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Old Times: The Not-So-Hidden Forces of Jealousy

From the hurt rage of Medea to the poisonous suspicion of Othello, romantic jealousy drives some of theatre’s most dramatic plays. Novelist Howard Johnson explains that “jealousy is wordy; it gorges on language. It is hyperbolic, growing fatter on every expression of itself. This is delicious for any writer who is not an understater of emotion.” While Harold Pinter may prefer to understate emotion, at least on the surface, a heated jealousy simmers beneath each word—and pause—of Old Times.

Psychologists understand jealousy as a multidimensional response, involving thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It often starts with the thought, either based on actual evidence or sometimes with no basis in reality, that one’s relationship is threatened. An emotional reaction follows the thought, which leads to action. “Detective behaviors” involve asking questions, checking up on a partner, or reading their texts, while “protective behaviors” would include taking steps to keep one’s partner away from the rival.

Jealousy is linked to human evolution: it is in our biological interest to protect our mate from competition and ensure that our own genes survive. From an evolutionary view, men are more likely to feel jealous of sexual competition, while women are more jealous of romantic competition. Jealousy protects men from having their genes from being replaced by a competitor and from unknowingly raising someone else’s offspring. For women, a jealous response would help prevent one’s mate from wandering and abandoning their offspring.

Some jealousy is considered normal, even healthy. When there is an actual threat, jealousy may spur a couple to take action and reconcile. But jealousy is pathological, or extremely unhealthy, when the threat is only imagined and connected to delusional thinking or paranoia. Emotions and resulting jealous behavior may be extreme and even violent. Such jealousy is never healthy and can lead to abusive relationships.

The jealousy most apparent in Old Times would probably not be classified as healthy by most therapists. The real-life phenomenon known as “retroactive jealousy” (or retrospective, or retrograde jealousy) describes feeling threatened by a partner’s past relationships and sexual history. The threat is in the past, so it is usually imaginary rather than real. Retroactive jealousy is characterized by intrusive thoughts and images, highly-charged emotional responses, and extreme detective behaviors.

Eve Best and Clive Owen in OLD TIMES.

Eve Best and Clive Owen in OLD TIMES. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Retroactive jealousy may be linked to a number of subconscious drives. An intimate relationship may stir up childhood anxieties, such as feelings of not being loved by our parents or of competition with siblings. Fears of being left out and not feeling special can manifest in excessive curiosity about a partner’s past and a need for constant reassurance. Some people have a deep belief that we all have a limited amount of happiness allotted to us, leading to a fear that the partner was happier in the past than in the present relationship. Jealousy of the partner’s past can also
lead to projection. Some people may unconsciously provoke insecurity in their partner by sending signals that their past relationship was better than the present one. By keeping their partner insecure and jealous, they can then hold the power in the relationship.

Theatre has always been a medium to explore the darker aspects of humanity, and Pinter explores jealousy in many of his plays. Perhaps, like Johnson, he too likes to explore “the dark, interior stickiness of the subject, where torment knows it should not be left to itself, but wants it no other way, and the victim forever haunts the border between the thing he fears and the thing he longs for.”


Old Times plays through November 29 at the American Airlines Theatre. For more information, please visit our website.



Related Categories:
2015-2016 Season, Old Times, Upstage


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