09 March - 06 AprilBille Brown Theatre, Queensland TheatreBuy tickets
In a nutshell
The true love story of Charmian Clift, George Johnston and My Brother Jack
They were writers, dreamers and free spirits. In the 1950s, Australian authors Charmian Clift and George Johnston fled halfway across the world to the idyllic Greek island of Hydra, determined to carve out a bohemian living as artists.
As they revel in their picturesque community, far off the world’s literary map, inspiration for the great Australian work strikes. But a manyheaded monster of jealousy, infidelity, illness and alcoholism also rises from the crystal blue waters of their sun-kissed island home.
Award-winning Sue Smith weaves the original writings of two of Australia’s literary icons into a moving relationship drama. She conjures the passion and intensity of the near mythical ‘King and Queen of Hydra’ as they follow their dream, only to end up in a Greek tragedy of their own making.
ARTIST RESPONSE TO HYDRA
by Susan Johnson
Author of The Broken Book
Can we still see them from here? The skinny man with the wrecked lungs, the girl whose lips were once too big for her face, grown old? Can we still smell what they smelled: wild lavender, oregano, fishing nets drying in the sun, and cigarettes stubbed out in the bottom of dirty glasses? If we have mythologised George Johnston and Charmian Clift’s ten years on Hydra it’s because they were the original chroniclers of themselves, the first to turn their lives into art. From our vantage point more than half a century later, it’s possible to forget how original they were, saying no to dun-coloured Australian suburbia, and yes to risk and the thrilling chance of burning their wings like Icarus.
Did they burn? They themselves thought not – despite alcoholism, poverty and disease – both believed till the last that a true book speaks beyond flesh and blood. What does it matter that a living hand once held the pen or bashed the keys of a typewriter? It was Clift who wrote of life that if you ask nothing of it, “the soul retires, the flame of life flickers, burns lower, for want of air”.
Clift wanted a lungful of life, greedy not just for beauty, but to experience the farthest reaches of existence. What was a life for, if not to imagine the reach of the stars, and hope she might turn silver if she star baked long enough? Clift knew none of us are safe, and the only thing for it is to bow down before life, before the mystery of a universe wheeling through a loneliness that is inconceivable.
From the moment Johnston met Clift, he was struck by the force of her animation. First he was beguiled by it, then covetous, and later jealous because her life force proved impossible to govern or possess.
In Sue Smith’s imagination, Johnston needs Clift as if she were his own lost breath. Is that why she never finished her own book, The End of the Morning, because she was too busy breathing life into his? My Brother Jack was Johnston’s tilt at The Great Australian Novel (and is, arguably, still a contender, a Miles Franklin winner, and still in print).
But did Clift’s genius lay in her memoir writing instead, what today we call creative non-fiction? It’s where she lives on, in words fresher than a spring Greek morning, as sparkling as the moment she wrote them, bashed out on a veranda of the house by the well overlooking the harbour and, beyond, the wine dark sea. It was where she was happiest, the place she dreamed of for the rest of her life.
Sue Smith gives Clift back to us, newly dressed in flesh and blood. She gives us Johnston, so that both stand alive, in clear view. Their books endure, but Smith’s great gift is handing them back to us – broken, striving, suffering – once again miraculously human.
Susan Johnson's novels have been shortlisted and long-listed for awards including the Victorian Premier's Literary Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Miles Franklin. Her memoir A Better Woman was shortlisted for the National Biography Award. The best-selling novel inspired by the life of Charmian Clift, The Broken Book, was shortlisted for the 2005 Nita B Kibble Award; the Queensland Premier's Literary Award; the Waverley Library Literary Award, and the Australian Literary Society Gold Medal Award for an Outstanding Australian Literary Work. She has worked as a journalist and now writes full-time and lives in Greece where she is working on another memoir.
by Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell
Authors of 'Half the Perfect World: Writers, Dreamers and Drifters on Hydra, 1955-1964'
The Greek island of Hydra—rocky and remote—is an unlikely place to loom large in the story of Australian post-war cultural expatriation. After all, as the 1940s and ‘50s rolled by in conservative Australia, a generation of writers and artists seeking a more stimulating intellectual environment headed for London rather than the Aegean. Novelists George Johnston and Charmian Clift found themselves on that exodus when, with their two young children, Martin and Shane, they left Sydney for the centre of the Anglophone literary world in 1951. By late 1954, dissatisfied with the metropolitan life they had desired and looking for a place in the sun to write, the family was again on the move. It was a journey that led them to Greece; firstly, to the island of Kalymnos, and then to poorly serviced and underdeveloped Hydra. It was here that in quick succession a third child was born, a house purchased, and a commitment made, and so began a near-decade of living and writing amidst an unfamiliar language and culture.
Clift and Johnston’s decision to live on Hydra invited both admiration and derision. Some saw it as a bold and romantic rejection of modernity in favour of freedom, beauty and creativity. As Clift herself wrote, in surrendering well-paid jobs and modern luxuries they chose “to declare for individuality, for risks instead of safety, for living instead of existing, for faith in one’s ability to build a good rich life from the raw materials of the man, the woman, the children, and the talents we could muster.” Others saw it as an impetuous and even dangerous choice, neglectful of their children’s education and health, and counter-productive in terms of their own ambitions as they left behind the publishers, editors, critics and readers thought necessary for a literary career.
As it turned out, Clift and Johnston weren’t destined to years of isolation. They were among the first in a stream of like-minded individuals who made their way to Hydra, some by accident, others by intention. And what eventuated–an international ‘colony’ of aspiring artists and writers–was a notable episode in mid-century bohemianism, which reached its zenith in the early ‘60s at a tipping point between the Beats and The Beatles. Leonard Cohen would become the most famous of those who settled on Hydra, where the roll-call of expatriates went beyond the emerging artists Clift and Johnston encouraged and befriended (including Australians Sidney Nolan, Rodney Hall, Mungo MacCallum and Robert Owen), and eventually spanned a long list of Europe’s political and entertainment elites. Again to quote Clift, “we had unwittingly started a sort of cult, since other foreigners followed our example and bought houses, too, and our quiet, cheap, remote little island became very fashionable and not really cheap or even quiet any more.”
As Hydra changed around them, Clift and Johnston’s marriage became enmeshed in an existential crisis fuelled by alcohol, sexual jealousy, poverty, ill-health and their own competitive natures. Their Aegean dream was rapidly fading and their failure as writers was seemingly sealed. Yet, against the odds and from a distance of 15,000 kilometres, they collaboratively crafted a great Australian novel. It was the critical and commercial success of Johnston’s My Brother Jack, set in inter-war Melbourne, which allowed them to return to Australia in triumph. There remained, however, a price to be paid.
This story, as told by Sue Smith in Hydra, deftly and confrontingly traces both the personal and professional arc of Johnston and Clift’s expatriation. In doing so, it poses questions that everyone must answer, about the risks we are prepared to take; the cost of pursuing our dreams; and the depth of our commitments.
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