‘Hydra’, a play about the Greek island’s bohemian side

Sue Smith's new play, 'Hydra', tells the story of Australian writers George Johnston and Charmian Clift and how their bohemian dream became a Greek Australian tragedy

During the 50’s and 60’s Hydra’s turquoise-blue ocean water had a magnetic effect on bohemians, artists, writers and musicians such as Leonard Cohen.

Also seduced were Australian writers and authors George Johnston and Charmian Clift who while living on the island for close to a decade produced some of their greatest literary works.

Johnston wrote his Miles Franklin award-winning novel, My Brother Jack, on Hydra. Whilst Clift’s memoir Peel Me a Lotus is about the couple’s early period on the island where she writes about its beauty and how it made her feel physically and spiritually alive.

However Clift and Johnston’s attempts at a bohemian lifestyle begins to unravel and this tumult is explored in a new play Hydra, written by Sue Smith, the co-screenwriter of Oscar winning film, Saving Mr Banks.

“Their story stuck with me and represented so many things,” Smith told Neos Kosmos.

“What it’s like for two creative people to live together. What it means as an Australian to expatriate especially in that period. It’s also about, and it’s still the case today, how the man’s career dominates while the female’s plays second fiddle. That was the case with George and Charmian. I look at it like a very contemporary phenomenon via a beautiful romantic and mythic tragic love story.”

Johnston and Clift’s attempt to leave behind civilisation and live by the pen on island that was populated by a bohemian colony of expats proved to be a disaster for the couple health and marriage. Even though Hydra was just a short ferry ride from Athens, it was another world.

“Hydra was a very poor island,” Smith says.

“They had to import water from Athens. It didn’t have sewage. There were no cars and there still isn’t. Their plan to earn a living writing just didn’t work out. They had three children to support and were in debt to the local grocer. Another reason is that George had contacted Tuberculosis (TB) during his time as war correspondent so he was quite ill.”

One of the tragic elements of Johnston and Clift’s story was their fatal flaws. Johnston drank heavily and was extremely jealous of his younger, attractive wife who yearned to be free of her husband’s shackles.

“Charmian had an inchoate longing for some kind of freedom that she couldn’t quite articulate or achieve and that manifested in sexual freedom,” Smiths says.

“It’s unclear how many affairs she had on Hydra. But she did have two or three and George was obsessively jealous. So a combination of TB, his alcoholism and her infidelity was just explosive, so the relationship spiralled out of control into public fights and brawls.
“While on Hydra Johnston and Clift become friends with Leonard Cohen. The legendary singer immortalised his time on the island with his song ‘Like a bird on the wire’.”

Writing about the Australian couple he said, “The Australians drank more than other people, they wrote more, they got sick more, they got well more, they cursed more, they blessed more, and they helped a great deal more. They were an inspiration.'”

READ MORE: A history of Hydra, a story of creativity

Sue Smith’s new play tells the story of two Australian writers, George Johnston and Charmain Clift.

Aside from the drinking and infidelity Smith believes Clift and Johnston’s attempts at living a bohemian life on Hydra also failed because they struggled to mix with the Greek population.This was despite Clift’s youngest son Jason, being born on the island. Even though he and his two siblings spoke Greek fluently, attended school and had Greek friends, their parents struggled to assimilate.

“Although their children fitted into the culture of the island, the adults tended to stick with their own foreign colony,” Smith explains.

“So they never really belonged to the local culture and that may have contributed to want went wrong – they were exiles.
“Despite all the turmoil Charmian helped Johnson with the writing of his novel My Brother Jack which became a huge success and brought them back to Australia.”

Johnson then followed that up with Clean Straw for Nothing which is based on his time in Hydra. In the novel he hints at the reasons for his marriage breakdown when he asks, “Was it the island that did this to us or was it ourselves?'”
It’s probably both,” says Smith.

“They believed that when they went there that living on the island would solve their problems. For the first year or two it did but after that it didn’t. They worked incredibly hard while they lived on Hydra. They were immensely talented, gifted writers. In a way what my play is about what great art can emerge from the most straightened tormented circumstances. It asks the question whether all that is necessary for great art.

“Just six years after leaving Hydra, Johnson died of tuberculosis in 1970 at the age of 58 while Clift committed suicide a year earlier – she was only 45.
Many have described the couple’s fate as a Greek tragedy but Smith looks at it in another way.
“I see it as an Australian tragedy that happened in Greece,” she says.

“In their case it’s about exile and what expatriation does to people. European artists didn’t need to expatriate to find the nourishment they needed but many Australians did. They didn’t feel like they belonged in their own culture and they certainly could never belong in Greece either and perhaps that exile created some sort of spiritual malaise in them.”