‘You have to listen like a hawk, and you are swimming in sort of an aquarium of uncertainty all the time.”
The celebrated English director Maria Aitken is describing the 1978 Harold Pinter play “Betrayal,” which she’s helming for the Huntington Theatre Company, where performances run Friday through Dec. 9. The play begins in 1977 and concludes in 1968, tracing its arc backward. We start with Emma — whose marriage to Robert is breaking up — meeting her former lover Jerry for a drink, and reflecting on their years-long affair. We end with the beginning of that affair, a party at which Jerry, who was best man at Emma and Robert’s wedding, tells her he’s crazy about her.
Pinter wasn’t the first artist to construct a narrative this way. Sophocles’s “Oedipus” works backward in the manner in which its events come to light; so do murder mysteries. W. R. Burnett’s 1934 novel “Goodbye to the Past” moves from 1929 to 1873, explaining on its title page, “Life can only be understood backwards.” Czech director Oldrich Lipsky’s 1966 film “Happy End” begins with a butcher’s death and ends with his birth. But Pinter’s impetus for “Betrayal” was personal. “He said the story started to tell itself backwards,” notes Aitken, who as an actress in London worked with Pinter. “It was based on an incident in his own life, a love affair. So his own memory came into play. You live life forwards, but you remember it backwards.”
The catch is that not all the play’s nine scenes go backward. It’s only when Scene 3 arrives that you realize you’re going backward as well as forward. In the script, Pinter makes clear in which direction the play is moving, and Aitken plans to do that at the Huntington as well. “I’ve reached the conclusion that you must signal it. Even in the movie,” she says, meaning the 1983 adaptation of the play, “there are titles. And Pinter wrote the movie.”
Since “Betrayal,” we have become accustomed to reverse-chronology storytelling, mostly in narratives that move from bad endings to good, or at least better, beginnings. Here are some notable examples in various media — in reverse order, of course.
“TOKA GETTAN” (2007)
The 26 episodes of this Japanese animated television series were shown, one per week, in reverse order — with a twist. It started near the end, with episode 1, and went backward until it reached episode 25, which was the last chronologically (and so should have been shown first). Then it concluded with the earliest episode, 26. The story is set in a magical world where Toka is born from a wooden doll; in episode 1, he reverts to his doll state, a sign that we’re at the end rather than the beginning.
This very dark, very violent French film from Argentine director Gaspar Noé signals its intentions from the start: The credits run up the screen instead of down, and some of the letters are reversed. It’s a tale of revenge and rape, the shifts from later to earlier marked by the revolving of Noé’s vertiginous camera. The final shot is a swirling of the cosmos followed by the words “time destroys everything.”
COLDPLAY, “THE SCIENTIST” (2002)
Frontman Chris Martin flipping up from a mattress and a bicycle going backward are your clues straight off that this music video is running in reverse. The song itself unfolds normally in the course of the video; Martin had to learn to sing the lyrics backward, so that when the video was run backward the lyrics would run forward. The key line is “Take me back to the start,” before the video’s fatal car crash.
Christopher Nolan’s film is the most complex of the reverse-chronology movies, since it intercuts black-and-white scenes that run forward with color scenes that run in reverse order. What’s more, the protagonist, Leonard, suffers from anterograde amnesia, which means that he’s been unable to form new memories since his wife was raped and murdered (or was she?). The second color scene ends at the point where the first one began; that’s your clue that the color scenes are running backward. Figuring out what Leonard really remembers, however, would take multiple viewings.
“SEINFELD”: “THE BETRAYAL” (1997)
This episode was inspired by “Betrayal” and in fact has a character named Pinter. It begins with the Castle Rock Entertainment logo that would normally appear at the conclusion of the show. Then Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer are seen sitting, as usual, in Monk’s Cafe. Jerry, Elaine, and George have just returned from a wedding in India where it turns out Elaine has slept with the groom (Pinter) and Jerry has slept with the woman George wanted to sleep with, so there’s a general feeling of betrayal. Since each scene has a label like “Ten minutes earlier” or “Two days earlier,” you know at once you’re going backward. The episode ends with Jerry meeting Kramer for the first time ever.
PET SHOP BOYS, “ONE THING LEADS TO ANOTHER” (1993)
One thing indeed leads to another in this story of a man who dies after crashing his car after losing his job after being left by his lover. The narrative moves backward not verse by verse but line by line; it starts, “They close your eyes and the doctor says it’s too late,” so by line four, “You crash the car, you’ve gone too far,” you know the song is not traveling in the usual direction.
MARTIN AMIS, “TIME’S ARROW: OR THE NATURE OF THE OFFENCE” (1991)
After Tod T. Friendly dies at the beginning of this novel, his doppelgänger (“the soul he should have had”) learns about his life, going back in time as the location shifts from New York to Portugal to Germany and eventually Auschwitz, where he works, under the name Odilo Unverdorben, for Josef Mengele. Every sequence is described in reverse order: When Unverdorben eats, the food goes from his mouth to the plate; when he experiments on Jewish “patients,” they spring back to life. The novel ends with Unverdorben crawling back into the womb, as if to say the nature of the offense was being born.
Pinter himself wrote the film version of his play; David Jones directed, with Jeremy Irons as Jerry, Ben Kingsley as Robert, and Patricia Hodge as Emma. Although the forward and backward scene shifts are explicitly labeled, you can still feel betrayed by the plethora of lies and self-deceptions the characters engage in. And the final scene, in which Jerry throws himself at Emma, suggests that all was not well even at the beginning.