The Financial Times once defined Pinteresque dialogue as ”full of dark hints and pregnant suggestions, with the audience left uncertain as to what to conclude.” That’s not bad, but I’ve always defined it with seven words: (a) spare, (b) precise, (c) cutting and (d) sometimes a bit cruel. That leaves out opaque, terse, witty, chilly and all the other applicable terms, but however you slice it the man who created this form of expression — playwright Harold Pinter — died yesterday in London at age 78.
I’ve seen The Birthday Party and The Homecoming on-stage once each, and some of the films Pinter wrote screenplays for — The Servant (’63), The Go-Between (’70), The French Lieutenant’s Woman (’81), The Trial (’93) and Sleuth (’07). But being a bit of a Pinter plebe, my favorite is Betrayal, which has been called his most accessible work.
I’m queer for Betrayal because of its reverse chronology, the fascinating game it plays (i.e., what does he/she know, and when does he/she know it?), for the constant expert lying that goes on between the three main characters, and because it happens in a carefully mannered, flush and somewhat shallow middle-class milieu (which provides a form of comfort to me because I’ve lived in this world and feel I know what it is), and because it fulfills my definition of Pinter’s signature style — crisp, knowing and acrid in a less-is-more vein.
“I’ve always liked Jerry,” the cuckolded Robert says to his unfaithful wife about her longtime lover who’s also been his longtime friend. “To be honest, I’ve always liked him rather more than I’ve liked you. I should have had an affair with him myself.”
I saw Betrayal on the New York stage twice (with Roy Scheider, Raul Julia and Blythe Danner in ’80 or thereabouts, and again in a 2000 revival with Juliette Binoche, Liev Schreiber and John Slattery ), as well as that superb 1983 film adaptation with Ben Kingsley, Jeremy Irons and Patricia Hodge, directed by David Jones .
Originally released by 20th Century Fox, Jones’ Betrayal came out on VHS in ’84 but that was 24 years ago, for heaven’s sake. I’ve written this seventeen or eighteen times over the last ten years, but will be rights-holder please, please cut a deal with someone to put it out on DVD or Blu-ray? It’s been out of circulation for so long it looks like up to me.