Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The Dumb Waiter, Pinter’s second play, was his first critical success. A short one-act piece, it opened in English performance at the Hampstead Theatre Club in 1960 as a double bill with Pinter’s first play, The Room, and immediately established Pinter’s reputation as an important new voice in contemporary theater. Though Pinter draws his theme and plot from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the treatment is highly original and contains all the stylistic trademarks that Pinter developed in his later work.
The most distinctive Pinteresque touch in the play is how the primary action acquires a secondary, allegorical meaning while never compromising the realistic grounding of the story. Moreover, while none of his other plays invites such a clearly allegorical interpretation, this technique of creating situations that, no matter how concrete, suggest larger, more abstract meanings became a standard device in Pinter’s writing.
The plot of The Dumb Waiter is so straightforward that it is deceivingly simple. The story concerns the lives of two thugs—possibly killers—on the night of a new assignment. The uncertainty of their situation, however, is remarkable: They do not know who has hired them or who their victim will be. They are merely waiting for their orders. For diversion, Ben concentrates on his newspaper, while Gus, the more inquisitive of the two and ultimately the most vulnerable, nags him with questions about their assignment. The menacing tone becomes more pronounced as Ben begins reading newspaper...
(The entire section is 645 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Ben and Gus are in a basement room with two beds and a closed serving-hatch between the beds. Ben reads aloud two different stories from the newspaper. Gus complains about the room not having a window, about coming in the dark to a strange place, sleeping all day, doing the job, and going away again in the dark. Ben says that Gus needs hobbies, like his own woodwork. Gus wants Ben to tell him why Ben stopped the car in the middle of the road, when it was still dark, that morning. Ben says that he thought Gus was asleep, that he was not waiting for anything, and that they were too early. When Gus objects that they did as they were told, Ben replies that he, not Gus, took the call. Ben repeats that they were too early but refuses to say more.
Gus wants to know what town they are in (Ben says Birmingham) and, since it is Friday, he wants to go to watch the football team the next day (Ben says there is no time). Gus reminisces about the Birmingham Villa team losing a game in a disputed penalty to the White Shirts. Gus remembers that the other team was from Tottenham, so that the game was in Birmingham. Ben says he was not there, yet he disagrees emphatically about the penalty and denies that the game was in Birmingham. An envelope slides under the door. Gus sees it, unseals it, and finds twelve matches but no writing.
When Ben tells him to “light the kettle,” Gus responds that Ben means “light the gas” and “put on the kettle.” Ben refuses to back down. When Gus persists, Ben asserts that he is the senior partner and then loses his temper, grabbing Gus by the throat. Gus tries to make tea, but there is a meter on the stove, and neither of them has any money. Gus laments that Wilson did not do well by them, such as leave enough gas available for a cup of tea. He has questions for Wilson but finds Wilson difficult to talk to. Gus wants to know if anyone cleans up after they are gone, and who that would be if so. Another question occurs to him: How many jobs did the two of them do? What if no one ever cleaned up? Ben points out that their employer has departments for everything. The noise of the dumbwaiter...
(The entire section is 876 words.)