Betrayal is a brief play that unfolds as a series of vignettes among a woman and two men: Emma, Jerry, and Robert. Emma and Robert are married, and Emma has had a long-standing affair with Jerry, Robert's best friend. The action is presented in reverse chronology, starting in 1977, when the affair between Emma and Jerry has been over for some time. The scenes of the play move back through the 1970s while the affair is taking place, and the play terminates in 1968 on the day when Jerry first declares his love for Emma, who is already married to Robert.
Much of the dialogue consists of discovering what each of the characters knows about the others. Early in the play, Jerry is surprised when he learns that Robert has known about the affair for four years. The deceptions between characters are thus multilayered: the affair (a deception or "betrayal" in itself) becomes another deception because Emma does not tell Jerry that Robert already knows about it, and Robert also reveals nothing. All through the play, the characters speak to one another in a quiet, matter-of-fact way, as if screened from the emotion inherent in the situation. The reversed time sequencing tends to make the action static: we see what the result is first, and then the background is presented, but nothing advances beyond the opening scene where the affair between Emma and Jerry is finished. The deeper meaning, the why of all of this, is screened from us as well. Though Betrayal is more explicit in theme and action than most of Pinter's works, the ultimate motivations and feelings of its characters remain a mystery.