For every romantic poet who declares that love is a many-splendoured thing – an eternal bond between two halves of the same soul, there are cynical and experienced voices, like the classic rock band Nazareth to tell us plainly: “Love hurts”. There’s at least one bitter break-up song for every starry-eyed love song. Love is . . . well, it’s complicated.
That complexity in all of its highs and lows is on display in Harold Pinter’s celebrated play, Betrayal. Set in 1970s England, this is the story of a married couple, Emma and Robert, and Robert’s best friend of many years, Jerry. Emma and Robert’s marriage isn’t without love and affection, though clearly it isn’t the relationship either partner really wants. They love each other in some ways, perhaps many ways. Still, something is missing – which may explain Emma’s 7-year affair with Jerry. Their affair, though never made public, isn’t as private as they might have wished, either. And like Emma and Robert’s marriage, Emma and Jerry’s affair is doomed from the beginning.
Why? Why can’t at least one of these unions succeed? The answer, partially, is because every person in each of these relationships loves the others. Emma loves her husband and her lover, who has been her husband’s best friend since they were teenagers. Jerry loves Emma – he has, probably, from the moment he first met her, at her wedding. But he also loves Robert, his best friend and business partner; he would never want to hurt him. And Robert loves his wife, Emma, though perhaps distantly and with less passion and investment than she’d prefer. He also loves his best friend Jerry – perhaps more than anyone is willing to admit.
So love becomes even more complicated when it comes up against an insurmountable barrier: another kind of love, or the love of a different person. And how do we react when this happens? What do we do?
Let’s be clear: in these situations, people aren’t lying out of a desire to deceive, to pull the wool over someone’s eyes, to make fools of them. Their lies are motivated by love and a desire to protect the people they love – including themselves. And much of what we do when we deceive isn’t lying at all, but deception of different kinds – deception by omission, deception by misdirection. There are so many ways to deceive without lying.
This is true even when we deceive ourselves, which is the most common and everyday sort of deception. When Emma deceives Robert about her affair with Jerry, she’s also deceiving herself about who she is, about the relationship she has with her husband, about her relationship with Jerry, even about what she really wants out of life. The other characters are doing the same things – weaving an impossibly tangled web of deceptions that can’t be sustained forever.
There are two strokes of genius in Pinter’s play that help explain why it’s been revered for so long. The first is that, because these are upper-middle-class Britons in the 1970s, they never simply state what they mean. That would be rude. It would be beneath them. Etiquette – that is, superficial deception intended to smooth over human interactions – demands a more indirect and passive-aggressive approach. Someone could overhear conversations between Emma, Jerry, and Robert without realizing what they were talking about.
But the audience knows, which brings us to Pinter’s second stroke of genius: the scenes of the play unfold in mostly backward chronology. The play opens with the final two scenes of the story – after both Emma and Robert’s marriage, and Emma and Jerry’s affair, have ended. And the play ends with the moment the actual story begins, the moment in which the affair comes to passionate life.
As a result, the audience always knows more than the characters do about what’s going on. We know what’s going to happen to these characters next no matter what they believe and desire; we know where these relationships are headed – although we don’t know the specifics until they happen in front of us.
So the story of Betrayal begins with the tragedy of its ending and ends with the romantic passion and child-like hope of its beginning. That, my friends, is something beautiful to witness.
Betrayal by Post Productions will run at The Shadowbox Theatre September 11, 12, 17, 18, 19, 24, 25 and 26 (COVID-19 restrictions permitting). Written by Harold Pinter. Directed by Michael K. Potter and Michael O’Reilly. Starring Dylan MacDonald, Fay Lynn, Michael K. Potter, and Michael O’Reilly. All performances begin at 8:00 PM. Tickets $25.00. Online ticket sales only through postproductionswindsor.ca – and check the website for safety information as the show dates approach.