In all likelihood the most original British playwright of the last half of the twentieth century, Harold Pinter wrote not only for the theater but also for radio, television, and film. In his work, Pinter focuses on the individual in relation to others and on the threatening nature of late twentieth century society. In Pinter’s world, what one is responsible for is not at all clear. Written at the beginning of Pinter’s career, The Dumb Waiter presents Ben and Gus, professional hit men, with many hits on their record. It seems, as the play unfolds, that Gus is going to be killed by Ben because Gus asks too many questions. Pinter describes a world in which everything is unreliable, including consciousness, memory, personal relationships, and any kind of social contract. The nature of human beings is at issue in Pinter’s plays; he presents them without nostalgia and with no sentimentality.
The extent to which Ben and Gus are responsible for their own lives remains unknown. Is Gus, for instance, acting in good faith to question the life he lives? Or is he acting in good faith when he simply follows orders? What, as a soldier, is he expected to do? Pinter’s characters may be simultaneously victors, victimizers, and victims. What is most menacing to the individual occurs by surprise and remains unexplained. However murky the world may appear to the individual and the individual to the world, Pinter’s recurrent themes are clear enough: the alienation of the individual from himself or herself, from others, and from the environment; the uncertainty of truth, on any level; the impossibility of interpersonal relationships; the ironies and frequent contradictions of life.
The language of Pinter’s plays is often contradictory and uses opposition such as the repeated references to black and white in The Dumb Waiter. While Ben reads and rereads the newspaper at any free moment, focusing on what is “down in black and white,” Gus, in a stunning non sequitur, finds the black and white crockery thoroughly satisfying. It is the only thing he admires in their present location. Ben accepts what he reads. Gus bets that the newspaper story that Ben reads that says an eight-year-old girl killed a cat is a lie. More likely, the eleven-year-old boy killed the cat and blamed it on...
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