With Vine Leaves in His Hair by Paul Binding

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The Independent Culture

It's an easy genre to mock or, at the very least, mistrust: the writer taking a few characters from the corpus of his favourite author and then squeezing them into an interpretation - often to their groaning protests. If some earnest student has not already hit upon "Shakespeare's spear-carriers: a study in sexual and professional impotence", then I would be very surprised. In its richness of insight and style, not to mention the simplicity of its aim, this book cracks out of the genre's chrysalis.

Ibsen was not only a playwright but a poet and painter with a keen interest in sculpture and architecture. As Paul Binding shows, this gave him a fascination with artists - their aspirations, politics and poses - which infused much of his best work. Thus, Osvald Alving, the syphilitic protagonist of Ghosts, is here construed as a devotee of the Impressionists, in thrall as much to their sexual mores as to their visions of light. Osvald is an Impressionist wannabe, but also the image of their moral and class limitations - and as with all Ibsen's artists, a question mark hangs over the issue of his talent. Here, Hans Lygstrand, the sculptor in The Lady from the Sea, is shown as heir to the best unconscious artistic intimations, rather than the footling figure most often represented on the stage. In Ejlert Lovborg, the doomed suitor of Hedda Gabler, we see not a grand bohemian but an interesting failure. As Binding again and again reminds us, Ibsen's radicalism was sober and far-sighted; he quarrelled as much with self-destructive pseuderie as with the pythons of religious and bourgeois repression. He accepted the Darwinian world-view, but rejected its reductiveness; he opposed evangelicalism, but espoused the best Christian virtues; he drank and dressed with bohemians but also got on with the job.

The more you read this book, the more you are convinced of Ibsen's depth and humility. Criticised by Camille Collette for his treatment of women in his earlier plays, Ibsen (in the author's excellent phrase) "listened to her, and listened creatively". Paul Binding also manages to find - even in so bleak a play as Ghosts - ever-present tokens of "meliorising", George Eliot's term for that dynamic optimism about human potential which should inform all true art. In this, as in so many ways, the author shows himself in just sympathy with his subject.

Inevitably in a work of this kind, the stated theme is more a still than a fixed point: the role of artist is often subsumed beneath wider questions about society. He is hugely illuminating on the question of the characters' real-life inspirations, but correctly refuses to call them only-begetters (Ibsen himself seems to have acknowledged several sources for each character).

If he eschews prototypes, however, he is a little too susceptible to archetypes: the famous Dionysus/Apollo paradigm, first formulated by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, was always thin and reductive, and we don't have any evidence that Ibsen himself ever really subscribed to it. But it pops up more and more as this study progresses, to distracting effect. Ibsen himself was keen to stress his affinity with the art of the sculptor - even going so far as to write that through contemplation of statuary he felt he had discovered the heart of Greek tragedy - but I can't go along with Binding's suggestion that the rhythms of the actor echo the permanence of sculpture. In Shakespeare, "shadow" was a euphemism for actor, and this is surely nearer the mark. Given that a hugely attractive combination of courtliness and passion characterises the author's prose, he really doesn't need all those exclamation marks.

To appreciate Ibsen, you must forget those frosty whiskers, those mean little specs. His expansiveness and heart place him far above his nearest rivals. Strindberg was capable of deep tenderness and spiritual insight, but much more often of suffocating hate; even Chekhov, for all his delicacy and lyricism, too often betrayed a cold, nihilistic contempt for his characters and for the world they inhabited. There is much in this book which, though unfamiliar, comes as no particular surprise, but it leaves you longing to reread Ibsen, and keen to see him properly performed.