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.
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...
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