Despite its apparent simplicity, Betrayal is a play with different levels of meaning, just as the occurrences of "betrayal" among the characters are multilayered. The love triangle of Emma, Jerry, and Robert involves not only the necessary deception of an affair, but the secondary "betrayals" between the friends Jerry and Robert and the deliberate concealment by Emma to Jerry of Robert's having known about the affair for years. But the principal theme behind these deceptions is the ordinariness of all of this, and of the fact that the situation in which the characters are enmeshed is not unusual but normal. Emma, Jerry, and Robert speak largely in a matter-of-fact, indifferent manner about all of these happenings, as if aware that their travails are the height of banality. The elements of a passionate conflict are there, but what Pinter presents is a kind of stripped-down version of it, to emphasize this theme of how unfortunately commonplace the web of dishonesty and "betrayal" is.
An offshoot, so to speak, of the theme is that the situation is emblematic of the basic meaninglessness of life, though this idea has been repeated so often in modernist literature that it's a truism to comment on it. Pinter's telling the story in reverse time sequence results in the audience’s seeing it as a finished series of incidents from the start, and this completed quality also gives an impression of lifelessness, as if all the real action were drained from the story. The telling of how things developed as they did is seemingly unimportant, and the characters themselves behave as though they are indifferent to the actions in which they have engaged.
The central theme of Betrayal is, as its title indicates, deception and betrayal in human relationships. The play takes one of the most familiar of dramatic situations—an adulterous love affair—and uses it as a means of examining the vast and complicated permutations that such a betrayal can have among spouses, lovers, and friends.
In the play’s first two scenes, Pinter reveals both the extent of the deception among the three characters and the effect it has had on their lives. Jerry and Emma have betrayed Robert, violating between the two of them both marriage and friendship; Robert has betrayed Emma with his own affairs; and, as Jerry learns in the second scene, Emma has betrayed him emotionally by not telling him that Robert has known about their affair for some time. Jerry has also betrayed his wife, Judith, who never appears in the play, but who may be betraying him as well.
The level of deception involved in the story is compounded by the facts that Emma and Robert’s marriage appears from the outside to be a relatively happy one and that Jerry is Robert’s closest friend—indeed, he was the best man at his wedding. Pinter provides no excuses or explanations for his characters’ actions beyond their own desires; there is no mistreatment, estrangement, or incompatibility to create the sympathetic framework that so often accompanies a fictional affair. Pinter’s characters are intelligent, witty, well-read, and utterly human in their capacity for self-interest and deception. Betrayal is not simply the story of a love affair; it is an examination of the ease...
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- Critical Essays