Wine, Women and Harold Pinter

The cheap 1980s plonks immortalised by Harold Pinter are making a welcome comeback


In scene vii of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, Jerry and Robert are having lunch at an Italian restaurant. Jerry has been having an affair with Robert’s wife, Emma, for several years. Jerry believes that Robert is unaware of this — even four years later he will assure Emma that “We were brilliant.  Nobody knew.” But in fact Robert does know. He and Emma have just come back from Venice, and while they were there he saw an envelope addressed to Emma in Jerry’s handwriting at the American Express office. Although he does not take or read the letter, Robert confronts Emma with the fact of its existence, and she confesses to the affair. 

But on their return to England, neither Robert nor Emma tells Jerry about this important change in the distribution of knowledge between the three of them. In that withholding of information Jerry is betrayed by both his friend and his lover, who contrive to build a new and strange intimacy on the basis of a betrayal placed on top of another betrayal. As Robert remarks to Jerry once it has all come out: “No, you didn’t know very much about anything, really, did you?” This always gets a great laugh in the theatre. But the bitterness of the joke lies in the revenge taken by the husband on the lover which lies beneath it.

In the restaurant Robert immediately orders “a bottle of Corvo Bianco straight away”, which he and Jerry swiftly finish and follow with a second. In the current, excellent, production of the play at the Comedy Theatre it is easy to glide over this as just another of the period touches of which the play is full, and to which this production generously responds (someone has meticulously scoured the vintage clothes shops of London to create Kristin Scott Thomas’s wardrobe  — the skirt and boots she wears in scene iii are particularly ghastly and authentic versions of what passed for elegance in the late 1970s, when the play is set).  

Certainly Corvo Rosso and Bianco figured prominently in my life during the 1970s and ’80s, not least because of their student-friendly prices. They were the everyday wines made by the Sicilian winery Duca di Salaparuta, founded in 1824 by Prince Giuseppe Alliata. Both wines used the native grapes of Sicily, the Rosso being a blend of Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese, and Pignatello, the Bianco of Inzolia, Grecanico, and Catarratto.  For a while in the 1990s the Corvo wines seemed to disappear, but reports say that the winery has now been recapitalised and improved. The wines are again available, but whether or not they are the same semi-feral drinks of the past, I can’t say. Improvement in wine is often just a euphemism for further movement on the path of standardisation. The Corvo wines, at least as they used to be, were idiosyncratic, wild and unpredictable. It is a bad sign that the “Corvo” name has been suppressed.  Worrying, too, is the marketing by the winery of a range of wine paraphernalia, and its description of itself as a “key player in the field of high-quality and up-to-date wine-drinking”.

In the restaurant Robert boldly says that “You can’t get drunk on Corvo Bianco”, but memory clamours to inform me otherwise. In the 1970s both the Rosso and the Bianco were potent drinks the very taste of which somehow conveyed intimations of the hangover to come. The Rosso in particular had a very strange dry finish, not in fact positively unpleasant, sometimes described as if a trace of dust or chalk had been left in the glass, but which always suggested cordite to me. It was a tasting note not entirely out of place in a wine which held the balance so well between being a pleasure and an assault. It was the vinous equivalent of so many of Pinter’s male characters, whose elaborate courtesy is more often than not the herald of savage physical violence.

That Pinterian atmosphere of mayhem held at bay by, but also making its imminence felt through, the thinnest film of outwardly civil verbal exchange, is strong in Betrayal. The world of the play is one in which rituals of friendship are hardly to be separated from ceremonies of aggression, as Robert reveals when he explains to Emma why she would not be welcome at the lunch he and Jerry will share after their game of squash:

“Well, to be brutally honest, we wouldn’t actually want a woman around, would we, Jerry? I mean a game of squash isn’t simply a game of squash, it’s rather more than that.  You see, first there’s the game. And then there’s the shower. And then there’s the pint. And then there’s lunch. After all, you’ve been at it. You’ve had your battle. What you want is your pint and your lunch. You don’t really want a woman buying you lunch.”

But in Betrayal the battle continues on into these acts of camaraderie and locales of reconciliation. Indeed, it is here that the aggression is at its most sharp and cruel.

At the very end of the play, in the scene which depicts the beginning of the affair, Jerry, intoxicated and elated by wine and by Emma herself, courts her in wild effusive words which contrast strongly with the clipped obliquity which otherwise characterises the play’s dialogue:

Look at the way you’re looking at me. I can’t wait for you, I’m bowled over, I’m totally knocked out, you dazzle me, you jewel, my jewel, I can’t ever sleep again, no, listen, it’s the truth, I won’t walk, I’ll be a cripple, I’ll descend, I’ll diminish, into total paralysis, my life is in your hands, that’s what you’re banishing me to, a state of catatonia, do you know the state of catatonia? do you? do you? the state of…where the reigning prince is the prince of emptiness, the prince of absence, the prince of desolation. I love you.

“You dazzle me” — it was a phrase which, we know, had a special significance for Pinter. In 1995, when accepting the David Cohen British Literature prize, he explained how an English teacher, Joe Brearley, had introduced him to the work of the Jacobean playwright John Webster. Pinter had been astonished and intoxicated by Webster’s language, and recalled that he and Brearley, when out walking together, would declaim fragments of Webster’s verse “at the passing trolley-buses or indeed to the passers-by”.

One of these fragments was the words that Ferdinand speaks over the corpse of his sister, the Duchess of Malfi, whom he has persecuted to death, but whom he also loves: “Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young.” That early association of unhealthy desire with harm in the word “dazzle” was retrieved by Pinter when writing that speech for Jerry, in a play which so fruitfully meditates on how little separates affection from aggression. Corvo Rosso and Bianco, which seasoned pleasure with menace, were the ideal, Pinterian, wines from the 1970s to accompany that particular emotional dish

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