"It's the greatest love scene written in the modern 20th-century drama," David Leveaux says, obviously not afraid to edge out on a very long limb. He adds, "It's the balcony scene of late 20th century drama."
Leveaux is talking about the final sequence of Harold Pinter's Betrayal, which is being revived this month by the Roundabout Theatre with Leveaux as director. The production stars Juliette Binoche (in her United States acting debut) as Emma, Liev Schreiber as Jerry, and John Slattery as Robert. Leveaux bases his rather bold statement on a certain amount of knowledge and experience: He has earned the right to make any kind of grand pronouncement he wants about Betrayal, because this is the fourth time he has directed this particular Pinter play.
That's right: He's helmed the property in England, France, Japan and now America. So if Leveaux thinks that the last scene in Pinter's nine-scene play is worthy of favorable comparison with William Shakespeare's handiwork, it's because he's given it a lot of thought while under the first-night gun in four countries. What makes the steamy love scene singled out by Leveaux especially notable is that, although it comes at the very end of Pinter's piece, it happens to contain the action that sets the entire enterprise in motion.
You see, Betrayal is a narrative that is presented almost entirely in reverse chronological order. As the play begins, Emma and Jerry meet in a pub to reminisce with some melancholy about a seven-year affair that ended two years before. From then on--with three exceptions--each succeeding scene depicts their romantic liaison from its conclusion to its beginning nine years earlier.
In that final scene which Leveaux deems so monumental, Jerry (a literary agent) is at a party in the home of his best friend, Robert (a publisher) and his wife, Emma. Jerry has followed Emma into her bedroom to declare the passion he's developed for her. She resists his fervent advances at first, telling him he's drunk; she's interrupted by Robert, who arrives for a few minutes and then departs. In the play's last seconds, she lurches for the door but is momentarily held back by Jerry, and--in an exquisite silence--looks at him long enough to indicate she can't and won't leave.
Ordinarily, it's not a good idea to give away a play's ending. But Betrayal is different, because what's being given away is really the beginning. The rest of play has shown the repercussions of that spur-of-the-moment decision--repercussions that include a great deal of shared ardor and dissembling, a blend of extra-marital bliss and marital despair. When Emma decides to remain in the charged boudoir rather than quit it, she and Jerry trigger behavior that affects not only themselves but their respective spouses and children. (Jerry's wife, Judith, is talked about but never seen.)
With this agitated three-hander, Pinter is making a number of statements, not the least of them being that in an action's outset lie the seeds of its outcome. Since this is Pinter, however, arguments persist about exactly what he intends to convey. His plays, always laconic and often considered baffling, have stirred debates for 53 years--ever since his first effort, The Room, premiered in 1957.
When asked, Pinter has consistently refused to shed any additional light on the meaning of his work. In a speech he gave upon receiving the 1970 German Shakespeare Prize, he maintained: "I can sum up none of my plays. I can describe none of them, except to say: This is what happened. This is what they said. This is what they did." At the same event, he also characterized as "glib" a remark he once made: the remark that his work is about "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet."
Well, "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet" is a facile comment, but the image does indicate a link between and among the plays in Pinter's canon. The implication is that, in his writing, Pinter examines calm surfaces about to be disturbed by hidden forces; so it's possible that, when he tossed off the remark, he was really uttering a truth that had shot up unimpeded from his unconscious. Surely, it's this quite British quality of mystery masked by manners that put the word "Pinteresque" into the lexicon shortly after the taciturn Pinter's work began to be produced.
But what does "Pinteresque" really mean, and who is the man behind it? For one, he's a man whom the Queen named to the Order of the British Empire [OBE] the year after the Beatles, as he has often pointed out. If Pinter isn't going to give himself or his output away, there are people who will try; David Leveaux, who has also directed Pinter's No Man's Land with the author featured prominently in the cast, has strong opinions on the subject.
"There's a reason why the word 'Pinteresque' has now gone into the dictionary," Leveaux says, "despite the fact that it's a word prone to wide misinterpretation. It's generally used in a lazy sense, meaning slight bizarre and enigmatic, when what is really Pinteresque is an absolutely ruthless and honest insistence on telling it like it is."
"In a way," Leveaux says, "the Pinter pause is an overstated commodity. It's an association with Pinter that acquired a kind of separate life of its own. But the pauses are there for very practical reasons, really--sometimes, just to indicate a flight of thought, which is a thought that can't be expressed entirely in words and sometimes doesn't need to be expressed in words. They're part of the language of the play. They're not intended to create a kind of mysterious imitation of deep thought. You ignore them at your peril, but they're not there simply to be observed as some kind of holy writ."
Leveaux is only one of many notable Pinter interpreters. Another is Peter Hall, the former head of the Royal National Theatre, who directed the first productions of many Pinter plays. Hall's diaries, published in 1983, include various updates on Betrayal through the 1978 rehearsal period. Declaring that Emma is "the best woman's part that Harold has ever written," Hall writes on October 24: "Not a good day rehearsing Betrayal. Everything seems to have got smoothed out. It's calm, bland and boring; all tension has evaporated. But this happens, working with a Pinter play. Suddenly it goes. Until the actors are absolutely sure of their inner life and can play it passionately, their outer life, as expressed simply by what they say, can take over and appear insubstantial. The text is written to be supported by the immense strength of the feelings underneath. In fact, it disguises the feelings."
Another assiduous Pinter observer is his biographer, the London-based critic Michael Billington. Despite having written about Betrayal, when it opened, that he wasn't interested in "the sex lives of Hampstead intellectuals," Billington seems to have gained Pinter's confidence for The Life and Work of Harold Pinter (1996). And he seems to have gained the confidence of the playwright's associates as well. A case in point is Joan Bakewell, a woman with whom Pinter had a long-term affair just before writing Betrayal. There seems to be little question the play is, at the very least, inspired by Pinter's connection with Bakewell and her husband Michael, who may not have been Pinter's best friend but was a professional acquaintance. Joan Bakewell has said to Billington about the chronically terse Pinter, "I think he mines exhaustively what is happening to him." The most Pinter confesses to Billington is that "Betrayal is about a nine-year relationship between two men."
Of course, most authors draw on their experiences when they sit down to process words. The superior ones--and Pinter is unquestionably among them--transmute those experiences into something known as art. Stanley Kauffmann, reviewing the first American production of Betrayal, disliked its "world-in-my-drawing-room society" view but failed to note that the play continued Pinter's compulsive examination of time and memory. By reversing time in Betrayal, Pinter throws heavy emphasis on it--and on the fact that memory both serves people and does them myriad disservices. It's no accident that Pinter adapted John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, which mingles two distinct time frames, for Karel Reisz's distinguished movie. He also turned Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time into a respected screenplay that has not been filmed as yet.
Maybe the last word on Pinter--for the fleeting moment, anyway--should be given to the hard-working Leveaux. The director finds that, whenever he has tackled Betrayal, "there are things that leap from the play that have never leapt at me before. This is a writer in total command of the facts. He has a ruthless grasp of reality, which is one of the things that make his writing radical and energetic. He penetrates reality until he reaches the point where what a character says or does is absolutely essential. Pinter is a realist in the most radical sense. He's one of those writers who made us hear the English language again. He altered the way we hear the English language. Very few writers do that."