Writing Hydra: An Interview with Sue Smith

We chat to the writer of Hydra about her decision to bring two extraordinary literary lives to the stage.

George Johnston and Charmian Clift at their writers desk. Photo by Jeff Busby

To bring a true story to the stage requires dedication and years of painstaking research. It requires great affection for your subject and a deep passion for the tale you’re telling. The story of George Johnston and Charmian Clift is one that has fascinated writer Sue Smith for much of her career. Here, we talk to her about why she chose to bring this Australian myth to the stage and why this is a story we all need to engage with.

What is this play and why did you choose to tell this story?

I did a television adaptation of George Johnston’s book My Brother Jack many years ago and in the process of rehearsing, I read about his life and Charmian’s life and the whole Greek experience and the story has just stayed with me. And, in a way, it’s stayed with me in the way it has stayed with a lot of Australians… it’s quite a well-known myth. And people… they grew up studying Johnston’s book and, certainly, my mother’s generation grew up reading Charmian’s columns in The Sydney Morning Herald. And so, when they returned from Greece, they were kind of literary royalty here in Australia.

Writer on Writers: Sue Smith

But I think the myth of this grand ambitious dream of freedom - creative and personal - in an incredibly beautiful place, surrounded by rocks and ocean. Charmian talks about dreams of islands, it was this idyllic life and the fact that it came unstuck in such a spectacular way and yet out of it coming unstuck emerged really, really, really fine work. It’s this incredible story, this myth… in fact, Nadia Wheatley who wrote Charmian’s biography called the biography The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift. They both became these larger than life figures in the Australian consciousness, as they did in mine.

I think the reason is that it’s this incredibly intense and passionate love affair inspired by a vision of freedom coming unstuck on the rocks… and the degree they, particularly Charmian, were in love with the Icarus myth, which is exactly what they lived. They flew too close to the sun and crashed.

Hydra tells a story on two levels. Firstly, as you said, it’s a play about a beautiful and dramatic relationship between two brilliant minds. But it’s also a play about memory. About who gets to be remembered and the place they hold in a cultural consciousness. In her book Heroines, Kate Zambreno wrote:

This is a memory campaign. Who is canonised, who is remembered. It begins with reviews and filters down to who is taught in schools and then whose papers are collected by which library. If you are a Great Author — then EVERYTHING needs to be saved and documented. Salman Rushdie’s laptops saved at Emory. David Foster Wallace’s undergraduate philosophy thesis published. And how carefully their materials are handled.

This seems particularly relevant to Charmian’s story, whose work hasn’t been revered in the same way that Johnston’s had. Can you speak to how your play is engaging with the idea of memory and the important of bringing Clift to the stage?

First of all, all the indications are… I mean, George himself thought Charmian was a better writer than him. What he said publicly was ‘she’s the better writer but I’m the better storyteller’. And that may actually be a pretty good assessment, because he had the journalistic background, he had the facility for story, whereas her finest writing was n the form of memoir. It was the memoirs she wrote in Greece and the essays she wrote for The Sydney Morning Herald, although she did write novels… they’re out of print now and they’re really hard to get a hold of.

One of the many things that drew me to the story was looking around me at the relationships of creative couples and seeing how often the woman’s work or career or ambitions tend, even now in the contemporary women, post-feminism and everything else, to play second banana to the men’s. The men always seem to the breadwinner and the women tend to always be the caregiver to the children and everything else.

And it’s very difficult to be a caregiver and a homemaker and an artist. It can be done. I know people who have done it. But it’s really hard. And I see incredibly talented young women around me stumbling over this problem all the time. And this mythology that women can have it all. Well they can have it all. But at what cost? At what personal cost to health and sanity… and not just yours, but everyone else around you.

The evidence does seem to be that at a certain critical point Charmian… well, the way that I put it in the play is that she puts the cover on her own typewriter and goes and sits beside him to kind of midwife his work. And that is the kind of critical turning point of the story; it was the novel that made him great and that made her fall an everlasting number 2 position.

And I don’t think we know what she may have capable of writing had she lived… I’ve read the memoirs and all of The Sydney Morning Herald essays and I think they’re all exquisite and beautiful and ahead of their time and not just beautifully written but wise. Prescient and wise and humane. She may have ultimately been what he said she was, the better writer, had she lived. But she didn’t.

With George I suspect that he wasn’t able to write the great work until he thought he was dying. There’s no way of knowing, really, what the mechanism of that was. Perhaps he thought ‘I have to keep earning a living’ because they were very close to starving and writing a great work isn’t going to put food on the table and when he thought he was dying, he thought ‘well I have to do this now’ because there wasn’t time left. The great irony of that was that My Brother Jack was the work that brought them out of poverty… but he couldn’t have known that when he set out to write it. But before that he was just churning out potboilers one after the other to try and keep them afloat, and occasionally they did but they didn’t really ever earn them a living for them.

Director Sam Strong on Hydra

Director Sam Strong said Hydra is a play about the cost of pursuing what you want… the paradise of Hydra is somewhat of an illusion, as is the achievement associated with the creation of ‘The Great Australian Novel’. Is Idealism dangerous? What is the danger of flying too close to the sun? Why did these people do it?

The conclusion that I suppose I’ve drawn in the play is that finally they didn’t have a choice. They both had vocations as writers and they both needed for the sake of their physical health, their mental health and that of their family, to pursue these dreams. The problem was that the pursuit of those dreams damaged all of those things.

As for the cost of idealism… I don’t know, I can only talk about the cost to them. But if they had not made the choice they’d made, if they’d gone on as they were George would’ve worked himself to death on Fleet Street… he would’ve got tuberculosis anyway - although he would’ve got better treatment in London than he did on Hydra.

Charmian would’ve gone mad, I think. She could not belong in that world, she couldn’t write in that world because she was trying to raise children… she was being suffocated. At the very least, on Hydra they had clean air. They were able to work as they had always work as they had always imagined they’d be able to work and their kids were, for the most part, healthy and happy.

It probably was a choice they had to make. The question that George frequently asked, and I’ve used it in the play, is ‘is it the island that’s done this to us or is it in ourselves?’ Was the rot already in them, in their marriage before they went to Hydra or was it all the island? Certainly, that’s the conclusion that the biographers draw… and that perhaps the hardship and the isolation of Hydra exacerbate these problems. Or was it the mythology of the island that caused them. He couldn’t answer that question.

I can’t. We can’t… we can only ask it.

Photos by Jeff Busby
Photos by Jeff Busby

What do you want the experience of Hydra to be for audiences?

There’s no doubt that this is a sad story. So, I imagine that I will make an audience feel sad or move them. But I’m also hoping it will inspire them. We all have dreams of kind of striking out from mundanity and making brave and bold choices in our lives and not very many of us do it. These two did it. They did fly for a while and, yeah, it kind of ultimately went wrong for them but great things were achieved from it. If you sat them down now and asked ‘do you regret having made this choice? ’I’m sure they would say no, I’m sure they would do it all over again. I guess I would want an audience to reflect on these things and, maybe, jump off the cliff.

Hydra plays in the Dunstan Playhouse from 1–19 May 2019. Purchase your tickets here.

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