This judgement is ambiguous and seems paradoxical. Certain things are, to be sure, irrevocably lost. We possess only a fraction of fifth-century tragedy, none at all from the fourth century. We have altogether lost the components of music and dance; Mr Jones quite properly reminds us that our approach is therefore ‘almost bound to be over-literary’ and, to that extent, false. Nevertheless, it is not all that obvious in what sense he means that Greek tragedy is nearly inaccessible. In its ideas, its moral considerations and resolutions, just because they are so different from our own? We may not fully comprehend what Aeschylus or Sophocles believed about the workings of divine order, for example, but, with Mr Jones’s help, do we not comprehend a great deal?
A corollary to his “claim… that it is the action which takes place on stage which is important, and is part of what the play is about” which I quoted approvingly, might be his examination of staging—what you might call the necessary staging as opposed to embellishment:
Now, when I urge that Greek tragedy must be visualized, must be seen to be believed, I am not talking about the mechanics of the staging. The permanent features of the theatre—the stage building, machinery, etc.—are interesting enough; but my concern is not so much with how the play was stage-managed as with what is being acted out within it. It is the dramatized visible event, with the unique significance its context gives it, that I am after. This means, in effect, the movements and stances of the participants, the objects they hold and exchange, the things they do to each other, their shifting spatial relationships, and the overall shaping of the stage events into meaningful patterns and sequences.
Taplin concludes: “[A]ncient Greek culture was in many ways the archetype of European culture. Moreover it constantly attempted to look behind or through life to human universals, or, rather, seize on the universals within the multifariousness of life—Eliot’s ‘unity of Greek’. Greek tragedy is not all foreign; much is very close to home, often too close for comfort.”
The “Eliot” referred to is T.S. Eliot in what Taplin calls an “extraordinarily succinct and perceptive passage” (from “Seneca in Elizabethan Translations”):
Behind the dialogue of Greek drama we are always conscious of a concrete visual actuality, and behind that of a specific emotional actuality. Behind the drama of words is the drama of action, the timbre of voice and voice, the uplifted hand or tense muscle, and the particular emotion. The spoken play, the words which we read, are symbols, a shorthand, and often, as in the best of Shakespeare, a very abbreviated shorthand indeed, for the actual and felt play, which is always the real thing. The phrase, beautiful as it may be, stands for a greater beauty still. This is merely a particular case of the amazing unity of Greek, the unity of concrete and abstract in philosophy, the unity of thought and feeling, action and speculation in life.
Except for the introduction Finley’s book is not at all specific to theater—but back to the book under his scrutiny he sums up his own view (in a typically dramatic fashion):
Mr Jones can argue most powerfully for near inaccessibility. But then, when he writes that ‘it turns out to be our bad luck that Greek tragedy is superficially intelligible in a modern way’, we part company. There is an implication here of moral fault, as if preceding generations of critics and scholars had somehow sinned, even wilfully, against the tragedians and Aristotle by modernizing them.
No doubt the process was a bad thing in so far as it served the ends of providing high ancient authority for modern practice. But it was a bad thing because that kind of authoritarianism is bad, and it would have been little better if Aristotle had actually said what he was twisted into saying. Is it bad for Greek tragedy to be ‘intelligible in a modern way’? Can it be intelligible in any other way? All art is dialogue. So is all interest in the past. And one of the parties lives and comprehends in a contemporary way, by his very existence. It seems also to be inherent in human existence to turn and return to the past (much as powerful voices may urge us to give it up). The more precisely we listen and the more we become aware of its pastness, even of its near-inaccessibility, the more meaningful the dialogue becomes. In the end, it can only be a dialogue in the present, about the present.
(I don’t know how far I will read into Taplin’s book: my interest is piqued, of course, the topic perennially of interest, but I have other things I’m looking at and my attentions cannot bear too much subdividing these days.)