Last Updated on July 31, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1207
Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter is a one-act play with two characters. The play is set inside a room in a rather run-down old house in Birmingham, England. The room has multiple doors on either side of the room, a couple of beds, and a dumbwaiter on the wall.
The play's two characters, Ben and Gus, are professional killers. In the normal course of events, their boss, Wilson (who is discussed but never seen), gives them an address to go to. They arrive at the address and wait to be contacted by Wilson, who is sometimes present and sometimes not. Sometimes they receive a phone call. The contact or call tells them when their "assignment," the person they are going to kill, is about to arrive. They have a method: Ben pulls out his gun and stands in the room; Gus waits behind the door so that he is behind whomever arrives when they walk into the room. Presumably, they shoot their victim from both sides, and the job is done.
But nothing about today's job is quite normal. Events occur that are outside of the scope of a typical day. How each man reacts to the events, and what happens to each of them, constructs how we can analyze each character. These events are precipitated by an object, which I propose is a third character in this play: the dumbwaiter.
Ben is the senior assassin. He may or may not be older than Gus, but clearly he has more experience with their work and business. He is generally more sedate and complacent. While waiting for their assignment to happen, he sits in bed and reads the newspaper. He does not ask questions or worry about the nature of what they are doing. When Gus does begin to worry, Ben becomes annoyed, impatient, and eventually agitated. He often tells Gus what to do—go light the kettle, go make tea. Before each assignment, Ben likes to go over exactly how he and Gus are going to kill their victim, where each man will stand, how it will go down. He recites their actions to Gus like a ritual and expects Gus to repeat each action so he knows that they will do it right. Ben does have a short fuse, and when he becomes annoyed, he will blow up and become even more pugnacious and bossy. He tells Gus to shut up a lot. Ben tends to like to reason things out (though his reasoning is not always based on real evidence). Overall, he likes his world to be well-ordered, and once he has figured something out to his personal satisfaction, he is happy.
Gus is the junior assassin and is more nervous and fussy than Ben. As they wait for their assignment, Gus is up and about, poking around and worrying about anything that looks out of place. Ben keeps asking him to make tea, and Gus says he will but keeps putting it off until he discovers that the gas doesn't seem to be working anyway. This makes him even more nervous. He repeatedly worries about events he does not understand—for instance, a mysterious stop they make in their car en route to this house that morning. He is compliant to Ben's orders, and when Ben tells him to shut up, he does, at least for a few minutes. But as they wait and weird events occur, Gus becomes less compliant and more unhinged. He admits he does not like killing women and hopes their victim is a man today. Who cleans up after they are done killing their victim? he wonders. He wants to have a good talk with their boss Wilson about all of this. Gus seems to delight in asking difficult questions that he cannot answer, and he appears to be addicted to being worried. He works himself up into states of alarm over things he does not understand and is not always satisfied with the answers Ben gives him.
The dumbwaiter makes a loud sliding noise as someone sends it down from above. The assassins pull out their guns and train them on the dumbwaiter. But it is only a note, an order.
Two braised steaks and chips. Two puddings. Two teas without sugar.
Ben and Gus are confused. Why is this happening? Logical Ben supposes that this room where they are waiting used to be a café but has recently changed hands to their own organization. Yet people who live upstairs in the house don't know this and are used to sending down orders.
The dumbwaiter goes up and down again, bringing another order. Ben and Gus fuss about whether they should fill the order. Ben has no food and orders Gus to pull out all the food he has brought. It turns out Gus has brought a fair amount: a cake, tea, milk, crisps, and biscuits. They put the whole lot on a plate and send it up.
The dumbwaiter arrives with orders for Greek food and then Chinese food. Ben notices that there is speaking tube attached to the dumb waiter and orders Gus to speak into it and tell whomever is sending the orders that there is no more food. Gus does so. A voice on the other end of the tube (we never hear it) tells Gus that the cake was stale and the milk was sour.
Gus is upset:
We sent him up all we've got and he's not satisfied. It's enough to make a cat laugh. Who knows what he's got upstairs. They've probably got a salad bowl. Cold meat. A crate of beer. The lot.
The dumbwaiter sends down one more note. It says "Scampi." Gus screams,
Scampi? There's nothing left!
Ben warns Gus to shut up. Gus shuts up.
The dumbwaiter opens briefly. It is empty. It closes.
Gus goes into the adjacent open doorway to get a glass of water.
The speaking tube of the dumbwaiter whistles. Ben answers. He listens. He replies formally, and we understand he is receiving instructions, probably from Wilson, that their victim is about to come through the second door. Ben pulls out his gun and waits.
The second door flies open. Gus stumbles in, as if he was thrown in by someone from the hallway. Gus stares at Ben. Ben stares are Gus. The stage goes black.
The dumbwaiter is inexplicable and toys with Ben and Gus. It has a sense of humor. It demands attention. It sends the men into frenzies of reaction and emotion. They do exactly what it says without once questioning why. They are its slaves. In the end, the dumbwaiter puts Ben in place and orders him to kill whomever comes in the door, and that person is Gus. Is the dumbwaiter fate? Is the dumbwaiter death? Is the dumbwaiter their boss, Wilson? These men have chosen to be killers, and they have done their jobs. But lately, Gus has begun to question what he is doing. And Ben has not questioned it. So, in the end, Gus must be killed, and it is Ben who will do the killing. It seems the men have married themselves to their fate, and their bosses, like the dumbwaiter, are implacable.