Yet again, Mad Men wades in where UK television fears to tread, lifting the lid on the fictions of consumption and the process of creation that lies behind any brand’s myth. This time Draper was the cynic, executing what the client ‘wanted’ while Peggy felt creatively challenged by the stereotype they were creating. "You are not an artist, Peggy – you solve problems" was his cutting one liner. However this off the peg approach ultimately back fired as the copy of the original became a tokenistic parody of itself, with the additional irony that in carrying out his not so macho impression of her female performance in turn implicitly "outed" the secretive Sal to his sexually unsatisfied wife!
In the UK, it seems we leave such meaning for the stage to pursue (probably because angst doesn’t focus group terribly well amongst those it is implicitly criticizing?) where last week I was witness to the first use of ‘semiotician’ in a West End play; the modern take on Moliere’s Misanthrope which grapples with the problem of the ‘authentic’ writer in a world where truth is what you can make out of it. Ms. Knightley was fantastic as the shallow image of herself (of course being a local girl made good I have to be supportive) while Lewis was left grasping for a dramatic anchor for his angry young man eventually lost in a world where public form and private bitchiness are the ultimate proof of superior social value. Ultimately he became some sort of Daily Mail reading conservative (with a small ‘c’) setting out an escapist bourgeois fantasy in suburbia which was cruelly dismissed by Knightley as merely swapping a life of being a commodity for one where she is bourgeois property –albeit the very place of her ‘real’ birth!
Watching the play reminded me of the cringing irony of watching "The Hours" in Richmond cinema, surrounded by fellow SW Londoners, while Virginia Wolff rebuffs her husband’s desperate entreaty to choose between ‘Richmond or death’ – "I choose death". Cue every person in the room experiencing a reflexive perception evidenced only by a ripple of nervous laughter.
Perhaps that is why the satire feels different and lands different punches in the post modern world? Our world of brands and advertising has been an ‘ironic joke’ for a long time now – for fear of analyzing too closely what lies beneath we laugh it all off. Even our politics has become a similar performance of protest and counter protest – "all sound and fury signifying nothing". I found myself having sympathy for Knightley’s character because she self consciously lives in the "real economy" of image and commodity and trades herself for the illusion of individuality, while I found myself unable to connect with the anachronistic Alceste for his nostalgic hankering after a social world long fossilized in its semi detached museums. Museums which for Knightley meant the complete loss of self – itself a sort of death. But then maybe it is all Magritte to me.