adventure of the Final Problem). Macavity is described as being a ginger cat who is very tall and thin with sunken eyes, and "sways his head from side to side with movements like a snake". The poem also says: "His brow is deeply lined in thought, his head is highly domed; His coat is dusty from neglect, his whiskers are uncombed." Once again, this description is a close parallel to that of Professor Moriarty:
"His appearance was quite familiar to me. He is extremely tall and thin, his forehead domes out in a white curve, and his two eyes are deeply sunken in his head...his face protrudes forward and is forever oscillating from side to side in a curiously reptilian fashion." (The Adventure of the Final Problem)
The poem accuses Macavity of misbehaviour that would be within the capabilities of an ordinary cat, such as stealing milk, but also holds him responsible for major crimes. He is referred to as a "fiend in feline shape, a monster of depravity" and has been suspected of stifling Pekes, vandalism, theft, cheating at cards, espionage and controlling an organised crime ring with Mungojerrie, Rumpleteazer and Griddlebone among the members. Holmes in Doyle's narrative describes Moriarty as "the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city."
Webster and Starr assumed that Eliot referred to the cases of Mr. Joseph Harrison (The Adventure of the Naval Treaty) and Herr Hugo Oberstein (The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans) when he wrote in the poem – "And when the Foreign Office finds a Treaty's gone astray,/ And the admirality loses some plans and drawings by the way".
In the musical
Macavity is the only real villain in the musical Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who kidnaps Old Deuteronomy, the Jellicle leader, and attempts to abduct Demeter, one of two cats who sings about him. Lloyd Webber noted that "Macavity... is obviously a take-off on Moriarty." The character was originally played by Richard Pettyfer in the original West End production, by Kenneth Ard in the Broadway production, and by Bryn Walters in the Cats film production.
Within the storyline of the musical, Macavity makes several attempts to scare the tribe. This culminates in his abduction of Old Deuteronomy, after which two queens, Bombalurina and Demeter, sing about him. He then returns to attempt to abduct Demeter. Munkustrap and Alonzo come to her defence and, in a dramatic cat fight, drive him off. As seen in the film production and most stage performances, he appears to be capable of performing some form of hypnosis. When Demeter and Bombalurina (a flirty queen cat who is close friends with Demeter) sing about him, they do so in a sensuous manner, suggesting he is more familiar to them. The Macavity number develops from a bluesy duet into a big female ensemble routine.
Macavity is typically depicted as a cat with a chaotic array of red, orange, white, and sharp black stripes. He is often portrayed with very long claws and wild dark hair. The role of Macavity is usually played by the same actor as Admetus (a chorus cat who notably does a pas de deux with Victoria during the Jellicle Ball) or Plato (alternate name in some productions). His costume is ginger and white, and specifically includes a simple make-up design that the actor transforms into the elaborate Macavity make-up, and then re-applies after the featured scene. Admetus/Plato is also often recognisable as one of the tallest cast members, as the fight scene between Macavity and Munkustrap requires him to be able to lift other male dancers.
In popular culture
Mystery Readers International presents the Macavity Awards annually in several categories, including Best Mystery Novel, Best First Mystery Novel, Best Bio/Critical Mystery Work, Best Mystery Short Story. Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, when still Chancellor of the Exchequer, was likened to Macavity by Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House, David Heath, who labelled Brown "the Macavity of the Cabinet" when talking about tax credits during Business Questions on 23 June 2005. Lord Turnbull echoed this two years later, opining that "the chancellor has a Macavity quality. He is not there when there is dirty work to be done." After Harold Pinter received the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature, Mary Liddell of The Guardian said: "Pinter has become the Macavity of English letters".
Polish author Maciej Wojtyszko's children's books feature a character named Macavity the Cat (polish Kot Makawity), a criminal mastermind who loses a chess duel with dog detective Kajetan Chrumps and is then persuaded to become Chrumps' assistant. Gillian Robert's schoolteacher detective Amanda Pepper has an elderly male companion cat whose métier seems to be relaxation. Following books by Roberts feature Macavity the cat: Claire and Present Danger (2003), Helen Hath No Fury (2001), Adam and Evil (1999), The Bluest Blood (1998), The Mummer's Curse (1996), How I Spent My Summer Vacation (1995), In the Dead of Summer (1995), With Friends Like These… (1993), I'd Rather Be in Philadelphia (1992), Philly Stakes (1989), Caught Dead in Philadelphia (1987).
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