Drama Review – Betrayal by Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter deserves respect as the greatest English language playwright since William Shakespeare. Whereas The Bard crafted beautifully worded verbose passages, Mr. Pinter chose the opposite approach. He populated his plays with repetition of words, and short phrases separated by myriad pauses. This technique equated to genius. Mr. Pinter’s craft reached its apogee in 1978 when he published Betrayal.

Many playwrights either draw on aphorisms or choose esoteric expressions for their titles. Not Pinter. This play delivered exactly what I expected. As with many of Pinter’s works, the drama contained few characters. The story centered on an act of betrayal between good friends Robert and Jerry. It seems the latter engaged in an affair with his “oldest friend’s” wife, Emma, “for years.” (Location 305)  In addition to that betrayal, Jerry felt betrayed by Emma’s revelation to Robert that the two were lovers. Emma felt betrayed because Robert “had…other women for years.” (Location305) Even by the standards of a Harold Pinter play Betrayal was not a happy story.

Pinter, as usual, selected very unconventional characters to animate the drama. Here’s Robert’s reaction when Emma informed him of her affair with his friend.

I’ve always liked Jerry. To be honest, I’ve always liked him rather more than I’ve liked you. Maybe I should’ve had an affair with him myself.

(Silence.)

Tell me, are you looking forward to our trip to Torcello? (Location 898)

I really liked the way the playwright structured this work. It opened in the present as Jerry and Emma met for a drink. During the course of a conversation that seemed banal on the surface, it transitioned to their past affair. In the next scene Jerry discussed it with Robert. Each subsequent one regressed backwards in time. The play ended with the occasion when Jerry and Emma first felt attracted to one another.

I complimented Mr. Pinter’s minimalist use of language. Here’s an exceptional example of it.

Emma: (Pause) It’s just…an empty home.

Jerry: It’s not a home.

(Pause.)

I know. I know what you wanted…but it could never…actually be a home. You have a home. I have a home. With curtains, et cetera. And children. Two children in two homes. There are no children here, so it’s not the same kind of home. (Location 586)

Home appeared seven times in the above 57 word passage. I admire the way Pinter managed to include it so many times in such short succession without it coming across as contrived.

Here’s another phenomenal example of repetition. In this one, Robert explains his awareness of Jerry’s and Emma’s infidelity.

Robert: No she didn’t. She didn’t tell me about you and her last night. She told me about you and her four years ago.

(Pause.)

So she didn’t have to tell me again last night. Because I knew. And she knew I knew because she told me herself four years ago. (Location 2057)

I only had one criticism of Betrayal. I didn’t understand Robert’s behavior. From my reading of the text, the character didn’t possess any emotions. I can’t believe someone would react so dispassionately to a wife’s relationship with a close friend. Because of his inability to express feelings, I wondered what attracted the other women to him; and, for that matter, his wife.

But, that’s how I interpreted Robert on the page. I’ve never watched Betrayal performed. It’s possible an experienced director would understand him differently.

For his lifetime of work Harold Pinter received the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature. I’m a huge fan and I’ve enjoyed many of his plays. If he never wrote anything else, he could have earned the Swedish Academy’s honor for Betrayal alone.

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