Last Updated on November 23, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512
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. 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. Pinter plays with the idea of morality. Each of the characters seems to hold questionable morals: Emma excuses her own infidelity yet claims to be separating from Robert due to his. Jerry finds it hard to believe his wife could be having an affair—that being said, she likely does not suspect him, nor did he suspect Robert in any way.
The reversed time sequencing tends to make the action static: the audience sees 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. This timeline contributes to the feeling of dramatic irony in which the audience knows more than the characters do. The deeper meaning, the why of all of this, is screened from the audience 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.
Pinter shows the audience the dynamic among Emma, Jerry, and Robert in a stripped-down manner, like the scaffolding or framework of a building. 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 by 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. 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.