The Idea of Facades Across a Range of Texts

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The poem ‘The Ballad of Calvary Street' by James Baxter, the film ‘American Beauty' (directed by Sam Mendes and released in 1999), and the play ‘An Inspector Calls' written by J.B. Priestley and performed at Circa Theatre in 2005, are all texts that share a similar theme. Although these three texts are different in terms of authorship and the medium through which the significant messages are communicated, what the texts do have in common is that they all convey ideas about how facades and superficial images of family life only lead to soullessness and domestic disorder. The unique approach that each text takes to this issue heightens the impact of the texts in every case, and allows the discussion of facades to become more pertinent in a time when domestic problems still mar our society.

Baxter's poem, ‘The Ballad of Calvary Street', satirises the concept of facades and fake family life by ironically using religious imagery, and by utilising figurative language and clever diction to develop a rounded depiction of the sad characters at the heart of the poem. The poem discusses firstly the trellises that line Calvary Street (an image which conventionally would symbolise happy domestic life), and mentions the flowers that bloom "as bright as blood". In addition to being an insidious suggestion that there is violence beneath the veneer of this seemingly respectable society, this phrase also alludes to the crucifixion of Christ. This is confirmed by the line that later describes the house as "an empty tomb". This evocative metaphor hints that the house is a place of depression and emotional soullessness, and again links this home to the story of Christ; however, Baxter is comparing this house to Christ's story only ironically. Through the use of religious language, Baxter is able to sardonically indicate that the values of forgiveness and compassion so often connected to The Bible and religion are nowhere to be found in this unhappy home. To emphasise that religion plays no role in this distorted version of family life, Baxter intersperses the religious language with mundane descriptions (for instance, he writes, "the afternoon goes, goes by, while angels harp above a cloud …") to show that spirituality – and indeed, all ideas of ethics and morality – are forsaken in this barren location.

Baxter tells in the poem of how "two old souls go slowly mad", and constantly selects words that smartly suggest the fact that beneath the apparently happy façade, there is a cold empty reality where real love is nowhere to be found. For instance, once the children of the "two old souls" visit to "pay their dues" (a phrase that indicates that it is an action carried out only to maintain this façade), the group looks through "family files". The "files" refers to photographic albums, but the alliterative phrase used by Baxter hints more that the process is a mechanical, business-like procedure. Such a description highlights the soullessness of family life, partially caused by attempts to maintain a façade of happiness. Furthermore, Baxter accentuates the reluctance with which the members of the family go about their daily duties by stating that the old husband walks out to the garden in "boots of lead". This reinforces the fact that attempts to ensure that the family may appear to be happy only lead to disappointment and dissatisfaction.

The manner in which Baxter infuses religious imagery to emphasise unhappiness reflects Baxter's own struggle with religion and domestic life, and thus the poem, ‘The Ballad of Calvary Street', gains more power. The film ‘American Beauty' (1999), directed by Sam Mendes, views the issue of family life and superficiality through a quite different lens – and this slightly different perspective, as well as the powerful way in which the film uses cinematic conventions to convey its themes, also makes ‘American Beauty' an intriguing text to analyse in the context of this issue.

‘American Beauty' examines the...
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