Once Upon a Betrayal

Welcome to BETRAYED!, a week’s worth of diatribes inspired by the current Broadway revival of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal.

Let’s start with similar terrain trodden by both this 1975 play and a 2019 movie: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.

There’s been ample hullabaloo regarding the seemingly throwaway nature of the latter’s scene in which Brad Pitt’s character murders his wife. “Wait! Why isn’t more attention paid to the possibility he’s a spouse-killer! Why is he portrayed positively elsewhere!! HE’S A BAD GUY AND MUST BE CONSISTENTLY DEPICTED AS SUCH THROUGHOUT!!!” An argument that boils down to the belief that art should be clear in its moral judgements of its content, instead of showing otherwise everyday people committing heinous acts. Just because the movie doesn’t wear its condemnation on its sleeve does not mean it’s unaware of such immorality. What if it’s fine for art to present humans as they are, letting the audience decide for themselves how to respond?

That’s certainly Betrayal‘s approach. Remember when Robert (played by Tom Hiddleston on the Great White Way) confesses — calmly, without remorse, and maybe with even a hint of pleasure — to beating his wife? Except, this unreliable admission — Pinter’s characters love to lie to alter their company’s understanding of the truth, a power move rooted in the notion that those who dictate the truth tend to be the ones in charge. As such, just because a character says something happened does not mean it actually did, yet another impediment to audiences trying to suss out clear morality from the proceedings — is by no means the focal point of the play; it’s never mentioned again.

Heck, it’s arguably not even the main focus of its own scene (for the record, claiming any one thing as the main focus of a piece of art feels reductive, and scenes that seem like they’re designed to hammer home one point can be signifiers of simplistic art). Further complicating matters, the production goes out of its way — as in, it adds a visual moment not found in the text — to let us see him as a loving father. There’s no black eyes, no long monologues about the physical pain caused. In Pinter’s world, it could just be yet another means through which humans hurt each other.

COULD.

Even if it’s not treated as his defining trait, audiences of certain ethical persuasions are free to deem it as such. It’s not like it’s his only transgression; besides the obvious cheating, he also says misogynist shit, and even dabbles in xenophobia. By the end, some may forget all about his physical brutality; others won’t be able to. These two takeaways, and all in between, and on either side, are interesting, and deserve to be unpacked.

And they reflect one of Betrayal‘s many themes: that we never truly know other people, even our nearest and dearest, to the extent that we may one day discover a tidbit that completely reshapes our conception of them.

Or maybe it should, and doesn’t?

If some art aims to accurately reflect the complexity of life, then clearly contextualizing good from bad would be a — I’m sorry about this one — BETRAYAL of that goal.

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