This week I went to see my favourite musical show, Sunset Boulevard, in London, in a bold and re-imagined mise-en-scène by the visionary director Jamie Lloyd.
Among the novelties of this production with regard to the original Broadway show was the removal of several references to people associated with the history of cinema. A line referencing ‘the Fairbanks, the Gilberts, the Valentinos’ was replaced by a less powerful metaphor about the idols of yore. The ‘empty pool where Clara Bow and Fatty Arbuckle must have swum 10,000 midnight ago’ was gone too.
There was no clear reason why these names were gone from the new script other than the fact that the producers thought the audience may not know who they were.
At first, I was disappointed. But then, on reflection, I started to open up to the idea that this is an inevitable part of the journey of every language and every culture, that words come and go, that references lose their edge as time goes by. And the first example that came to mind was, as usual, from the ancients.
When we think of the ancient Romans and Latin, we rarely distinguish between the archaic, classic and late-antique period, a sweeping stretch of history from the 8th century BC to the 3rd century AD. It was a period in which Latin and Latin culture evolved as much as any other language and culture on earth. In the archaic period, Latin was unstandardised. Archaic Latin is marked by its simplicity and variability, lacking the grammatical and syntactical rules that would later characterize Classical Latin. And in the classical period, many words and references which were commonplace in archaic Latin had dropped out of use.
For example, the word ‘solon’. In archaic Latin, the word meant law, and the reference was clear.
Solon was an ancient Athenian statesman, lawmaker, and poet who lived in the 6th century BC. He is often considered one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece, a group of philosophers and statesmen renowned for their wisdom and contributions to the development of Greek political thought.
Solon played a crucial role in Athenian politics during a period of social and economic unrest. In 594 BC, he was appointed as the archon (chief magistrate) of Athens with special legislative powers. His reforms aimed to address issues of economic inequality and social strife.
In archaic Latin, the word ‘solon’ harked back to the reforms of Solon, and by metonymy it was extended to any law. But by the classical period (3rd century BC-3rd century AD), the word disappeared and was replaced by ‘lex’, from which we get everything from ‘legislation’ to ‘legality’. And Solon, the archaic epitomy of legislation, lost its purchase on the mind of language users.
Language is living history, but not all history continues to be alive.