Betrayal, Harold Pinter’s new play, is quite different from the main body of his work. It is not filled with the crossed monologues, portentous pauses, and insinuations of dark meanings that have come to form the Pinteresque style. Rather, this latest work is much more open and traditional in its manner. It is a romantic comedy, triangle variation, and its style keeps very much to the surface of things. Its characters are meant to be pleasant, civilized types who encounter life in an abstracted offhand way, and who keep their passions balanced by a sense of responsibility and a desire to avoid unnecessary fuss. I felt at times, while sitting through Betrayal, that I might be watching an imitation of Noel Coward or a somewhat thinned-out version of Terence Rattigan. By the play’s end, however, I felt only that I had watched Pinter trying to be both clever and commonplace, and that I still could not count myself among his admirers.
The plot of Betrayal is so familiar that it does take a certain amount of courage to try to drag it through the duration of two full acts. Things begin in 1968 in the bedroom of a married couple named Robert and Emma. Robert’s best friend, a decent chap named Jerry—he is a literary agent, Robert is a publisher—tells Emma that he has fallen in love with her. She is startled and rather swept away by his announcement. Soon she and Jerry, who is also married, have set up a little love flat together, in which they enjoy a cinq à sept once or twice a week, meetings which are mainly devoted to painful discussions of the problems involved in maintaining a love affair between two married people. Finding the times and the means of deception is always difficult, but they manage for five years to keep their spouses innocent of their infidelity. When Emma’s husband does find out—an ill-timed letter from Jerry coupled with a matter-of-fact confession from Emma—either out of friendship or indifference he says nothing but allows the affair to continue without incident for another two years until, of its own accord, it peters out.
Two years after their romance has ended—it is now 1977—Jerry and Emma meet in a pub and begin recalling old times. After a few drinks and memories, Emma informs Jerry that she and Robert are separating and that he knows about their affair. Jerry, believing that this knowledge has only just been acquired, summons his friend to his house to ask his forgiveness, his understanding, and, in passing, his promise not to tell his—Jerry’s—wife about the seven-year deception she suffered.
Robert, who throughout the play has maintained a decently detached bafflement about everything, an attitude, we discover, which masks a good number of infidelities of his own, doesn’t quite understand what his friend is so upset about. After all, he now tells Jerry, Emma had confessed to the affair four years ago. Jerry is shocked and hurt. He feels that, by keeping her confession a secret, Robert has betrayed him more than he has betrayed Robert. Nonsense, old fellow, Robert tells him, it all doesn’t matter any more, water under the bridge you know, we’re still best friends, and what say we have lunch soon? Thus, with all its variations worked out, the play ends.
That is really all there is to the story of Betrayal. Pinter, however, has tried to give a twist to this tired little saga by constructing his play backward, so that we begin with the last scenes of discovery and confession and move along until the play ends with the encounter of that fateful passion in Emma’s bedroom nine years earlier. A lot has been made by reviewers of this chronological inversion, but it is really no more than an empty exercise, a gimmick meant to make the stale seem fresh. The trick is not even consistently maintained, since the action flashes forward whenever information or dramatic movement requires a normal sequence of events.
But even if the device had been consistent, there would still be no thematic relevance or narrative purpose to the play’s crablike journey. The fact that the ends of the actions are known is not used in any way to illuminate them, nor are insights into the character of human deception created out of Pinter’s present-to-past perspective. Indeed, the device often merely produces a deadening sense of déjà vu, of scenes and information put forward redundantly. The only thing this fooling with time really gains for Betrayal is the sort of innovative sheen that impresses the theater intelligentsia. To those less susceptible of being dazzled, it merely proves that a dull tale told backward is still a dull tale.
The production, directed by Peter Hall, has a glazed-eyed look about it, as though everyone were slightly stunned by the play’s words and actions. Roy Scheider, as the deceived husband, hides for most of the evening behind a bemused smile, while, as his friend and rival, Raul Julia wanders with a sort of stiff nonchalance through scenes that form unlikely backgrounds for his Latin accent and appearance. Blythe Danner plays both wife and mistress with an enegetic blandness that suits the vague dimensions of her part. Like her fellow performers, she has her problems with an English accent. An occasional slurred vowel or clipped consonant is as much as this trio of Americans can muster in the way of vocal technique. I suppose Peter Hall prefers these unlikely sounds to permitting the play to be Americanized, for then problems of behavior as well as pronunciation would arise. Still, the alien noises uttered all evening by his actors keep the play fixed in a state of tentative, self-conscious theatricality.
Pinter has generally been so well served by his compatriots that many of his shortcomings as a writer have been hidden behind the techniques of fine acting. In Betrayal he has only mere competence to help him, and the shallowness and dramatic coyness of the play are always visible.
