The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Betrayal opens with what should traditionally be the story’s closing segment and moves backwards through its characters’ lives during a nine-year period. Scene 1 takes place in 1977 as Jerry, a London literary agent, meets Emma, a gallery manager and the wife of his best friend, for a drink. The two—former lovers whose seven-year affair ended two years earlier—make awkward small talk, catch up on each other’s lives, and reminisce about their affair and the flat they once rented for their assignations. Jerry tells Emma that he has heard she is having an affair with Roger Casey, one of his writer clients whose work she had never liked, and Emma is vague as to the truth behind the rumors. Emma confides that she and her husband Robert, a publisher, are separating. Much to Emma’s surprise—and to Jerry’s as well—Robert has confessed to having had numerous affairs throughout their marriage. In return, she has told him about her affair with Jerry; the news upsets Jerry, as he and Robert have remained friends.

Scene 2 takes place later that same day as Robert arrives at Jerry’s house for a drink. Jerry tells his friend that he has seen Emma and knows that Robert has learned of their affair. To his astonishment, Robert responds that he has known about Jerry and his wife for the last four years and had assumed that Jerry was aware of his knowledge. He had guessed the truth long ago, he says, and Emma had confirmed his suspicions. Jerry asks tentatively if Robert intends to tell Judith, Jerry’s wife, about the affair, and Robert explains that he is past caring about anything to do with Emma and Jerry’s relationship. Robert also mentions that he suspects his wife is having an affair with Roger Casey, whose books he publishes. The two men engage in a brief skewering of Casey’s talents as a writer, although both admit that they profit from Casey’s popularity.

Scene 3 takes place in the winter of 1975 in Jerry and Emma’s rented flat. It has been some months since the pair last met and it is clear that their affair is coming to a close. Emma is kept busy by her new job as an art gallery manager, while Jerry is often in the United States on business. In earlier days, they remember, they found time to meet despite the demands of careers and their respective families. The two decide to give up the flat and sell the furnishings to the landlady.

Scene 4 takes place a year earlier at Emma and Robert’s house as Jerry drops in unexpectedly for a drink after a meeting with Roger Casey. Robert, who, unbeknown to Jerry, already knows of the affair, carries on an edgy conversation with Jerry while they wait for Emma, who is putting two-year-old Ned to bed. The three then discuss Casey’s work, which Emma criticizes as dishonest, and Robert asks Jerry to play squash with him. Emma asks if she can watch their game and is sharply rebuked by Robert, who explains why...

(The entire section is 1189 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Betrayal’s most notable dramatic device is its unusual backward structuring, which in effect turns the play’s story inside out and bestows upon the audience the gift of foresight. As the scenes take the action further and further back toward its beginnings, the audience brings to each scene a growing knowledge of its future consequences and, in many cases, information regarding who knew what and when in the complicated romantic triangle. The result is an elaborately woven pattern of events and comments that adds layer upon layer of knowledge about the characters and their lives, gradually answering the viewer’s questions regarding what has given rise to the events already presented.

There is also a distinctive emotional impact that grows out of the play’s structure. As the story nears the beginning of Emma and Jerry’s affair, the scenes take on an added poignancy from the knowledge of the future unhappiness that awaits the pair as their relationship deteriorates and Emma and Robert’s marriage falls apart. The giddiness and exhilaration that mark the play’s final scene, as Robert first declares his feelings for Emma, are in sharp contrast to the strained, low-key exchanges of their post-affair meeting in scene 1. The same is true of the differences between Robert and Jerry’s brief exchange in scene 9, and their awkward encounter in scene 2. In scene 9, Jerry has already begun his deception, passing off his overtures to Emma as a...

(The entire section is 542 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Esslin, Martin. Pinter: The Playwright. 6th and rev. ed. London: Methuen, 1984.

Gordon, Lois. Harold Pinter: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1990.

Hinchliffe, Arnold P. Harold Pinter. New York: Twayne, 1967.

Knowles, Ronald. Understanding Harold Pinter. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.

Nightingale, Benedict. “Action and Control.” In Modern British Dramatists: New Perspectives, edited by John Russell Brown. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1984.

Prentice, Penelope. The Pinter Ethic: The Erotic Aesthetic. New York: Garland, 1994.

Simon, John. Review of Betrayal. New York 33 (November 27, 2000): 142-144.

Thompson, David T. Pinter: The Player’s Playwright. New York: Shocken Books, 1985.