by Polly Samson
2020 ( Bloomsbury)
Written during the Before Times (ie before March 2020) but published early into the pandemic during the spring of last year, Polly Samson´s fifth novel transports the reader back to a time and place which is highly romanticized within the public imagination, yet also frequently incomplete or elusive in terms of accurate detail. Set primarily on the Greek island of Hydra just as the era of the ´60s disembarks, A Theatre for Dreamers swims primarily through one halcyon summer; a time just after the Beats but right before the hippies; a dynamic & transitional moment when writers and creative people of different generations and countries were trying to not only make art, but trying to make sense of the world around them, and their place within it.
in other words, Samson´s setting provides ideal scenography for how our memories becoming myths. Her story weaves what actually happened with what we wish had happened during this era into a layered, intoxicating tale.
While not explicitly an erotic novel, the plot and major themes within A Theatre for Dreamers is all about sex--the act of sex, as well as sex-as-gender, and the relationship between these fundamental parts of ourselves and power. The dramatis personae of this sensual novel includes many real-life artistic figures, especially men whose tumultuous private lives seemed part of the fabric of their "genius". Leonard Cohen, George Johnston, and even Gregory Corso appear within these pages, their struggles and emotions featuring prominently and frequently pushing others out of the spotlight.
But the lives containing the most nuance, complexity, and depth are those of the women in this book, the so-called "ministering angels" who sacrifice their own agency to nurture and serve the aspirations of the men they have chosen to be anchored with. At best, some of these men are indifferent to the needs of their female partners; but often they are abusive, unpredictable, ungrateful. Samson recreates many of. the painful real-life episodes endured by Marianne Ihlen and Charmian Clift, and there are many compelling scenes between Clift and Samson´s fictionalized heroine, Erica, about the role of women--as artists, as sexual beings, as wives--within the novel.
Despite this cast of larger than life people, Erica´s odyssey is the crux of A Theatre for Dreamers´ power. Primarily set during the summer of 1960 when she is 19, Erica´s innocence and naivete about her own life and her idealized grasp of her surroundings perhaps mirrors the reader´s impressions of this era. Samson wisely shows Erica years later, as an adult, both back home in the United Kingdom, as well as returning to Hydra years later--seeing the island and her understanding of her past in relation to it in a completely new way.
Even if Samson had not published her book during the opening days of the pandemic, this novel would most likely have been a bestseller. Her descriptions of life in Greece activate all of the senses, giving the reader the ability to taste the oil squeezed from the olives as well as to smell the brine of the sea during the midday breeze. Reading A Theatre for Dreamers, Samson´s vivid language gives us the ability to feel the crisp cold as Erica and the others make their night pilgrimage to the top of Mount Eros; and almost hear the frequent tears of Charmain or Marianne or herself after the latest horror received from the men they seem cursed to continue loving.
A Theatre for Dreamers is a beautiful, sensual, and dark novel, forcing us to take off our rose-tinted glasses we so often wear when thinking about the decade of the so-called sexual revolution. With dignity and detail, Samson takes us through a single season of that fascinating era, ruminating on some of the questions which continue to plague is more than half a century later.