Last Updated on July 31, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 371
Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter is a short one-act play about two hitmen laying in wait for their target. The play is dramatic as well as absurd, as Pinter explores the idea of humanity facing a mysterious universe and an impending confrontation with mortality.
The play begins with hitmen Gus and Ben waiting in a basement room for their target to enter. They have been tasked with killing an unknown target but know they will be alerted to his arrival just before he enters the basement.
Ben is an experienced hitman who is at ease in the situation and waits calmly, reading a newspaper. Gus is inexperienced and has been brought along to learn how to perform a hit; he waits impatiently and asks many questions to better understand their plan and the associated jargon. As he asks his questions, Ben becomes somewhat agitated but tries to answer Gus the best he can. The questions start out clear but become increasingly nonsensical as Gus asks about the semantics of certain “hit phrases” and why they are said in that way. There is an existential element to his curiosity, which pervades the rest of the play.
There is a dumbwaiter in the room that frequently has orders called down to it in spite of the fact that the basement is not a kitchen. Ben and Gus inform whoever is sending the orders that they have no food down there, but orders continue to come through.
Eventually, Gus steps out to use the restroom. In that moment, a message is sent through the dumbwaiter to alert the men that their target has arrived. Ben calls for his partner to return from the restroom, and Gus enters, unarmed, through the door the target is supposed to enter from. The play ends in relative ambiguity when Ben draws his gun on Gus, but Pinter does not say if the trigger is pulled.
It is implied that Gus has been the target all along, though this is never explicitly stated, and it is therefore assumed that Ben, doing his duty, will end the young man’s life. This twist ending shows Ben’s slavish devotion to duty and, ironically, resolves Gus’s endless existential questioning.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 876
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 descending makes them grab their revolvers. Gus opens the dumbwaiter and removes a piece of paper that reads “Two braised steak and chips. Two sago puddings. Two teas without sugar.”
Ben says the place is probably under new management. Gus wants to know who has it now. A second piece of paper reads “Soup of the day. Liver and onions. Jam tart.” Ben looks in the serving hatch but not up it. When Gus puts his finger to his mouth and looks up the hatch, Ben is alarmed. The meager contents of Gus’s bag are brought out and put on a plate, but the dumbwaiter has already gone up. Gus questions how a gas stove with three rings can service a busy place? What happens when no one is there? Were those menus coming down and going up for years? The third piece of paper reads “Macaroni Pastitsio. Ormitha Macarounada.” Gus puts the plate in the box and calls the contents up the hatch. Ben corrects Gus for shouting.
Gus wants to know if there is another kitchen, other gas stoves. Why, he wonders, did Wilson not get in touch? Does Ben believe that the two of them are unreliable? (Ben says nothing.) The box comes down. The fourth note reads “One Bamboo Shoots, Water Chestnuts, and Chicken. One Char Siu and beansprouts.” Their packet of tea is sent back.
A speaking tube is suddenly discovered, and Gus does not understand why he did not see it before. Gus follows Ben’s directions—blowing into it, then speaking—but he cannot hear anything. Ben takes the tube and listens and talks into it. The voice on the other end, Ben tells Gus, said everything they sent up was defective. Ben gives Gus his instructions, but he forgets to tell Gus to take out his gun—which Ben never omitted before.
Gus wants to know what they would do if it is a girl—the mess made by the girl on their last job bothered Gus—but Ben replies they will do just the same.
Gus points out that they passed their tests years ago. They took the tests together; they proved themselves. What is he playing these games for? The fifth note reads “Scampi.” Gus yells up that they have nothing left. Ben seizes the tube from Gus, hangs it up, goes back to his bed, and picks up the paper. Gus exits left. The whistle on the speaking tube goes off. Ben answers, notes that the usual procedure would be followed, and says they are ready. Ben goes to the left, and the door to the right opens. Ben turns and levels his revolver at the door. Gus stumbles in, stripped of jacket, waistcoat, tie, holster, and revolver. Gus and Ben stare at each other in silence.
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