The Injured Bone: Harold Pinter's Betrayal

“Harold Pinter has been on the short list of playwrights I’ve wanted to include in a season since I arrived at the Huntington. Director Maria Aitken will bring sharp honesty to the play’s simple, spare beauty and a singular perspective as an interpreter of his writing.”- Peter DuBois

Harold Pinter had an odd sort of memory. “Harold’s memory is not linear at all,” recalled his wife Antonia Fraser. “He’s got a memory like a camera as if he’s taking shots. Occasionally they are moving photographs: extraordinarily sharp and vivid, but not necessarily connected.” Watching Betrayal, a very thinly-veiled portrait of one of Pinter’s affairs, is like remembering a relationship through Pinter’s eyes. The play presents snapshot-like images — a tablecloth, a trip to Torcello, a child thrown in the air — as it moves slowly backward in time, arriving at last not at the end, but the beginning.

Betrayal tells the story of a love triangle between Emma, her husband Robert, and Robert’s best friend Jerry. As time moves backward and we watch Emma’s and Jerry’s affair die, then wilt, then bloom, it gradually becomes less and less clear who is betraying whom. As critic Walter Kerr wrote, “the play isn’t designed for comfort, it’s designed for the excitement of the chase, for the fear that truth may elude us if we aren’t quick enough to snare it, for the almost surgical satisfaction of seeing life honed to the injured bone.” Sir Peter Hall, who directed the first productions of Betrayal in the West End and on Broadway, suggested, “the sleight of hand that Harold has performed is that, while dealing with a triangular relationship, he’s talking about something else . . . If you start with self-betrayal, it gradually infects everything like a dreadful, destructive virus.”

This mastery of nuance and theme made Pinter, “the most influential and imitated dramatist of his generation,” according to The New York Times. Not only was he a playwright, actor, and director, Pinter was also an essayist, poet, political activist, and Nobel Laureate. Born in 1930 just outside of London’s East End, Pinter wrote over 30 plays between 1957 and his death in 2008.

Elliptical speech patterns mark Pinter’s early work such as in The Birthday Party and The Homecoming. Pinter observed repetitive, at times tautological, designs in everyday conversation. His later plays moved past tumbling configurations of words and examined the silences between them. Pinter is a master of the pregnant pause and was adamant that actors observe the pauses written into his scripts. In a note to actor Michael Holdern, who was rehearsing Pinter’s The Collection, Pinter wrote, “Michael, I wrote ‘dot, dot, dot’ and you’re giving me ‘dot, dot.’”

In Betrayal, the silences are as important as the words. Critic Enoch Barter suggests that in the play, “time is allowed to speak for itself between the scenes and through the costumes . . . and actors communicate to us in gestures, silence, and pause, all those characteristic Pinter ‘words’ they never get to recite onstage.” Each moment of the play is so carefully tuned that any slight alteration in the landscape throws the whole off balance. In an interview about Betrayal with longtime New York Times theatre critic Mel Gussow, Pinter admitted to making three changes to his original script: “I cut one word, ‘please.’ I took out a pause and inserted a pause.” “And that made all the difference?,” Gussow asked. Pinter’s reply: “That made all the damn difference.”

- Rachel Carpman