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The Well-Made Play: Pinter at Steppenwolf

by Margaret Lebron

This production of Betrayal marks the first time in over fifteen seasons that the work of Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter has appeared on the Steppenwolf stage. Pinter and Steppenwolf alike built their reputations on challenging portrayals of socially and economically marginalized characters, and in the first half of the company’s existence Pinter’s plays appeared a multitude of times – two (The Lover and The Dumbwaiter) in the first season alone. The same season that Steppenwolf made history with the aggressive Balm in Gilead they also explored the struggles of an elderly tramp in No Man’s Land and the interpersonal aftermath of a possible one night stand in The Collection. After a long absence, Steppenwolf is revisiting the Pinter canon. Betrayal is an unflinchingly honest, personal play that remains true to both Pinter’s and Steppenwolf’s mutual desire to produce visceral portrayals of the human condition. When Steppenwolf was founded in 1976 Harold Pinter was already a respected playwright, and by the time the first season was finished the company had garnered a certain amount of credibility and attention by producing his work. As a former actor turned playwright and director, Pinter had written plays that were perfect fodder for this actor-based ensemble of multi-talented artists. With his sparse dialogue and character-based plots, Pinter’s plays require the highest caliber acting and most detailed direction to give careful but focused attention to the layers of subtext that reveal the characters’ motives; as such, they were a perfect showcase for the talents of the ensemble. The early plays that the company favored were characteristic of his eponymous style, featuring the distinctive “Pinter pause” in which tedious small talk gives way to negative space imbued with the characters’ unspoken insecurities, fears and menace. Pinter was also famous for deconstructing the traditional “well-made play” using a mix of realistic, symbolic, and archetypal elements which all came to a head with his characteristically ambiguous endings. These plays were the perfect fit for a theatre building its reputation on unsentimentally raw pieces that showed a corner of the world not typically presented onstage. Betrayal is very different from the trademark style of Pinter’s earlier works, yet was his first commercial success in America following several decades as an acclaimed playwright in his native Britain. Due to the particulars of its plot construction, Betrayal shows Pinter turning away from the elements of menace, unsettling subtext and ambiguous endings he had made famous and instead delving deeply into the plodding banality of modern upper-middle-class life. The characters in Betrayal are neither victims of fate nor a grand societal inequity, but are solely responsible for the circumstances in which they find themselves. The case of adultery, which the play makes its center, is given all the attention and weight of the much more basic struggle for unqualified survival that is a central theme in much of Pinter’s work. When Betrayal was first performed in 1978, many critics accused Pinter of betraying his roots by writing a glib play preoccupied with the problems of the wealthy. But Betrayal is arguably Pinter’s truest and most personal work and hits at the heart of the mechanics and manipulations of modern relationships.