The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

The Dumb Waiter takes place in a windowless basement room with two beds against the back wall and a closed serving hatch between them. A door to the kitchen and lavatory is stage left, and a door to a passage, right. Ben lies on the bed left reading a newspaper. Gus sits on the other bed laboriously tying his shoelaces. Gus rises, yawns, and slowly walks toward the door, left. Stopping, he looks at his shoe and shakes his foot. As Ben watches, Gus unties his shoe. Removing it, he brings out a flattened matchbox and replaces the shoe. After a few steps, he stops and removes the other shoe, taking out a flattened cigarette pack. Ben observes. Gus replaces the shoe and goes off, left. Ben slams down the paper, glares after Gus, and then resumes his reading. A lavatory chain is pulled, off left, but the toilet does not flush. Gus returns, puzzled.

Ben reads in the newspaper of a man who crawls under a truck to cross a busy road. The truck moves and squashes the man. Gus finds the story incredible. In the silence that follows, Gus exits, left. The lavatory chain is pulled but does not work. Ben yells to Gus offstage to make tea. Gus returns, musing over the nice crockery that “he” has provided this time. Ben tells him to make the tea. Gus hopes that this will not be a long job.

Ben reports another news item. A girl of eight has killed a cat. Gus is both incredulous and revolted. Gus asks when “he” will be getting in touch. Ben answers that it could be any time and asks again for tea. Small talk continues about boredom, about arriving too early and having to wait on the road. Gus imagines someone has occupied the room before them and complains of the malodorous sheets. Ben replies that it might be his own smell. Finding out that they are in Birmingham, Gus reminisces about a local football team they once saw there in a championship game. Ben first denies it, then states that it was in Tottenham.

A blank envelope slides under the door, right. Both stare. Gus opens it and finds twelve matches. He opens the door; no one is there. An argument follows about whether the proper phrase is “light the kettle,” as Ben thinks, or “light the gas” and “put on the kettle,” as Gus thinks. Ben wins because he is the senior partner, but then in exasperation he uses Gus’s phrase and says, “Put on the kettle.” Gus exits to do so and returns.

Gus muses on who “it” will be tonight. Then he discovers that the stove has gone out; neither of them has a shilling for the gas meter. Ben checks his...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

The Dumb Waiter employs several dramatic devices common to the Theater of the Absurd. The audience is brought into the play seemingly in medias res, a position Aristotle found appropriate only for the epic. The opening has no traditional exposition. The two characters onstage remain a mystery, and no introduction to the plot is given. The audience must grope for literal as well as allegorical meaning. In the play, Pinter even withholds conversation for an inordinate length of time, as Gus ties and unties his shoes, removing things from them.

In keeping the audience uninformed, Pinter increases tension. He unfolds information sparingly, keeping the focus on the superficial level of the comic plot, building suspense out of inanity. The argument over “put the kettle on” or “boil the kettle” may be silly, but the audience senses a threat of violence as Ben and Gus argue. With each release in laughter, the tension only grows, as the underlying terror becomes more apparent. No real surprise should result when these two characters are revealed as murderers.

The dumbwaiter’s intrusion from above into the comic chaos below further intensifies the uneasiness provoked by the play’s enigmatic action. The machine, too, is dichotomous. It possesses comic creakiness, makes comic demands, and allows comic confrontation; at the same time, it is a device that menaces, as it suddenly injects itself into the action, permanently altering the...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Basement room

Basement room. Located somewhere in Birmingham, England, this room is furnished only with two beds pushed against the back wall. A dumbwaiter (small serving elevator) comes down between the two beds. A door to the right exits to a hallway, and a door to the left exits to a kitchen and bathroom—rooms that cannot be seen. The basement room resembles a prison cell, suggesting that the play’s two main characters (petty killers or “hit men”) are already being punished for their crimes by the bleak, confining lives they lead. Waiting to carry out their next job, they represent each other’s hell. The two doors suggest the simple mazes in a rat’s cage: On the left side, food comes in and goes out; the exit on the right side represents birth and death.

Though not the kind of company many people would like to keep, the two hoodlums are curiously—almost comically—human. While they wait dumbly, they get bored, hungry, and nervous. Their “orders” finally come down from above via the dumbwaiter and a speaking tube, but at first only food orders for dishes they have no way of fixing. However, the person sending the orders is presumably the boss (named Wilson, recalling former British prime minister Harold Wilson), so they must do something.

Their predicament in the basement room suggests human existence generally—life lived mostly without understanding but under pressure, especially when the orders come down from above. These thoughts lead to speculation about the nature of human beings and of God—or perhaps only about the dubious nature of organizations and governments (which seem largely to have replaced religion in modern life).


(Great Characters in Literature)

Burkman, Katherine H. The Dramatic World of Harold Pinter: Its Basis in Ritual. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971. A provocative study, with notes, bibliography, and index.

Esslin, Martin. Pinter: A Study of His Plays. Expanded ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976. Originally published in 1970 under the title The Peopled Wound: The Work of Harold Pinter, a good book to use as a starting point. Bibliography, index.

Hynes, Joseph. “Pinter and Morality.” The Virginia Quarterly Review 68 (Autumn, 1992): 740-752. Examines Pinter’s comedy and compares his work to that of Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw.

Kennedy, Andrew. Six Dramatists in Search of a Language: Shaw, Eliot, Beckett, Pinter, Osborne, Arden. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975. Focuses on Pinter’s linguistic modes. Bibliography, index.

Schroll, Herman T. Harold Pinter: A Study of His Reputation (1958-1969) and a Checklist. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1971. Argues that Pinter’s works have lasting significance. Bibliography, index.