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Truth Lies Hidden

by Josh Wolff

On the surface, Harold Pinter’s Betrayal reads as a series of intimate snapshots that capture the progression of a love triangle involving a married couple, Emma and Robert, and Robert’s best friend Jerry. Imbedded within these domestic events lies a complex and ever-changing power dynamic; a politely fought high-stakes battle of wits, loyalty, sex and pride with no real winner. Throughout the play the characters lie, withhold and manipulate information as a means to attain and wield power over one another. This deeper examination of the play moves beyond the mere domestic and concerns the moral and political implications of people’s actions to the world around them. Pinter has a reputation for crafting intensely existential and political work. In his recent controversial acceptance speech for the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature he states, “Political language, as used by politicians, does not venture into any of this territory [of the artist] since the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.” In Betrayal, similar to that of a politician, Pinter’s characters employ a type of “political language” to distort meaning. They speak in guarded, equivocal terms designed to keep husband, wife, lover or friend in the dark, and themselves in control of the situation. Each fresh lie, weighted with the burden of the last, takes them further and further from what they want. In the end, such “political language” proves futile, as they ultimately fail to communicate with or receive emotional validation from one another. True to Pinter’s style, the most telling and honest moments in the play occur not when the characters engage one another, but rather in the anxious pauses and silences between the lines. Pinter offers an elusive but reflective investigation on the politics of private lives. At a time when the issue of political transparency is at the forefront of public discourse, Pinter’s artistic dedication to truth seems more relevant than ever. “Truth in drama is forever elusive,” he notes. “You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavor. The search is your task.” Betrayal, often perceived as Pinter’s least politically-driven work, forces the audience to undertake that compulsive search for truth, which involves identifying the causes of its degradation. Within the story, the characters fail to find the emotional and psychological truths of their own lives. Whether unable or unwilling to confront these truths, the characters take refuge in a reality of lies that over time erode their ability to be happy, complete and fulfilled beings. Moreover, the deceptions they employ serve only to undermine what they all seek to gain in the end: human connection and companionship. Like a politician with questionable motives, Emma, Robert and Jerry obscure their desires, employing doublespeak and misinformation to secure positions of power. In this formulation, the political is folded into the personal, the public being affected by the private.