I finally made it to the penultimate show of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, at the Huntington on a rainy, raw Boston afternoon. We had balcony seats, separated by distance from the “action” on the stage–the characters diminished against a stunning setting, clothed in the language of the absurd, overwhelmed and wistful by passionate love and its twilight. But the most generative idea of the production, I thought, was the way each scene opened like the aperture of a camera, as if to tell us that we were voyeurs, at once alienated by the perspective of the camera but also lured into the lives and words of adulterous couples, betrayers all. And who, among us, can claim proudly that we have not betrayed, have not been in the grip of guilt, in the lull of love but also the sorrows and depletion of its endings, in the circle of looking back?
For me, the draw of the play was the cobbling which Pinter performs in Betrayal. Pinter, as we knew him in the 1960s, is the playwright of language–its slippages, its silences, the content, it seems, always taking a back seat, the characters always struggling as much with words as with their emotions. Betrayal, spawned by Pinter’s own seven-year romance/affair which turned public and itself became the stuff of conversation and confession, yokes love to language, exposes the limits of both, and leaves us, at the end, with the tatter of words. We’re neither completely seduced by the camera’s window into the action nor completely betrayed by the invitation that the play extends but in the end does not fully deliver.
Darwish has said that love is the anticipation of love and the mourning over its passing. The stuff in between is lived, not talked about. And that is what Pinter does in Betrayal, reversing the chronology so that the play begins long after the affair is over and ending with one of the early seductive forays. And if indeed that’s how it is, then love is the talk about love, the uncertainty of memory, the compulsion to repeat certain hackneyed phrases –Do you think about me? asks Emma–, the desperate attempt to make the words equal to the passion. And if this is all what we have, then the betrayal is also the betrayal of language, or rather how language betrays us at every turn, how it allows us to look back and tell another story.
And as the camera’s shutter closes for the last time, Betrayal, I think, leaves us with this thought: Which is the greater betrayal, the breaking of the trusts of friendship or our continuing attempt to capture its magnitude (and its debris) in words? Were we what we now say we were? At our best with the loved one? Was it totally wrong? What did we betray? Was it just an extended seduction and the acquiescence to the invitation, or was is something more noble, more real, something that lasts?
Pinter offers no answers, thank God. What remains is the bits and pieces–the pastiche, yes–which is at once the curse we carry but also something else, buried under the words or hovering over them, the faded memory of something between the invitation and the wake. Or is it something interwoven with language, complicit in its own betrayal?
All these, perhaps– but also, in the end, this broken raft of the journey ahead. Yes.