May 11, 2021
Blurb: It’s 1960, and the world teeters on the edge of cultural, political, sexual, and artistic revolution. On the Greek island of Hydra, a proto-commune of poets, painters, and musicians revel in dreams at the feet of their unofficial leaders, the writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston, troubled queen and king of bohemia. At the center of this circle of misfit artists are the captivating and inscrutable Axel Jensen, his magnetic wife Marianne Ihlen, and a young Canadian ingenue poet named Leonard Cohen.
When eighteen-year-old Erica stumbles into their world, she’s fresh off the boat from London with nothing but a bundle of blank notebooks and a burning desire to leave home in the wake of her mother’s death. Among these artists, she will find an unraveling utopia where everything is tested—the nature of art, relationships, and her own innocence.
Intoxicating and immersive, A Theater for Dreamers is a spellbinding tour-de-force about the beauty between naïveté and cruelty, chaos and utopia, artist and muse—and about the wars waged between men and women on the battlegrounds of genius. Roiling with the heat of a Grecian summer, A Theater for Dreamers is, according to the Guardian, “a blissful piece of escapism” and “a surefire summer hit.”
A Theater for Dreamers by Polly Samson isn’t what I expected and that’s not a bad thing. Written in dense prose, this story about a young English woman, Erica, who goes to the Greek Isle of Hydra with her boyfriend and brother in order to escape the mental abuse of her widower-father, is not easy to get into, especially when you’ve been reading undemanding books. Frankly, I almost surrendered it to the DNF pile and moved on. Then I grew to enjoy the rhythm of this writing, its vast descriptions that make you feel like you’re on a sweltering beach rather than your living room sofa.
I’m sorry to admit that I had never heard of Australian writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston, but I did become immersed in their lives and their sometimes brutal treatment of each other. I became fascinated by the almost primitive lifestyle on this island in the early 1960’s as well as the arrival of the then mostly unknown Canadian poet, Leonard Cohen.
A Theater for Dreamers is a well-researched story about real human beings (even the fictional ones felt real). Events aren’t glossed over, well, except that Leonard Cohen almost seems too good to be true. While I was reading and becoming fascinated by these artists and their bohemian lifestyle, I did a lot of Googling to learn more. This book made me think of those days in Paris when Gertrude Stein was holding court with the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso et al. There is something eminently alluring about reading about creatives and their thoughts, opinions, and philosophies.
While A Theater for Dreamers is about writers and artists and poets, it is also about women and how they were perceived and treated by men in the early ’60s. The reader is privy to the struggle of Charmian Clift, a writer, but also a woman who feels second to her husband and his career. This idea is played out over and over from Erica who caters to her boyfriend, to Marianne (who would become Cohen’s muse) who lives to make a home for her writer husband, Axel. Clift declares over and over again that Erica should take up her pen and write, be a success for herself.
As the novel shines a light on the treatment of women, it does the same for animals. Some of the occurrences felt almost unpalatable for this reader, an unabashed animal lover. And I think they were supposed to be; for sometimes, presenting a scene at its most vile/heartbreaking is the only way to get through inertia.
Erica is supposed to be the observer, the one through whose eyes the characters and their actions are told and processed, but I did wish that more about Erica’s later years had been told. She may have been a fictional character among real life characters, but the reader did come to care about her and want her to succeed.
While admittedly the writing style won’t appeal to every reader, I found A Theater for Dreamers to be ultimately completely satisfying and I’m so glad I stuck with it.
I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
4 butterflies and a ladybug out of 5 butterflies