What role does memory play in the play Betrayal?

Quick answer:

Memory is central to the play Betrayal and to the unusual temporal structure it employs. It is revealed throughout the play that the characters have knowledge of the past that the audience does not, information which is slowly revealed to the audience and which they must then remember to follow along with the play's events.

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Memory plays an important role in Harold Pinter’s play, especially in regard to the innovative temporal structure he employs. The characters review significant events that occurred earlier in their lives and reveal to the audience which events they have kept in mind and which ones they have forgotten, tried to repress, or denied. The significance of memory is established from the outset, as Emma tells Jerry that she has been thinking of him. When he asks why, she responds, “Well, it’s nice sometimes to think back, isn’t it?” Pinter further conveys the longevity of their relationship through a reference to Emma’s daughter, whom Jerry knew when she was younger. Emma evokes a time when he tossed the child up into the air. Surprised that Charlotte remembers, he comments “What a memory.”

In these ways, the playwright establishes that the characters know what happened earlier, but the audience does not. Pinter also uses the reverse chronology structure and gradual revelation of significant details to engage the audience’s memory. The mental exercise of constantly having to recall details of the characters’ relationships and to evaluate which ones will be significant requires the audience to be more alert than in many conventional plays.

One significant use of memory concerns Emma and Robert’s time in Venice and the letters that Jerry had written to Emma there. The audience is made aware that Robert had found those letters at the time they were written. Robert has a clear memory of his feelings upon learning of his wife’s betrayal. That epiphany has continued to be meaningful to Robert, but that is a memory he keeps secret from Jerry. Emma not only shares with Jerry a memory of the start of their affair, but also of Robert having shared that knowledge with her.

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