Why you should read Polly Samson’s book on Hydra, A Theatre for Dreamers

Why you should read Polly Samson’s book on Hydra, A Theatre for Dreamers

A brilliant read, full of humour and spontaneity, Polly Samson’s skilled writing offers a fascinating, often voyeuristic account of the sexual jealousy, alcoholism, and bohemian lifestyle that pervaded the creative set in 1960’s Hydra. Recounted through Erica, the daughter of Australia’s tragic literary couple, writers George Johnston and Charmian Clift, the book dives into their fraught lives, into that of their friend Leonard Cohen and his muse Marianne, when they were all struggling to make it, typewriter-to-cheque, on a sun-drenched isle. Sudha Nair-Iliades reviews A Theatre for Dreamers.

Marianne Jensen holds her son, Axel Jensen Jr, with, from left, Cohen an unidentified man, George Johnston and Clift. Photograph: James Burke/LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Henry Miller declared Hydra aesthetically “perfect”; it seduced Australian writers George Johnston and Charmian Clift who wrote some of their greatest literary works on the island; musician and poet Leonard Cohen made it his home; this was where the charmed trio of painters Nikos Ghika and John Craxton, with writer Patrick (‘Paddy’) Leigh Fermor spent their drunken summers. They all find their way into Polly Samson’s book, their lives and wives often intertwined in a bohemian ballad.

A potent mix of drugs, sexual jealousy, alcoholism and creativity set in ‘60s Hydra, Polly Samson’s A Theatre for Dreamers relives the insouciance of a golden age when anything seemed possible. Greece then was on the edge of the free world. It represented a bridge to an ancient, inspiring past, yet to join the tide of modernity and consumerism.

Polly Samson

Dubbed “the Ted and Sylvia of Australia”, writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston were the undisputed king and queen of the burgeoning artists’ colony on the island. Clift’s Peel Me a Lotus was set here; Johnston wrote his Miles Franklin award-winning novel, My Brother Jack, on Hydra (a thinly veiled autobiography of a violent father, a damaged Gallipoli veteran and a distant mother, a WWI nurse). Leonard Cohen cited them as his inspiration and was suspected of being Charmian’s sometime lover, though the stunning Marianne Ihlen, wife of destructive Norwegian writer Axel Jensen, (described as the “Jack Kerouac of Norway”), was his long-time love and muse!

An inspiration: Leonard Cohen with Charmian Clift, Hydra, 1960. Photograph: James Burke/LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Narrated through the teenage Erica, Samson chimes with  voyeuristic delight that Jensen used his literary successes to “buy a house on the island, a BB racing yacht and a Karmann Ghia sports car. He must have been horrified in later life when he became known primarily for being the husband of Leonard Cohen’s Marianne. It seems like karma, the way he treated her.”

Set almost exactly 60 years since a 25-year-old Cohen set foot on Hydra in April 1960, A Theatre for Dreamers is about a paradise unravelled, of utopian dreams and innocence lost – and the wars waged between men and women on the battlegrounds of genius.

The Johnstons published 14 books between them and inspired the then unpublished Cohen to ‘blacken the pages’.

The house where Cohen lived on Hydra, in November 2016. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP /Getty Images

As Cohen later said: “They drank more than other people, they wrote more, they got sick more, they got well more, they cursed more, they blessed more, and they helped a great deal more. They were an inspiration.” When he first performed in Sydney in 1980, by which time the couple had been dead for over a decade, (Clift committed suicide in 1969 at 45, Johnston died a year later), he dedicated the show “To George Johnston and Charmian Clift who taught me how to write,” and opened with the Hydra-inspired song “Bird on a Wire”. 

Informed throughout by sensual storytelling and evocative prose, the book offers an immersive escape into the heady fragrance of a summer on Hydra. A transporting read in our sequestered times.

A Theatre for Dreamers, by Polly Samson. Published on 2 April, 2020 by Bloomsbury

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