Tom Stoppard is also back on Broadway, and like Pinter he too has changed his theatrical manner. Whereas in the past, with plays like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Jumpers, and Travesties, Stoppard was content to fashion a world out of literary and intellectual conceits, he has now, in his new work Night and Day, condescended to try his hand at writing a rather sedate and conventional comedy. Yet even when he has left the antic landscapes of his imagination for a turn in the ordinary world, Stoppard remains a playwright of surprise and mental agility, an artist who uses the stage not so much to reflect life as to unravel its problems. In Travesties, behind all the parodies, literary allusions, and verbal play, Stoppard was involved in a serious look at the uses and abuses of art in an age of politics, war, and social restructuring. In Night and Day his theme is somewhat more modest: namely, the functions and responsibilities of journalism.
Having once worked as a reporter for a newspaper, Stoppard, one supposes, brings to this subject more than an abstract interest. He looks at his former profession with critical good humor, and though he finds much to deplore in the way it manages the world’s information, he never (as, say, Shaw did to the medical profession) bullies it into absurdity. When all the faults of Fleet Street are admitted, Stoppard still thinks it better to have reporters snooping through the world, turning up reams of trivial and often unreadable copy, than to have any sort of responsible control exercised over them by state guardians, moral censors, or literary critics. If the conclusion is not a very controversial one, reaching it nevertheless provides Stoppard with a number of fine opportunities for sharp, dramatic arguments.
The play takes place in an imaginary country in Africa, a former British colony called Kambawe. A revolution is beginning between leftist rebels and a government that is run by an autocratic president named Mageeba, a graduate of the London School of Economics and imitator of the policies of Idi Amin. Three journalists turn up on the plantation of Alastair and Ruth Carson in order to report on the spreading war.
The Carsons are a very civilized couple who have managed the transition from colonial overseers to precarious citizenship in Kambawe with their dignity intact. The journalists whom they are forced to take on as their guests are all in different ways dedicated to their assignment. There is Dick Wagner, a devout trade unionist, a grizzled veteran of foreign beats, and a man proud of the honest labor in his profession. Sent by fate to plague him is Jacob Milne, a fledgling newsman who is in Kambawe on a free-lance basis. Before the play begins, he has already stumbled onto a front-page story that has been run by Wagner’s paper, a fact that naturally does not sit well with the older man of the press. The last member of the trio is a photographer, George Guthrie, a harried-looking fellow always in need of sleep who for the last two decades has been risking his life in order to dispatch to the world close-up pictures of a variety of wars.
Throughout the play, these three gentlemen discuss and debate the nature of their trade, touching on everything from the capitalist ownership of newspapers to French photojournalists who arrive to cover revolutions dressed in Yves Saint Laurent fatigues. Against these representatives of the press and their desire to make all things a matter of public record, Stoppard sets the philosophy and character of Ruth Carson. A fierce partisan of the private life, Ruth has learned something about newspapers from the way they treated her when she was involved in a steamy divorce action. Her opinion of journalists has not been raised since then. The fact that only a few days earlier she had spent an unlikely romantic night with Dick Wagner in a hotel room in London becomes doubly distressing to her when he turns up in her house and she finds out what he does for a living. But as she listens to the enthusiastic and amusing testimonials to the achievements of the press proclaimed by young Milne, her attitude begins to soften, at least to the point of beginning to fantasize admitting another member of the Fourth Estate into her bed.
In the play’s second act, both the press and private life encounter the caprice of absolute power. President Mageeba visits the Carson house for the purpose of holding a secret meeting with the leader of the rebels trying to overthrow him. Dick Wagner, having accidentally learned about this rendezvous, has naturally kept the information to himself, and while his colleagues are off following a barren lead, he finagles his way back into the house in search of an exclusive interview. He gets one, but it does not come easily. Mageeba, at first pleasant, grows more and more maniacal as he discusses the role of the press in his country. Should, he asks, the press be free to select which facts it prints and to decide how to shade and emphasize a story? Does not freedom, in a social context, imply responsibility? And how to define that responsibility?
All this is said in a reasonable, if menacing, voice by the black president of Kambawe. Suddenly, however, his manner changes. He becomes belligerent, sarcastic, and dangerously pleased with his own importance and sense of humor. He begins to strike Wagner about the head with a swagger stick as he brings his argument to a close. “And what is a responsible newspaper?” he asks, as his interviewer lies bleeding on the floor. He answers his own question by saying that it is one on which he has a relative as the chief editor.
While the president is blustering, Guthrie, the photographer, arrives with the news that Milne has been killed, shot by some nervous soldiers who mistook their jeep for one of the enemy’s. Ruth is horrified, seeing in Milne’s death only the waste of someone she had wanted to love. At the play’s end, faced with the loneliness of her life and the boredom of her marriage, she watches Wagner send off a short Telex about Milne and, somewhat chagrined by her poor moral character, entertains the idea of sleeping with him again.
