Critical Context

Pinter borrows heavily from previous dramatic and literary sources of the twentieth century. The comic patter of Ben and Gus has the rhythms of an English music-hall routine. At times, the two characters are reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy. Gus often acts like Stan Laurel, the iconoclastic mischief-maker who remains subservient to Oliver Hardy while ignoring his desperate but futile attempts to follow the dictates of society. Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pb. 1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954) provides two comic duos upon which Pinter draws and which underlie his tragicomic vision. Estragon and Vladimir wait in an irrational world for one who never comes. Pozzo cruelly dominates Lucky, who makes a feeble attempt at comprehension in his oppression. Aspects of all four of these characters appear in Ben and Gus.

The Dumb Waiter was Pinter’s third play; it was preceded by The Room (pr. 1957) and The Birthday Party (pr. 1958). The three plays are similar in several ways. In each, much of the terror arises because characters talk but are unable to communicate. In the midst of other people, these characters are isolated. This creates a feeling of menace and uncertainty, so much so that these plays are often labeled “comedies of menace.” The more the menace builds, the more attempts are made to communicate. The greater the failure to communicate, the greater the menacing terror.

In The Dumb Waiter, vagueness and ambiguity not only create a pervasive sense of danger about to explode but also open the play to larger allegorical interpretation. The calculated vagueness used so well here would continue in Pinter’s work after the menace softened, in plays such as The Homecoming (pr., pb. 1965) and Betrayal (pr., pb. 1978). It was with The Dumb Waiter, however, that Pinter first achieved greatness, taking his place as one of the major playwrights of the twentieth century.