From left to right: Marianne, Cohen and friends ride mules along the stone paths of Hydra. Cohen walks the streets near his home in Hydra, 1960. Photo: James Burke/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Love, Lust and Leonard Cohen
English writer Polly Samson’s "A Theatre for Dreamers" will transport you to 1960 and the Greek island of Hydra with immersive, sensual prose / BY Nathalie Atkinson / June 1st, 2021
Samson’s sun-dappled historical novel chronicles the complicated entanglements in a community of ex-pat writers and painters in the golden summer of 1960. The bohemian group was led by Australian writers Charmian Clift and her husband George Johnston and included American journalist Gordon Merrick, New Zealand novelist Redmond Wallis, Norwegian author Axel Jensen and an unknown Canadian poet named Leonard Cohen.
The idea for the story took shape on her first visit to Hydra in 2014, where she was on vacation after she finished writing The Kindness, and came across a copy of Clift’s 1959 travel memoir Peel Me a Lotus. “I read it and I was just absolutely smitten,” Samson, 59, recalls in an interview from her family farm in Sussex, England.
She wanted to write in the first person from Clift’s point of view as a sort of rebuttal to Johnston’s disparaging portrayal of his wife in his work, but then Samson discovered the connection between Clift, 37, and Cohen, then 25. “You might think, ‘this is wonderful,’ but actually it completely hamstrung me because I’m such a huge fan.” Not only had Samson seen Cohen perform “at every opportunity,” his lyrics are the epigraph of one of her short story collections. And when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize, the former journalist wrote a piece for The Guardian newspaper arguing Cohen was a more deserving recipient.
Putting words in the troubadour’s mouth was so daunting that Cohen, initially, was little more than an extra. “Because he was busy writing his first novel [The Favourite Game] in the year that interested me,” Samson laughs now, “I thought it would be perfectly reasonable for him never to speak.” But the singer-songwriter’s death in 2016, at the age of 82, granted her
freedom from the pressure of writing about him. She also changed tacks by dreaming up Erica, a fictional English runaway who’s just turned 18 and becomes a close observer of the group. Like Cohen, she arrives on the island in April of 1960. Through the young woman’s eyes we follow the infidelities and excesses, see the inner workings of Clift’s volatile marriage and the disintegration of Norwegian expat Marianne Ihlen’s relationship with Jensen, and witness the growing tenderness between Ihlen and Cohen as she becomes the lover and muse later immortalized in the ballad “So Long, Marianne,” “Bird on a Wire,” and other songs and poems.
A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words
In order to imagine the comings and goings at the artist colony that summer, Samson drew on diaries, letters and manuscripts of the people in pictures taken by photojournalist James Burke, a Time-Life correspondent based in Athens. The famous images of Cohen, Ihlen and their circle are already familiar to fans, but represent only a handful of the collection. Just as she was able to read all 57 private letters between Marianne and Leonard, Samson also got access to the entire archive of 1,573 photographs Burke shot on several trips to Hydra in 1960.
“They are an absolute gift,” she says. “You can already see Leonard Cohen is really holding an audience, everyone is looking at him,” Samson says of the well-known series where the group is assembled around Cohen as he plays guitar beneath a tree. “Because there are maybe 50 photographs or more of just that evening you can really see where the allegiances are.”
Samson lined her writing shed with prints from this trove, which helped inspire scenes. “Anytime I was writing a scene I could just shuffle out the photographs of the people in that situation,” she recalls. “They tell you so much just by the nuances and the looks between the people, who’s sitting next to who, who’s ignoring who.”
The Temptations of Nostalgia
“I picked the year 1960 for all sorts of reasons,” the author says, explaining it was before Hydra got electricity and became thronged with tourists, for one thing. But it’s also the perfect moment and setting for a thought-provoking meditation on male ego and the limits of female ambition in an era too often remembered through a haze of nostalgia. “Everybody was beautiful and young and full of talent and covered with a kind of gold dust,” Cohen would later recall.
“For men, the Sixties started earlier than for the women,” Samson says. “What we think of as the Sixties wasn’t possible in the early 1960s primarily because there wasn’t any sort of reliable contraception or access to abortion.” The Pill had not yet been introduced (and unmarried women wouldn’t have access to it until years later, anyway), yet women were expected to go along with the social, sexual and cultural revolution. They were stuck with unwanted pregnancies and relegated to traditional roles of domestic drudgery – literally, left holding the baby.
