Last Updated September 5, 2023.
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.