A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson: Life as art in 1960s Greece

“I’m living. Life is my art.”

If you’re like me – someone who is forever questioning the nature of how I spend my time – statements of this kind offer ready consolation. Attributed to Marianne Ihlen, Leonard Cohen’s famed Norwegian muse, it’s also the philosophy at the heart of Polly Samson’s exquisite third novel, A Theatre for Dreamers

Set in 1960, on the Greek island of Hydra, I was captivated by this colourful reimagining of bohemian life which centres on a colony of real-life writers and poets (aforementioned company included). Outwardly, their existence is everything to be envied of artists living in a paradise getaway: drowsy afternoons spent strumming guitars and scribbling on terraces, sun-drenched meanderings through cypress forests and white-washed village streets, nude bathing in turquoise coves. Things, however (even in Aegean heaven), are rarely as idyllic as they seem, something which Erica, a young visiting writer from London, soon finds out. 

Her glowing first impressions of the Hydriots are quickly tempered by the knowledge that, for several of the female members of her group, life is far from nirvana. This is most evident in the case of her long-time friend, Australian writer Charmian Clift, who is continually made to shelve her own literary endeavours in order to accommodate those of her irascible husband, George. Meanwhile, just a few streets away, Marianne Ihlen is also victim to the myriad abuses of her partner, Axel, a role which she later exchanges for another as supplicant to the tender but elusive Leonard Cohen (for more on Cohen’s last poems and writings see his posthumous collection The Flame).

In light of their domestic constraints, I was struck by the grace with which these women accept their lots and set about making their mark on the world, however they can. Charmian snatches scraps of time in which to write her novels and manages to rear her children, while acting as mentor to the majority of Hydra’s roving artist community. Marianne, too, serenely focuses her sights on curating a home that belies the story of her marriage, fashioning a life of immense beauty and substance from meagre pickings, something which has caused me to reflect on what constitutes a “creative” life and how that might fit with contemporary models of womanhood which seem, now, to expect us to excel across all fronts, personally and professionally.

Marianne’s credo therefore provides a mutual source of comfort, albeit for differing reasons. Speaking as a mother during the 1960s, her comment was a stoical response to a society in which choices for women were sorely lacking, yet for many of us in today’s western world, men included, it provides a means of grappling with the opposite, of reminding ourselves that, in the midst of so much unseized opportunity, what we are is enough – to be here, living, evolving (not advancing), is enough. 

On that note, perhaps consider holding off on the masterpiece for today. Potter a little instead. Maybe even throw on some Leonard Cohen, crack open a bottle of ouzo and lose yourself in this spell-binding meditation on love, salvation and the virtues of being over doing.

Marianne is a writer and part-time bookseller with Dubray Rathmines. Interested in music, language and visual art, she is drawn to novels and biographies that centre on themes of creativity, particularly those written in a descriptive prose style. Recent favourites have included Emily Ruskovich's Idaho, Laura Cumming's On Chapel Sands, Daisy Johnston's Everything Under and the Collected Stories of James Salter.

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