December 2022

The Steiny Road to Operadom | Karren LaLonde Alenier | www.scene4.com

The Artists Who Ignore Their Own Banshees

Karren Alenier

As a practicing artist, the Steiny Road Poet was deeply disturbed by Martin McDonagh's film The Banshees of Inisherin. The film explores the friendship that two men have shared over a lifetime on a seemingly idyllic island off the coast of Ireland in 1923, time of the Irish Civil War that followed the Irish War of Independence from the United Kingdom. Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson), a fiddler and a composer, tells P谩draic S煤illeabh谩in (Colin Farrell) he, Colm, no longer wants to be friends and that there will be consequences if P谩draic won't leave Colm in peace.


Normally one would imagine Colm's threat would involve fisticuffs. That Colm would get angry and beat this man he called friend. No, that isn't it. And while most of the people in the town think Colm's refusal to continue the friendship is "not nice," what Colm does is horrifying—he threatens to cut off his own finger every time P谩draic talks to him. Then Colm does it and walks to his friend's house and throws a sheared off finger at P谩draic's door. Eventually, P谩draic with no intention of malice provokes Colm into sheering off four more fingers which Colm again and, in one incident, throws all four fingers at P谩draic's door. The consequence of Colm's self -mutilation is that P谩draic's beloved miniature donkey chokes on one of the fingers and dies. Then P谩draic sets Colm's house on fire with Colm in it, but he is careful to take Colm's dog home with him.

The reason Colm doesn't want to be friends is that he says P谩draic is boring and that this is taking time away from Colm's artistic endeavors. Since both men are getting on in age, and neither have children by the way, Colm has realized he must work more now to leave something of himself behind.

The film is filled with contradictions besides the uncivil war between the two friends. When P谩draic gets beaten up by the town's cop, a man who regularly brutalizes his so-called simpleton son, Colm decks the cop and drives P谩draic most of the way home and with his arm around his former friend. When Colm confesses to the priest who comes once a week to the island that he (Colm) is being unkind to P谩draic, the priest gets furious with the fiddler and chases him out of the confessional box without any assignment for penitence. The question arises when we see the friendship between P谩draic and the cop's son as to who the simpleton is.

Steiny thinks you, Dear Reader, have adequate background now on McDonagh's film so that she can introduce how this story parallels that of Gertrude Stein in World War II. Stein and her partner Alice Toklas were warned multiple times that they were in danger of being swept up by Hitler's henchmen. Yet, they as Jews and clandestine lesbians stayed the course, thinking at first that they were safe in France's Free Zone where Stein had a friend in a high place in the Vichy Government. To the Steiny Road Poet's way of thinking, Stein was inflicting harm on herself and her partner. They could have done what other Americans did and go home to America and ride out the war there. Surely Stein with all the harrowing moments of that war—like Germans being billeted in her house which was near the German border—lost some years of her life with those fight-or -flight hormones (cortisol) coursing through her system. Stein died of uterine cancer in July of 1946 after years of going through the stress of war and its deprivations.


In her own way, Stein wanted to be left in peace too. She said she wrote "for herself and strangers." She toured the United States in 1934-1935 where she was treated as a pop icon made famous by her strange opera with Virgil Thomson Four Saints in Three Acts and her whacky uncategorizable Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. On that trip, she had to pretend that her beloved Alice was her step-and-fetch-it secretary. Would Stein's artistic life have ended if she and Alice had gone back to Baltimore or San Francisco as Hitler's army was preparing to march into Paris? Not likely though Stein did experience a huge case of writer's block after her successful 1930's lecture tour. Did Stein think she was self-harming by staying in France during WWII? There seems to be no evidence of that, but lots of artists lost their lives by not being able to escape Europe or by waiting too long to try to get out. She was aware of such things happening to people she knew. Denial of reality and stubbornness to see the consequences of choices made have wrecked many an artistic life.

The Banshees of Inisherin doesn't tell us why these two men never
married. They aren't gay. We know that P谩draic loves his uncomplicated life with his animals on Inisherin. While P谩draic's spinster sister is driven out by Colm's finger throwing and the unavoidable contact with the ghoulish old woman who is clearly one of the Banshees of Inisherin,  P谩draic won't accept his sister's invitation to visit her new place on the mainland although he misses her.

Steiny would never cut off a body part to convince a bothersome friend that she needed time to write or stay in a foreign country where harm loomed. The question of what an artist will do to carry on their work is large but who wants to invite death to this roundtable?


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Karren Alenier is a poet and writer. She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. She is the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. Read her blog.
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