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Home arrow Reviews arrow Books arrow Polly Samson: "A Theatre for Dreamers" (London: Bloomsbury, 2020)
Polly Samson: "A Theatre for Dreamers" (London: Bloomsbury, 2020) Print E-mail
Written by Kevin De Ornellas   
Wednesday, 15 July 2020
A Theatre For Dreamers - Polly Samson

In the latest of our BD visitor contributions, our good friend Dr Kevin De Ornellas, who is Lecturer in English Renaissance Literature, at the School of Arts and Humanities of Ulster University, takes a detailed look at A Theatre for Dreamers, the new book from Polly Samson. The audiobook for this expands on the lockdown broadcasts Polly and her husband, David Gilmour, have done, with new music created by David specifically for the project.

Many of you have bought, or are thinking of buying, Polly's book, and indeed some of you will have got a copy when you bought a ticket for the (delayed) evenings hosted by Polly and David, which are also due to include some of the new music. For those curious, Kevin kindly expands on what he found upon reading the book...

If you are looking for an easy read, a summer page-turner, this is not it. A Theatre for Dreamers is a difficult book, a book that is highly allusive and sometimes ethereal in quality. Although the basic story is very simple - a woman remembers being on Hydra with a bunch of creative types in 1960 as she coincidentally deals with revelations about her mother - the novel is layered with feeling and complex memory. The plot is not always linear - most of the novel describes memories of 1960 but we start off in 2016 before we go back to the late 1950s and by the end we have stopped off at Paddington Station in 1970 and returned again to the island some decades later. This structure makes sense: memories do not come to us in a neat, linear way so there is no need for this memory-fixated novel to be conveyed in a strictly linear trajectory.

There is a large cast of characters: although we see everything from the self-consciously subjective eyes of Erica, the first-person narrator, she is greedy for experience and observation of varied humanity - put simply, she is interested in lots of people. Getting to know these people takes a lot of effort: for example, on page 215 alone we have to engage with the following named characters: Francine, Charmian, Leonard, Marianne, Jimmy, Bobby, Robyn, Bim, Axel, Angela, Marianne, Demitri, Charlie and Edie. Engaging with this novel necessitates commitment. Some of these characters are very significant to the novel as a whole; some are more incidental. It is worth making the effort because this is an intellectually substantial as well as emotive novel. 

On the surface, A Theatre for Dreamers may seem clichéd - a young woman finds herself - it is a sort of coming-of-age narrative, a bildungsroman. It is also, to an extent, historical fiction: some of the characters are in fact well-known, famous historical figures. Many of them have been over-analysed and over-celebrated - major characters include renowned if controversial writers including Leonard Cohen, Charmian Clift, Axel Jensen and George Johnston as well as the muse, Marianne Ihlen. But the novel is not clichéd because it does not offer a cosy, nostalgic study of an island paradise of blessed youngsters. Rather, it is a subtle, involved critique of the island's culture and of the culture of the decadent artists who decamp there - Samson's prose in fact deconstructs differences between supposed Northern European/New World sophistication and Mediterranean noble savagery. Bad attitudes towards women and towards animals proliferate amongst the native islanders and the artistic immigrants. These are just two aspects (there are others) of the novel that make it a serious, substantial, provocative read: Samson's prose provokes us into thinking about discriminatory attitudes against certain categories of people and against non-human animals.

The main character, Erica, leaves Britain for various reasons - one of them is to escape her father. This father has bad attitudes stereotypical of what Samson's first-person narrator, Erica, calls "those patrician days" (p. 15). He is as homophobic as he is misogynist: he denounces creative types as "decadents - despising ordinary people, staying up drinking all night with their lah-di-dah artists and poofter friends" (p. 19). Unforgiving, monomaniacally sure that women exist to serve men, weak and lonely underneath his bluster, this would-be patriarch reacts with predictable violence when Erica leaves him and flees to the Greek island. But Hydra is no Edenic escape from misogyny and homophobia. Erica is dismayed to hear the writer, George Johnston - constructed as a typographical boorish Aussie - complain about new arrivals onto "his" island: with spitting, sibilant alliteration and questionable verbal grammar he condemns the arrival of a "load more puissant painters and pansy poets" (p. 34). Bigotry is everywhere: anti-Semitism rears its ugly head when Leonard Cohen has been refused hospitality at a house because, as one character is alleged to say, "We don't want any more Jews here" (p. 69). Hydra, then, at times sounds more like a dystopia than a paradise - it may have beautiful seascapes but its indigenous and imported people have ugly attitudes. Cohen, incidentally, is distinguished by his apparent lack of bigotry as well as by his good manners, his quiet, uncomplaining devotion to work and his gentle disposition around Marianne's baby. He is the only historical figure in the novel whom one would like to meet. Even his muse, though, is not bereft of dyspeptic prejudice: finally abandoned by Leonard, Marianne ruefully remarks that he has a "nice Jewish mare now" (p. 324) - the irrelevance of the woman's ethnic/religious heritage hardly needs underlined here. Women's creative work is not as important as men's. Charmian complains about the primacy of her husband's writing over hers: in a splendidly self-reflexive, metafictional moment, Charmian complains that "my own work can only get done in the margins of his" (p. 225). Hydra in 1960 is not a Utopia - if it was, women's creativity would not be marginal.

