Betrayal is structured as a series of vignettes “progressing” from the 1977 present back to 1968, when Jerry and Emma’s affair began. The reverse chronology is not fluid, as some scenes arc slightly ahead in a given year, while others are separated by as many as three years.This disjointed timeline creates an overall effect of the instability of time, the instability of human relationships, and the instability of meaning constructed through language, Harold Pinter’s main themes in this play.
Yet, perhaps the most significant effect of the play’s innovative structure is the way it redefines the role of the reader or audience from passive observer to a witness or accessory to crimes of the heart. As he reconstructs the past for the reader or audience, the characters’ language takes on a new meaning, as we already know what they yet do not: that they are all lying to each other and to themselves. Like peeling an onion, Pinter strips away the layers of deception and betrayal that have defined the three characters’ lives for nine years until we arrive at the ending, and the stark emotional truth of the affair we know is about to commence.
One of Pinter’s great achievements is maintaining the tension and suspense even though we know how the play will end. Rather than focusing on the events of what happens in the play, the reader or audience must attune to when they happen. This pulls us into the play’s stylized dramatic world and forces us to listen below the surface of the terse and otherwise unrevealing dialogue for the truth only we know. In this way, Pinter demonstrates how language also tends to betray meaningful intention and becomes an unreliable medium for honest communication.