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Betrayal is a presentation of a time-worn situation in literature and in life—a love triangle—but in a unique way that links it with the concerns and themes of modernist theater.

Pinter shows the audience the dynamic among Emma, Jerry, and Robert in a stripped-down manner, like the scaffolding or framework...

(The entire section contains 2181 words.)

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Betrayal is a presentation of a time-worn situation in literature and in life—a love triangle—but in a unique way that links it with the concerns and themes of modernist theater.

Pinter shows the audience the dynamic among Emma, Jerry, and Robert in a stripped-down manner, like the scaffolding or framework of a building. The dialogue consists mostly of short statements without much elaboration, and the statements are delivered in a matter-of-fact way. It is as if the characters are going through the motions of their circumstances without much emotion or self-assessment. Amongst Pinter's plays, Betrayal is one of the most naturalistic in tone and technique. The simplicity of the plot and the dialogue is ironic given that the situation is layered and complex, and the title refers to multiple levels of betrayal or deception in the characters' interactions. Emma and Jerry deceive Emma's husband, Robert, by having an affair. Emma deceives Jerry by not telling him that Robert has known about the affair for years. Robert deceives Emma by having affairs of his own. Jerry and Robert consider themselves best friends, but Robert deceives Jerry in never revealing to him that he is also having affairs.

In spite of these multiple deceptions, the main point that comes through is that the circumstances have something flatly ordinary about them. Pinter's message may be that these marital infidelities and the lying that accompanies them are just a symptom of the overall meaninglessness of life. He presents the story in reverse chronology by beginning in 1977, when Jerry and Emma have already broken off their affair, and ending in 1968, just before the affair starts. The presentation has a static quality: things have already happened, they have already been brought to completion, and the action of the play is a revelation of how they developed as they did. But what is revealed is curiously superficial. The audience does not see much of what has motivated the characters to behave as they have, and this is part of the play's message: people act and "betray" for reasons largely unknown to themselves in a world that makes little sense.

The Play

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1189

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 her presence would be undesirable with a degree of bitterness clearly motivated by his knowledge of her affair. Jerry says that the game will have to wait for a week or two, as he is leaving shortly for the United States with Casey. After Jerry leaves the house, Emma and Robert kiss, and he holds her as she begins to cry.

Scene 5 takes place in Venice, where Emma and Robert are on vacation, in 1973. Robert tells Emma that there is a letter for her at the American Express office, which Emma says she has already collected. When she learns that her husband has actually seen the envelope, however, she mentions casually that it was from Jerry. The two engage in a tense exchange in which Robert asks pointedly if Jerry and his family are well, if his friend has sent him any message, and if Emma can remember just when it was that he first introduced her to Jerry. Realizing that he has guessed the truth, Emma tells Robert that she and Jerry are lovers and have been for five years. Ned, Robert observes sharply, is only one year old, to which Emma responds that the boy was conceived while Jerry was in the United States and Robert is indeed his father. Robert comments that he has always liked Jerry—rather more, if truth be told, than he likes his wife—and asks if she is looking forward to their trip to Torcello the following day.

Scene 6 takes place later that year in Emma and Jerry’s flat. Their affair is in full flower, although Emma does not tell Jerry that Robert has learned the truth. When Jerry mentions that he and Robert are having lunch later that week, it is clear to him that Emma is uneasy at the idea. Jerry confesses that he has had two near slip-ups recently, one involving a mislaid letter from Emma and another involving a lie he told his wife to cover one of their meetings. They embrace, although both realize the treacherous emotional ground on which they stand.

The subject of scene 7 is Robert and Jerry’s lunch later that week. The two meet at an Italian restaurant and discuss Robert and Emma’s vacation in Italy, although Robert’s barbed comments are lost on Jerry. Robert says that he went alone by speedboat to Torcello and spent the morning reading William Butler Yeats, which secretly surprises Jerry, who has been told by Emma that their Torcello trip was canceled because of a speedboat strike. The two discuss Casey, and Robert tells Jerry that he must stop by the house for a drink sometime—Emma would love to see him.

Scene 8 takes place in 1971 in Jerry and Emma’s flat. Emma is cooking stew for Jerry and says she ran into Judith the day before. She wonders if Judith knows about their affair, and Jerry assures her that she does not. His wife, he says, has an admirer—a doctor who sometimes takes her to lunch—and Jerry confesses that he finds the situation irritating in that he is uncertain about the true nature of the relationship. He doubts, however, whether his wife is deceiving him, as she loves him and is far too busy. Emma tells Jerry that she is pregnant and that Robert is the baby’s father.

Scene 9 takes place in the winter of 1968 at a party given by Robert and Emma. Emma enters their bedroom to find Jerry waiting for her. He tells her drunkenly but passionately that he adores her and finds her beautiful. Emma gently rebuffs him, but Jerry persists and the two kiss. Emma breaks away just before Robert enters the room, and Jerry tells his friend that he has a lovely wife. “I speak as your oldest friend,” he says. “Your best man.” “You are, actually,” Robert responds. He leaves the room and Emma begins to follow him, but Jerry grasps her arm. The play ends as “they stand still, looking at each other.”

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 542

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 drunken tribute to his best friend’s wife. Robert, however, is touchingly sincere as he responds, “You are, actually,” to Jerry’s reference to himself as Robert’s best man. The exchange highlights the probability that Jerry’s betrayal of their friendship has been at least as painful for Robert as his wife’s infidelity.

Pinter possesses an extraordinary ear for the manner in which people express themselves, and his characters are often given to exchanges in which the subject apparently under discussion is actually masking the true import of the conversation. In scene 4, Robert and Jerry have an animated and, on Robert’s part, almost hostile conversation on personality differences between boy and girl babies that is in fact an outgrowth of Robert’s suppressed resentment of Emma and Jerry’s affair. The game of squash, mentioned repeatedly in the play, becomes a barometer of the state of Robert and Jerry’s friendship; Robert’s observations that they never seem to play anymore are barbed references to the real reason that their friendship has deteriorated. Later in the story’s action (although earlier in the play’s), Robert comments that he and Casey also “haven’t played squash for years”—Casey now having assumed Jerry’s place as Emma’s lover.

Pinter’s style as a playwright is well known and immediately identifiable, and the term “Pinteresque” is sometimes used to describe a particular style of character drama marked by terse, witty exchanges delivered in clipped tones and broken by brief dramatic pauses. Indeed, Betrayal’s script contains very few stage directions other than “Pause” and “Silence,” which often appear several times per page. These breaks in the flow of the dialogue add dramatic emphasis to a particular line or emotion, and timing is a key element in their effectiveness.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 96

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.

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