If Eliza Bent's new play The Hotel Colors hits the ear at an odd angle, that is by design: When we hear the play's six Italian characters, holed up together in a tatty hostel in Rome, utter lines like, "I ask excuse of Formal You," or, "It is not just. You have no furs on your legs," we're hearing Bent's odd, idiosyncratic "literal" translations from the Italian that is their native tongue. The premise is roughly that because these six are from different parts of the country, they're speaking in a slightly stilted formal Italian with each other, all the better to be understood—that is, all except Irish Nick, who's spent time in Dublin and who talks in slangy, recognizable-to-us contemporary English (or, as he tells a girl from Sardinia, "I don't speak normal"). The action that ensues, within the span of one eventful day and night, includes several calls home, a nosebleed makeout session, the singing of songs and the eating of pizza, and a strenuous party game called "Bite the Bag" (pretty self-explanatory, actually).
Bent's play, which opens May 8 at the Bushwick Starr, represents her first full-length production as a just-a-playwright (she's performed in her own self-penned work as well as in a number of plays with the acclaimed Half-Straddle; she's not performing in Hotel Colors*). She got her masters in playwriting at Brooklyn College with Mac Wellman and Erin Courtney, and happens to be co-associate editor with me at American Theatre. We decided to conduct an interview about her play via g-chat. What follows is an edited transcript, in literal English.
Rob Weinert-Kendt: I enjoyed the play, and found it moving, too. It was less strange to read than I thought it would be—either that or I just got used to the language.
Eliza Bent: Bravo.
RWK: Can you tell me about the inspiration for it? And then about the writing process. I'm particularly interested in whether you conceived the lines in Italian, then translated them back, or vice versa, or both.
EB: Va bene, I will tell it to you. I wrote the play because it was my first semester in graduate school and I was freaking out about what to write. Like, I had forgotten almost that going to grad school for playwriting meant writing a play.
EB: In any case, I was interested in Beckett and how he has those sparse, poetic plays. And how when you speak another language (in his case French) you just gotta say what you mean. So Mac Wellman was like, "Write a play using your Italian." And of course also, "Give yourself some stupid restraints"...Actually he'd say "stoopid"...the stoopider the better.
So I was like, "Va bene," and would mess around with these little exercises. At first it was maybe going to be about a class learning Italian but I realized that'd be a ripoff of that Dutch film Bread and Tulips.
RWK: Don't mess with the Dutch.
EB: At any rate, a hostel seemed like a good idea, or at least an idea. And I always have found hostels to be sort of amazing and dreadful and hopeful and depressing.
RWK: Yeah, I almost smoked crack at one once.
EB: EW! Rob, I cannot handle these personal details of your life.
RWK: Sorry. I mean, it was offered and I was like, um, I have to go.
EB: Damn dude. What country?
EB: YOU STAYED IN A HOSTEL IN THE U.S.? Now THAT is depressing.
RWK: I was cheap.
RWK: Anyhooo...I wanted to get back to your writing process, how you came up with the lines...
EB: Right, in terms of the language experiment, I would think of the line in Italian and then very quickly do a literal translation.
RWK: Right, I wondered, because with a line like, "That is exaggerated," for example, that reads like it's supposed to mean, "That is too much." So did you first think of the English phrase "too much," then translate that into some Italian word which means literally "too much," and it comes back "exaggerated"? Or do the Italians actually have a version of that phrase that when translated comes out as "that is exaggerated"? Does this make sense?
EB: In Italian people say "e esagerato." It kinda means too much but it also means that it's an exageration...to be over the top. But I love the sense of "exaggeration" as being totally over the top. And it's often said with a bit of a sigh or irked air. [here i would demonstrate for you in real life]
RWK: It's not hard to imagine. :)
So I do want to ask larger questions about the play but can I also ask really specific things about lines that I like or intrigued/puzzled me?
EB: Yes, of course. Ma certo.
RWK: Like the exclamation, "Porcine misery"—that is priceless. Is that like saying, "fucking hell"?
EB: Hahahaha, that's a good one. We actually have changed that to "pig misery." "Porca miseria" is the Italian. People were like, "'Porcine' is too weird." And in Italian I think "porca" is actually like slut or prostitute; it's not a nice term. But it always sounded like pig or pork to me. Allora, I made it so.
RWK: Oh, darn, I love "porcine misery," but you're right, it probably doesn't roll off the tongue. But your answer raises a few questions: One, isn't part of the point of the play to make these actors say stuff that doesn't roll off the tongue easily? And two, it sounds like you have some unreliable translations in there (I noticed a few others, like "Hippocrates" for "hypocrites" and "limpid" for "limp"). Is that part of the game, too?
EB: Sure. I mean...I'm not some amazing translator. That was part of the fun. Because as I was translating the play from brain to computer screen, my "translations," so to speak, aren't at all like Beckett. It's florid and weird and idiosyncratic.
EB: Hippocrates is a fave. Limpid is correct, though.
RWK: But limpid means "clear," no?
EB: I don't concern myself with meanings of words!
RWK: I saw you mention in another interview that this raised issues about language and communication, and how much we can't say with words, etc. Was it your intention at the start to examine these things, or did you discover a lot of these levels/meanings as you wrote? What surprised you or challenged you the most as you wrote this?
EB: I mean...yeah, talking is hard. Or at least...this is something that I think about a lot, both when I lived in Italy, when I do work with Half Straddle, and also in writing this play.
I remember in my youth as an undergrad kind of trembling when I was reading stuff by Saussure and those dudes about the limits of language, and it's curious how when you learn another language you can be freed, in a sense, from yourself. When I would have little arguments with my boyfriend in Italy it was vexing. I would always start to speak in English which would upset him, but actually being forced to use the words I knew helped me express the things I wanted to say...well, usually...whereas in English I can talk in a fine circle and get nowhere close to what it is I mean to say. And I think probably everyone feels that sometimes.
In terms of what surprised me as I wrote? I don't know...maybe how quickly it all came out in a jumble, and I didn't have a desk so I was writing in my bed in my old apartment. And I watched a lot of "Jersey Shore." Maybe that was a surprise: watching "Jersey Shore" was a little treat for when I'd write some stuff.
RWK: Those folks are Italian-American, aren't they?
EB: They are...but that has nothing to do with it...and everything to do with it.
EB: It's like they are living in an extended hostel. And going to the gym and going tanning and being very party-focused. And something about those confessionals was compelling to me, in terms of putting those confessionals with the characters in the play.
RWK: Did you like spending time with your characters, or was it like any relationship: sometimes you loved them but you needed a break, too? Or were any of them really hard to write/spend time with?
EB: Hahahaha. Um, no. I love the characters!
RWK: Which one is you? (half kidding)
EB: Oh please. They are all aspects of me.
RWK: Oh, good answer.
EB: But like they are also inspired in part by some people that I knew and met in Italy. Like there's a real Irish Nick out there. I am the most uncreative person ever.
RWK: Wow, was he as annoying/hilarious in real life?
EB: He was intense. He would give sloppy kisses on the cheek and you'd kind of have to wipe it off.
RWK: So I just really had one more question: Is "Bite the Bag" a real game?
EB: Yes. I have only played it once, on Fire Island. But a Canadian was leading the charge.
*This line has been corrected, per Eliza's comment below.