Almost every character, barring the naive, fresh Erica, the quiet Leonard and the I Ching-fixated Marianne, seems to hate almost every other character: Erica's brother, Bobby, dismisses the woman-chasing Jean-Claude Maurice as a "pervy old French painter" (p. 76). Maurice is by no means the only man on the island who is generous with his affections: young women are routinely targeted for sex by sometimes married men. Women invariably are more condemned than the men for supposed sexual transgressions: George, married to Charmian, frequently berates her for simply thinking about having an affair. He takes his revenge in print - his woman-hating rage, Erica tells us through a complicated reference to Simone de Beauvoir's influential feminist writings, stems from his illness-induced impotence. Erica herself, guilty of clinging too tightly to her first love, Jimmy, learns the folly of her trust: Jimmy is no less a fornicator than the older writers and painters who have come to live and misbehave on the island. Still unable to rely on the pill, women live in fear of unwanted pregnancy - one character, Trudy, is permanently damaged by a botched Athenian abortion (p. 311).

The islanders too are guilty of sexist discourse and behaviour. One of the novel's unambiguous villains is Police Chief Manolis: as hypocritical as Richard III when he pretends to pray or the corrupt prison governor in The Shawshank Redemption, he energetically strives to stop the young foreign women from showing flesh lest it upsets the locals' religious sensibilities - but when he hears about a German girl being raped by a triumvirate of yobbish sailors his response is not to apprehend the sexual offenders but to talk the girl out of pressing charges (p.249). It is a shocking episode of misogynist victim-blaming - aptly, Erica tells us that the rape takes place "outside the slaughterhouse". The implicit, symbolic connection between the abuse of women and the exploitation of animals is a pointed one. Animals are abused all over the island for different sorts of reasons. Some of these details about cruelty to animals are quite light, almost flippant - for example, three caught grouper fish are described as being "lugubrious-faced" as they meet their early death at the hands of greedy humans (p. 218). Sometimes the details about animal cruelty have happy endings - the rescue and subsequent long-lived flourishing of a cat called Cato is one of the novel's few joyful narrative strands. Normally, though, the tales of cruelty to animals are stark and unchangeable - donkeys are routinely burdened as long-suffering animals of burden and draught; octopi are killed through peculiarly savage methods; pet lambs are ruthlessly dispatched and their "blood and entrails" can be seen "sluicing into the sea" (p. 128); as well as constantly cooking and eating meat, the locals and the tourists are at constant war with pests such as ants, weevils, wasps and fleas (page 253). In this novel, Hydra is not constructed as a place of proto-hippy communion with nature - rather it is a tough arena where local and non-local humans battle constantly to eliminate and/or exploit non-human animals.

The donkeys are a recurrent feature - their introduction in the non-linear narrative comes with a humorous aside about Donald Trump: visiting the island decades later, in 2016, Erica senses the disgust about the election of Trump: news "spread rapidly like a stench along the agora. There were horrified groans, even from the donkeys" (p. 2). Even asses are disgusted by America's acceptance of Trump. Anthropomorphising the donkeys like that is superficially humorous and facetious, but it slyly draws human and non-human animals together. Indeed, on page 228 a bitter George compares himself, a hack, money-grubbing writer, to "some old donkey" pulling a "millstone" (p. 228). As well as anthropomorphism, Samson uses many other literary effects with considerable skill: the pathetic fallacy is a recurrent trope: Erica's boyfriend has a backpack that "shook with impatience" (p. 9); "fishing caiques creak with boredom" (p. 253) and "cafe awnings flap and complain" (ibid). Even inanimate things are unhappy on Hydra. Tough lessons are learnt by Erica on the island - adults are flawed and have many secrets. There is dreaming and partying - but that all takes a toll on the longevity of some of the participants and on their children. The description of early deaths and/or life-long problems faced by some children of the visitors is a harrowing aspect of the novel and a key point to grapple with as we realise that this novel is not a celebration of 1960s creativity but, to an extent, a coruscating attack on its legacy.

This is a rich novel, a serious novel. The title may itself seem clichéd - but it makes perfect sense in the end. Despite the follies of the youngsters, they are right to take time away to think and work, Erica insists, convincingly. A nuclear holocaust may well come, as George likes to predict - he enjoys upsetting people by reminding them that the Cold War has everyone "on the brink of atomic war" (p. 202). But, Erica believes, when that is out of one's control why should one not simply take time out on an island for dreamers, an albeit decadent theatre of at least partial escape? "A theatre for dreamers" indeed (p. 317). A Theatre for Dreamers is not an easy novel to read. But, serious and substantial, festooned with memorable images and acerbic observations on British and Greek society, it is a richly rewarding novel, a novel defined by serious thinking and by exceptionally potent prose.

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