Critical Context

Despite its unusual dramatic structure, Betrayal is one of Harold Pinter’s least enigmatic and most accessible plays. Pinter is best known for witty dramas in which a pervasive, often unnameable sense of menace dominates the story. Betrayal retains the wit and the drama, but opts for characters and dramatic action that are far more straightforward than is generally typical of its author’s work. In such plays as The Birthday Party (pr. 1958), The Caretaker (pr., pb. 1960), and The Homecoming (pr., pb. 1965), Pinter structures his stories around groups of characters whose complex interactions are both fascinating and mysterious in their implications. Betrayal, on the other hand, explores its subject through characters whose actions are familiar to the audience and therefore more easily understood. Pinter’s plots often feature the disruption of the status quo in a family or a relationship by the introduction of a new element in the form of a stranger or an outsider—a theme that exists in Betrayal to the extent that Jerry’s desire for Emma disrupts both her marriage and his friendship with her husband. Beyond this, however, the plot has little in common with Pinter’s usual story lines.

Betrayal is instantly recognizable as a Pinter play in its use of dialogue and dramatic pauses, its sense of something of importance implied in casual conversations, and the arch wit that is often present in surprising and unexpected moments. The nameless dread that permeates so many of Pinter’s plays is often the result of emotional alienation on the part of his characters. Alienation is a recurring theme in post-World War II drama and is the state in which Jerry, Emma, and Robert find themselves as the play opens. The play itself proved popular with audiences, perhaps because of its accessibility, and was made into a film in 1983, with a screenplay by Pinter. It is a work that conveys Pinter’s originality and brilliance, and it confirms his position as one of the theater’s most important modern writers.