Thursday, 11 April 2013

Best Foot Forward: Morris and Beckett

There can’t be many points of literary contact between William Morris and Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, one would think, but one such might be the role of feet (of all things) in the writings of both men. Beckett’s first biographer Deirdre Bair informs us that ‘When Roger Blin asked him who or what Godot stood for, Beckett replied that it suggested itself to him by the slang word for boot in French, godillot, godasse, because feet play such a prominent role in the play. This is the explanation he has given most often’ (p.333). And the opening vignette of Waiting for Godot is, of course, Estragon sitting on the low mound struggling to ease his tormented foot by removing his boot: ‘He pulls at it with both hands, panting. He gives up, exhausted, tries again’.

Feet in Morris’s literary works function rather differently. For one thing, they are female feet rather than male ones, and while you’d run a mile to get away from Estragon’s smelly appendages, you’d run eagerly towards the delectable female feet of Morris’s imaginings. Discussing his archetypal quest-tale, Fiona MacCarthy mentions ‘the apparition of the maiden with her girt-up gown and sandalled feet (the foot has a curious significance for Morris)’ (p.205). And J.M.S. Tompkins rather bluntly elaborates: ‘Morris’s preoccupation with women’s feet is, as I read, an accepted mark of masochism. Certainly, they are kissed too often, all through his imaginative writing, for modern taste’ (p.80).

So there is one somewhat flippant mapping of literary relations between Morris and Beckett. A more serious one – worth an entire essay rather than just a blog post – would be to ask: will they still be playing Godot, Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape and Not I in the octagonal Hammersmith theatre in News from Nowhere? What, if anything, might a twenty-second-century socialist utopia make of Beckett’s arguably nihilistic drama?


linda said...

Tony I seem to remember reading that Morris had trouble with his own feet. suffering from corns when travelling in France in 1855 and having to wear carpet slippers -- possibly a reason for being very aware of feet, whether hos own or those of other people. Just a thought!

Tony Pinkney said...

Excellently remembered, Linda, so Morris hobbling painfully in France almost becomes Beckett's Estragon! And there were his later problems with gout and walking too. As for Beckett's own feet (since we're being biographical here), Deirdre Bair tells us: 'From his childhood, Beckett had suffered from recurring problems with his feet. When he was very young, he was often the butt of his playmates' jokes because he walked with a curious lurching gait, legs stiff and feet turned out, very much like Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp ... and as an adult in France, the problems of his feet were magnified by the ill-fitting French shoes he wore' (p.328).

linda said...

Thank you, Tony. Doesn't May Morris say that Morris as a small boy had to stand on a chair with his shoes off as a punishment for spelling mistakes? Could this be the earliest Morris foot-reference?

ianmac55 said...

Sorry, Tony, that I'm catching up only now with this entry to your blog. Two Beckett connections to Northampton:

1. Better known is the Trivial Pursuit question, "Who is the only person to have won a Nobel Prize for Literature and to have featured in Wisden?" Answer: Samuel Beckett. He batted and bowled for Trinity College Dublin when it was a first-class side against Northamptonshire - at the County Ground, Northampton in, if I remember my reading properly, 1927 and 1928.

2. Lesser known and in part apocryphal: In Kingsthorpe Cemetery - at the bottom of my street - is the grave of Lucia Joyce (James's daughter). Lucia's nurse from St Andrew's Hospital Northampton recounted the story (at a Bloomsday activity by the graveside in 2007) of how Beckett came to Northampton annually to visit the County Ground and to lay a single red rose on Lucia's grave.