Affairs to Remember

It was little surprise to the British public that Harold Pinter had written a play about an affair. Three years before Betrayal’s premiere, Pinter’s marriage to his first wife, actress Vivian Merchant, ended in a firestorm of tabloid coverage as he ran off with the wife of a member of Parliament, the author Lady Antonia Fraser. The two married in 1980 and remained together until his death in 2008, but the affair on which Pinter based Betrayal was actually much, much older, and much less public.

Harold Pinter and Lady Antonia Frasier

From 1962 to 1969, Pinter was deeply involved with Joan Bakewell, wife of director Michael Bakewell. While Pinter’s relationship with Michael differs from the one shared by Robert and Jerry in Betrayal (Bakewell and Pinter were merely acquaintances), the rest of the play is almost a literal transcription of Pinter’s affair. Joan admitted that Betrayal was, “accurate in its chronology and in its events. Often quite tiny events like that in which Jerry talks about picking up this little girl — called Charlotte in the play — and throwing her in the air. Harold actually did that with my three-year-old daughter at a party for [Pinter’s son] Daniel’s birthday . . . The story about the poste restante at the American Express office in Venice is also literally true.”

Pinter edited a few moments when the actual truth seemed too contrived onstage. Joan did indeed take a trip to Venice, but instead of bringing back a tablecloth, she said, “I brought back something much wittier: an hour-glass. So sometimes the detail of life is better.” Though Bakewell and Pinter remained friends after their relationship ended, seeing the intimate details of their affair made public was difficult. “It’s like a diary,” she recalled to Pinter biographer Michael Billington, “and so I was upset when I first read it. Harold kept saying, ‘It’s a play — it’s a play.’ I was upset, however, because it was called Betrayal. It’s such a judgmental word. But we go on betraying, don’t we? Here I am telling you about it. The irony is that the process never ends.”

- Rachel Carpman

Harold Pinter and Joan Bakewell