In some respects Betrayal represented a departure for Harold Pinter, in that it seems to be more in the realist vein than his earlier plays. In a classic love-triangle story, the characters’ motivations and actions, especially the multiple layers of deception they practice, can easily be read as a conventional drawing-room drama. Many dismissed the reverse chronology of the exposition as an empty trick.
Pinter has carefully crafted the play, however, to develop the “betrayal” theme on multiple levels. While the audience is initially led to believe that this love triangle is the central topic, it is soon revealed that there are additional characters that never appear onstage, whom the threesome—Jerry, Emma, and Robert—either solely or together have betrayed. As this information is imparted slowly to the audience, at each step it becomes clear that the play is something other than what it seems—that the author has betrayed the audience, by tricking them repeatedly. None of the characters are heroic and none are blameless; all have betrayed not just each other but many other people as well.
The use of language largely aids both the characters’ and the author’s betrayal. Because the three characters know each other so well—as husband and wife, best friends, and lovers—much can remain unspoken, and it is left to the audience to read between the lines and decipher their coded meanings. The dramatic tension builds in part through the slow release of information crucial to the plot and is enhanced by the reverse chronology. The morsels of information, dispensed in sometimes uneven fashion with hesitations, may indicate merely uncertainty on the character’s part or the desire to deceive. This type of space in these uneven rhythms, which are both built into the written dialogue and allowed to develop in the actor’s delivery, is characteristic of the author’s writing and has become famous as the “Pinter pause.”