Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 943
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 his eight-year-old sister. Ben agrees, but that is the last time he agrees with Gus.
For Pinter, words typically conceal more than they reveal. Silence indicates an inner life, the nature of which may well mystify both the self and others. Ben’s silence is opaque, possibly without a self: He reads the newspaper or pursues his hobbies. Since he is not idle, who can criticize him? By carefully describing the outer lives of Ben and Gus, in a seemingly naturalistic manner, Pinter leaves readers and audience members to speculate about the two characters’ inner lives.
For Ben, everything is a matter of black and white. The importance to him of the past he shares with Gus remains unknown. Gus continues to be plagued by unanswered questions. These include: Why did Ben stop the car in the middle of the road that morning? Why is an envelope with twelve matches slid under the door when they have no money for the gas meter? Why is there no different method for a hit on a woman? Why does Wilson not treat them better? Why is the suddenly active dumbwaiter making requests of them? Who is upstairs?
The significance of what is not said is as important as what is. What is not said may amount to more emphatic communication than what is stated. Ben, for example, does not like Gus’s questions, which is apparent by his silence and by the fact that if he answers, he tends to contradict himself or lose his temper. Pinter’s characters are frequently called lower class, and, it is argued, therefore predictably easily frustrated and violent. They defy, in truth, such easy categorization. If Ben is less aware or less intelligent, is that the problem? Is it not rather Ben’s lack of courage that threatens Gus, Ben’s willingness to victimize anyone and his unwillingness to question, much less to criticize, anyone more powerful? Ben is a “company man” with, it seems, no convictions or restraints to keep him from doing whatever his supervisors want him to do.
With the dumbwaiter becoming active in the middle of the play, Ben accepts as fact—without any questioning—that they must meet the demands that come from above, down in black and white, no matter how unreasonable or increasingly bizarre those demands are. Gus wants to know why. For example, when he and Ben are both in need of their tea, why should they send up their few supplies? Even though Gus sends everything up, he later asks Ben, and then himself, why did they send everything up? Who is upstairs? Why is he playing all these games? Why does not whoever is upstairs understand that they have nothing left? These simple questions, in Pinter’s play, become the riddles of existence.
Unlike Gus, Ben does not question. He lives in a black-or-white world in which he seems neither happy nor unhappy but secure. The tube next to the dumbwaiter, through which one alternately listens and talks, does not work for Gus, just as the toilet does not flush for him—until the very end. The tube does work for Ben, who is ready, when his supervisors say so, to do his job. He is even ready to kill his partner when his supervisors instruct him to do so.