The Meaning of Muse
There’s also a reappraisal of the romanticized term muse, and the passive role of ministering angel to male genius. “We’ve all grown up with this idea of ‘how wonderful to have inspired great works of art,’ but it isn’t that simple,” Samson points out, likening the role of doting muse to an indulgent parent. “It’s actually a contract that I think is really, really problematic.”
A Theatre for Dreamers explores the lives and creative ambitions of wives and girlfriends at a time of great social change and exposes the flaws (and later, fallout) of the bohemian paradise. Its sybaritic pleasures are probably the closest any of us will get to a Greek holiday this year.
A Family Affair
When A Theatre for Dreamers was first published in the U.K. last spring, the pandemic thwarted plans to have a professional narrator for the audiobook. So Samson recorded it herself, with the encouragement of her husband. That supportive spouse happens to be David Gilmour, the guitarist and co-lead vocalist of the fabled rock band Pink Floyd, now a solo artist.
Their collaboration resulted in “Yes, I Have Ghosts,” Gilmour’s first new song in five years. The single, which plays at the end of the audiobook, springs from a moment in the story when a character muses “about people who are not actually dead but who haunt us in a way that a ghost might.” As Samson wrote the line in the novel, “it was one of those very strange moments when I sort of felt a prickling of my skin,” so she jotted it on a Post-it and, after finishing the book’s first draft, began working on lyrics. (Samson is also an accomplished lyricist and has been writing with Gilmour since the 1994 Pink Floyd album The Division Bell.) The resulting song features Romany, 19, youngest of the couple’s four children, playing the harp and contributing ethereal harmony vocals, and feels akin to something Cohen himself might
“Without wanting to copy or even particularly [pay] homage,” Gilmour tells me of the audiobook score and new single, “I just was inspired by what I was hearing in Greece, and of course Polly was only playing Leonard Cohen during those months [and] years!”
“He’s a brilliant guitar player, in fact,” the musician says of Cohen’s distinctive finger-picking style, which is high praise from the man who’s ranked No.14 on Rolling Stone’s list of best guitarists of all time. “It’s been very, very difficult to do, but I can do a bit of it.” He primarily used a nylon-string Córdoba guitar, as well as a 12-string, fretless Turkish guitar and a mandolin. “These are the sort of sounds that you hear in Greek music, so I added on a little bit of that to add to the flavour of what’s happening.”
Gilmour composed bridges of music between chapters that capture the mood of the story. Where Charmian Clift is thinking about space and infinity, for example, “I wrote a little spacey piece of music, which is not very Greek or Leonard Cohen at all, but it seems to fit that spot in the book.”
A Set For Dreamers
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Samson and Gilmour planned to take A Theatre for Dreamers on the road, albeit with more homespun stagecraft than the spectacular, multimedia concerts for which Pink Floyd was known. The limited series of shows would have combined readings and music with evocative Hydra footage shot by filmmaker Gavin Elder. “Part of the reason we were even doing this show,” Samson says of the elaborate set that now sits in their barn, is that son Gabriel – who has a degree in set design – “always said he wanted to make one of Katsikas,” Hydra’s most famous taverna.
As Samson and Gilmour were locked down with four generations under one roof, ranging from their young grandchild to her octogenarian mother, Samson’s eldest son Charlie and his wife Janina Pedan, a Ukrainian artist and scenic designer, also got involved. A façade and blue-checked taverna tables recreate Katsikas, the harbour grocery store and café, and the expats’ favourite Hydra hangout so familiar from those famous Cohen photographs.
The original book-launch concept evolved into a popular live-stream series they affectionately dubbed ‘the Von Trappeds,’ where Samson, Gilmour and their family read excerpts and perform songs – including covers of Cohen ballads. “We thought a few dozen people would watch it online but the numbers got quite exciting, really,” Gilmour marvels of the charmingly impromptu specials. “The songs that we sang were barely rehearsed, but it seemed to strike a chord with people.” (All of the videos are collected on Samson’s YouTube channel.)
Their fruitful partnership is a sharp contrast with the couples in the story. “I’m very lucky because I collaborate with David, but we have a very, very equal time,” Samson says. “While our children were growing up we always had a rule that only one of us could be lost in a sort of creative project at a time.” In the wake of their audiobook and haunting single collaboration, the cross-pollination of inspiration continues. At the moment Gilmour says he’s attempting, “rather cautiously,” to record some new music to make an album. “And I can’t imagine that this album, when and if I get it done, won’t have a little bit of that sort of flavour to it.”
A version this article appeared in the June/July 2021 issue with the headline “Love, Lust & Leonard Cohen,” p. 60.