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Theatre / Betrayal

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Betrayal is a 1978 play by British author Harold Pinter, considered one of his best and most influential works — and, indeed, one of the most influential plays of the 20th century. Its most notable stylistic device is its Back to Front structure: it begins with ex-lovers Emma and Jerry meeting in a pub in spring 1977, and ends with Jerry's first declaration of his adoration for Emma at a party in winter 1968. As you might imagine, this structure builds in a great deal of Dramatic Irony; it's disillusioning and depressing to see Jerry and Emma flirting in the final scene when you know just how dysfunctional the ensuing relationship is going to be.

The only other character (aside from a waiter who appears in one scene) is Robert, Emma's husband and Jerry's (alleged) best friend. Judith, Jerry's wife, is mentioned frequently but never appears. The play's style is generally minimalist: besides featuring only three real characters it has few dramatic set pieces, uses economical dialogue, and is usually staged quite sparingly. However, this does not prevent Pinter from using liberal and complex symbolism.

The title refers most obviously to Emma and Jerry's sleeping together for seven years behind Robert's back, but that's only one of many betrayals in the play. The characters lie almost constantly not only to each other but to themselves.

Pinter wrote the play while having an affair with the historian Antonia Fraser, but claims that it was actually based on another of his long-running extramarital affairs, with the TV presenter Joan Bakewell.

A film of Betrayal was made in 1983, directed by David Jones and starring Ben Kingsley as Robert, Jeremy Irons as Jerry, and Patricia Hodge as Emma. Pinter, a screenwriter as well as playwright, wrote the adaptation himself.

Tropes found in Betrayal include:

  • Back to Front
  • Beat: Pinter's famous pauses.
  • Call-Back and Call-Forward: Lots, to bring together the confusing back-and-forth timeline.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Robert, especially with Jerry
    Jerry: I lived with her.
    Robert: Yes. In the afternoons.
    Jerry: Sometimes very long ones. For seven years.
    Robert: Yes, you certainly knew all there was to know about that. About the seven years of afternoons.
  • Double Meaning: Squash isn't just squash in this play.
  • Feminine Women Can Cook: Emma attempts to play a traditionally feminine role and create an air of domesticity between herself and Jerry by putting on an apron and making him a stew. It's somewhat spoiled when she confesses that she's pregnant with Robert's baby.
  • He-Man Woman Hater: Robert derides Emma in front of Jerry and, when she asks if she could come and watch him and Jerry play squash he explains very patronisingly that squash is for men and 'you don't actually want a woman within a mile of the place'. Jerry's reduction of Emma to a romantic fantasy rather than a thinking feeling human being is also an example.
  • Housewife: Emma is restricted to this role for most of her marriage. When she opens an art gallery it effectively ends her relationship with Jerry because she no longer has time to see him.
  • Hypocrite: Emma is outraged and decides she wants a divorce when she finds out Robert has been 'betraying me for years' with other women, ignoring the fact that she spent seven years sleeping with his best friend.
  • I Know You Know I Know: There are hints of this in the big reveal in Scene Two, where Jerry finds out that Robert has known about the affair since 1973 rather than having found out the day before.
  • Implacable Man: Robert has shades of this (for example, in his studied indifference when Emma tells him about the affair: 'Ah. Yes. I thought it might be something like that') and is played this way often, including by Kingsley.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: When Emma tells him about the affair Robert is briefly concerned about his son Ned being Jerry's.
    Robert: Yes, but how long exactly?
    Emma: Five years.
    Robert: Five years?
    Ned is one year old.
    Did you hear what I said?
    Emma: Yes. He's your son. Jerry was in America. For two months.
    • However, arguably Pinter deliberately avoids the issue of the child's legitimacy by providing the neat and somewhat contrived solution of Ned definitely being Robert's because Jerry was in America when he was conceived, which by removing a real source of concern emphasises the shallow and petty nature of the characters' relationships.
  • One Drink Will Kill the Baby: Decisively averted. Emma has a vodka to get up the courage to tell Jerry she's pregnant.
  • Only One Name: Everyone except for, possibly, Casey (his name is Roger, as Emma snaps at Jerry when getting defensive about her relationship with him, but it isn't clear whether Casey is a surname or nickname).
  • Seasonal Motif: Pinter specifies the season whenever there's a shift in time and they generally have a symbolic reflection on the relationship. The most important example is when Emma is breaking up with Jerry and they argue over whether the last time they met was summer or autumn.
    Jerry: In the summer, was it?
    Emma: Well, was it?
    Jerry: I know it seems -
    Emma: It was actually the beginning of September.
    Jerry: Well, that's summer, isn't it?
    Emma: It was actually extremely cold. It was early autumn.
  • Subtext: Standard Pinter. Nobody ever says what they mean.
  • Surprise Pregnancy: Almost certainly Emma's with Ned; given the parlous state of her marriage and the fact that it ruins her relationship with Jerry it seems likely that it was accidental. This is interesting since the play comments on the more open and casual attitudes to sexuality in the 1970s, which developed in large part from the introduction of the Pill in the 1960s. Showing through the pregnancy that sex is still not without obvious consequences therefore underscores the more subtly depicted repercussions of the affair and the message that Everybody Has Lots of Sex is not really making people any happier.
  • The Unseen: Judith. Also the two couples' various children, and Emma's new lover Casey.