It should be evident that Night and Day is a play of many parts. Besides the theme of the press and its duties, there are dramatic observations on war, Third World governments, and marital infidelity. Not all of these subjects mesh neatly, and often one is conscious of a shifting of gears as Stoppard moves from topic to topic. Still, everything is handled with wit and humor, and at the play’s end, as improbable as some of its events have seemed, one is satisfied that in some loose way they are all held together by a very entertaining logic.
In the role of Ruth, Maggie Smith is called on to wrap herself up in a personal world that, until the death of young Milne, is impervious to the high and bloody deeds going on around it. From within the cocoon of feminine guile and sensuality, Miss Smith radiates a lively commentary on all the action surrounding her, making the selfish singlemindedness of her character seem at the same time penetrating and vacuous. There may be some who would find this portrait of a woman frivolous and belittling, and, indeed, in many ways Ruth Carson is a scatterbrained piece of fluff who seems to understand nothing beyond the boundaries of the bedroom. But as Miss Smith portrays her, one begins to suspect that within those boundaries there is more useful wisdom to be found than on the editorial pages of the world’s newspapers or in all the histories of emerging nations.
In 1934, when Ernst Roehm and a number of other SA leaders were executed by Hitler, a sort of protectorate over German homosexuals came to an end. Roehm, himself a pederast, had used his influence to see that, in Berlin at least, homosexual life went on despite existing laws and Hitler’s deep distaste for this form of erotic behavior. With his death, another form of persecution was added to the many that had already been set loose upon the citizens of the Third Reich.
Martin Sherman’s Bent begins on the day following the purge of the SA. Max and Rudy, two homosexuals who live together in a small Berlin flat, are slowly recovering from the effects of a party thrown the night before at the nightclub where Rudy works as a dancer. Suddenly, a third young man appears from the bedroom. Max has no idea who he is until Rudy explains that Max picked up the fellow—his name is Wolf—at the party and brought him home. While the three men are thus sorting themselves out, two SS men break into the room. Seeing Wolf, they recognize him as a member of the SA and as one of Roehm’s lovers. They beat and eventually kill him, while Max and Rudy flee from the room.
After being on the run and hiding for a time, the two are finally caught and shipped off to Dachau. On the train, a trio of sadistic guards begin, for no reason, to beat up Rudy, and then, to add spice to this amusement, force Max to join the assault. Knowing that he will die if he does not strike Rudy when commanded to, Max, in rage and despair, punishes harder and harder until he actually kills his friend and lover.
His next ordeal, which mercifully happens off stage, is to prove to his tormentors that he is not queer or “bent.” This he is obliged to do by having sexual intercourse with the corpse of a young girl recently shot by one of the guards. As a reward for his successful performance, Max is allowed to trade the pink triangle on his prison uniform, which signifies a homosexual, for the yellow star of the Jew. This is something of a promotion, for the lowest rung in concentration-camp life is at this time, according to the play, reserved for prisoners who are homosexual.
The second act begins in Dachau itself. Max, filled with self-loathing over what he has done, is intent only on survival. He even tries to convince himself that he is not a homosexual, that he has really been locked away because, as the emblem on his uniform proclaims, he is Jewish. But then he meets Horst, also a homosexual, and the two of them, while moving rocks back and forth across a small prison yard, begin, in defiance of all the laws of the world they now inhabit, to fall in love with each other. Constantly watched by guards, never allowed to stop this purposeless work except when standing at attention for an hourly head count, forbidden to talk to or even to look at each other, Max and Horst nevertheless manage to create for themselves a bond of affection and passion. In one scene, while standing at attention, their eyes fixed on empty space in front of them, the two men find a way verbally to make love to each other that brings them both to climax, a moment that marks a small triumph for human inventiveness and imagination.
Finally, of course, their illegal feelings are discovered and, while Max watches, Horst is shot. Max is then ordered to bury his lover’s corpse, but before he does so, he exchanges Horst’s coat for his own, so that he now defiantly wears the pink triangle of the homosexual. He also admits to himself that he has indeed loved Horst, and that this tender emotion is not, as he had always professed, alien to the homosexual way of life. Having thus reconciled himself to who he is and what he feels, Max throws himself on an electrically charged barbed-wire fence and dies.
Now there are many things wrong with Bent as a play. It is simplistic—the Nazis, for example, are all depicted as sadistic robots, a device that makes them seem of no greater human significance than any other collection of melodrama villains. It is given to fits of sentimentality. And for all its bursts of sporadic violence, it never really conveys what sort of environment a totalitarian state can create.
Yet for most of the evening one remains sympathetic to Bent, for the play does, with some humor and a great deal of earnest conviction, come down on the side of life and human courage. One is uncomfortable with certain details of that idea of life and that idea of courage, because one remains aware of moral and historical considerations which Bent makes no pretense of facing, among which is the uninvestigated assertion that a Jewish star could ever have been a coveted possession in a concentration camp. But on the whole, for what it does attempt, the play succeeds both as a theatrical work and as a reminder of a time when humanity itself was bent out of shape.