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.
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 accounts of violent deaths—an elderly man crushed under a truck, a child killing a cat. Then suddenly the two begin receiving requests for food from upstairs via the serving hatch. The more ridiculous the requests—from a braised steak to Char Siu and scampi—the more desperate the men’s reactions: The absurdity is unsettling, as much for the audience as for the characters.
(The entire section is 1,892 words.)