In 2008, three years after being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, British playwright Harold Pinter died following a six-year battle with cancer of the oesophagus. In its tribute to his work, The Swedish Academy said:
“Pinter restored theatre to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue, where people are at the mercy of each other and pretence crumbles. With a minimum of plot, drama emerges from the power struggle….”
“In his plays,” it went on, “(he) uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms.”
And nowhere did Pinter’s art resonate more effectively with the Academy’s description of his work than in his 1978 play, Betrayal, the story of a classic love triangle, in which Emma betrays her husband, Robert, a publisher, by conducting a seven-year affair with his best friend, Jerry, a literary agent. A play in which the game of squash serves as an icon for a whole set of male social games that evolve around its leading characters.
A game played in an enclosed space, a closed room, where drama emerges from the power struggle.
The Rules of the Game
The relationship between Emma and Jerry in Betrayal is basically a game with an elaborate system of rules set up by both sides. These are especially necessary as there is in fact a double system of relationships between them, as clandestine lovers and as, respectively, wife and best friend of Robert. There are external rules, about how to keep the affair secret, and internal rules, about what is permitted within. Even after the affair is over, Jerry corrects Emma when she asks about his son: “You remember the form. I ask about your husband, you ask about my wife.”
In fact, all the relations in the play assume the amusing shape of sophisticated social games and rituals, making the game logically precede the particular instance of its playing and disqualifying any originality in the behaviour of the characters.
The bitter twist is that the action moves backwards in time, beginning with the end of the affair and working remorselessly back to the first snatched kiss.
Pinter never reveals his point of view, but lets the audience draw its own conclusions, offering scenes of the affair alternating with scenes of the two male friends meeting, Robert baiting Jerry(who doesn’t think that his best friend suspects), always suggesting a game of squash, symbolic of male companionship, and Jerry always backing away from the direct competition.
In one scene Robert proposes a game at a social event with Emma present. She urges them to play together again and suggests she meet them after for lunch. Robert quickly says no:
“I mean a game of squash isn’t simply a game of squash, it’s rather more than that. You see, first there’s the game. And then there’s the shower. And then there’s the pint. And then there’s lunch […]. You don’t actually want a woman within a mile of the place, any of the places, really.”
Robert’s outburst reveals the nature of the series of male rituals he is describing. They are clearly meant to exclude women from what is perceived as exclusive male terrain. At the same time, the attack discloses a defensive attitude, an attempt to distance women so as to get rid of their sexually threatening presence. It’s implied that Robert and Jerry have not played squash for a long time because Jerry has engaged instead in the betrayal game, and Robert’s rather fierce speech is meant to win him back as a partner in the male game.
The same disjunction between affair-with-wife and squash-with-husband appears in Robert’s disclosure about another character, Casey: “I believe he’s having an affair with my wife. We haven’t played squash for years, Casey and me. We used to have a damn good game.”
The Seeds of Betrayal
There’s no evidence that Pinter had any particular interest in squash before writing Betrayal. In fact, he was an enthusiastic cricket player and approved of the “urban and exacting idea of cricket as a bold theatre of aggression.” But squash would certainly have been played by some of his friends and acquaintances.
One such was the British actor Robert Shaw, a close friend of Pinter who in 1962 appeared on stage as Aston in Pinter’s first major theatrical success, The Caretaker, and again in its film version two years later. As a boy he attended school in Cornwall and was an all-around athlete, competing in rugby, squash and track events.
Unfortunately, at the age of 18, Shaw was misdiagnosed with a chronic inflammatory arthritis and autoimmune disease which, perhaps not surprisingly, led him to curtail his involvement in sport. The disease was supposed to affect joints in the spine and it’s a measure of Pinter’s artistic approach that Shaw’s character in The Caretaker has a speech in which he expresses his fear of breaking his spine during a stay in a mental institution.
But around the time of London premiere of The Caretaker, another event occurred which was to directly influence the writing of Betrayal. Pinter, then married to his first wife Vivien Merchant began a seven-year clandestine affair with a married BBC-TV presenter and journalist, Joan Bakewell.
Throughout his career, many of Pinter’s plays were to feature characters trapped in an enclosed space menaced by some force they can’t understand.
In his first play, The Room, the main character, Rose, is menaced by Riley who invades her safe space, though the actual source of menace remains a mystery. Pinter later confirmed that his visit, in the summer of 1955, to the ‘broken-down room’ of the English writer, Quentin Crisp, in Beaufort Street, London inspired him to write The Room, “set in a snug, stuffy rather down-at-heel bedsit with a gas fire and cooking facilities.”
The first performances of The Room were staged in 1957 at the University of Bristol.
In a converted squash court .
Many thanks to Hanna Scolnicov whose article ‘Pinter’s Game of Betrayal’ provided much of the source material for this post. Her article was originally published in Cycnos, Volume 14 No 1 on June 11th, 2008.