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Last Updated on August 16, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 397

Harold Pinter's short play The Dumb Waiter provides an existential examination of the human condition from the perspective of two assassins waiting to complete a hit. The dialogue between the two characters, Gus and Ben, shows the hitmen fruitlessly searching for meaning and purpose in an absurd situation—an absurdity that...

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Harold Pinter's short play The Dumb Waiter provides an existential examination of the human condition from the perspective of two assassins waiting to complete a hit. The dialogue between the two characters, Gus and Ben, shows the hitmen fruitlessly searching for meaning and purpose in an absurd situation—an absurdity that is highlighted by the fact that two assassins are not necessarily the type of characters an audience might expect to see questioning the meaning of life.

Throughout nearly the entire play, Gus and Ben remain holed up in a basement room. This type of limited, microcosmic setting, in which characters await the arrival of a mysterious message or personage, is one that might be familiar to readers from other absurdist or existentialist works, such as Beckett's Waiting for Godot. This microcosm—in this case, the basement room—represents humanity's essential situation: one of uncertainty, futility, and inherent meaninglessness.

Much of this sense of existential absurdity is communicated through the dumbwaiter, which delivers a stream of seemingly irrelevant messages from an unknown entity. Though they attempt to satisfy the dumbwaiter's demands, Gus and Ben are unequipped to fulfill its requests for food: there is no kitchen in the basement, and they are not cooks but hitmen. The assassins' struggle to decipher the dumbwaiter's cryptic messages is reminiscent of the struggle of the heroes of Greek or Shakespearean drama to decipher prophecies and revelations from oracles, gods, or witches: something unclear is communicated to characters who attempt to interpret the message but ultimately fail due to a basic human lack of understanding or willingness to see the truth.

The idea of a "dumbwaiter," or, as the title has it, a "dumb waiter," is essential to understanding Pinter's darkly comic play. As the two hitmen attempt to fulfill the food orders sent through the dumbwaiter and to communicate with the "higher" being or beings who are silently ("dumbly") speaking to them, they act as waiters of sorts, with very limited knowledge—"dumb waiters." They are also "waiting" for the arrival of their unknown target, who ironically turns out to be Gus—the younger of the two assassins, who displays a childlike innocence by constantly questioning Ben about the nature of their job. While both assassins represent humanity in its attempt to understand a basically absurd universe, Gus might be said to be the ultimate "dumb waiter" of Pinter's play.

The Play

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1044

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 revolver. Gus wonders how Wilson, their boss, arranges for these quarters to be always deserted, except for the person who arrives. He would like to ask Wilson about the last one, a girl who “spread” messily when they killed her. He wonders if anyone cleans up after them. Ben replies that this is not the only department in the organization.

There is a loud racket between the beds. Revolvers at the ready, they open the center panel to reveal a dumbwaiter. Gus retrieves a paper from it which calls for steak, chips, and tea. The box ascends. They assume they must be in the kitchen to an upstairs cafe. Gus questions, but not Ben. The dumbwaiter returns with a demand for soup, liver and onions, and jam tart. Ben decides that they must send something. Gus rummages in his satchel and finds cookies, a candy bar, milk, and cake. Ben then finds a bag of potato chips, which Gus has been hiding. The box rises before they can send up what they have.

Ben decides that it is time. They adjust holsters, don ties and coats. The dumbwaiter returns with a new note calling for macaroni pastitsio and ormitha macarounada. They put all they have in the box, Gus shouting up the contents. The dumbwaiter ascends. Gus has a headache and hopes this job is easy. The dumbwaiter returns, containing a note calling for Chinese cuisine. Gus now discovers a speaking tube. Ben instructs him to blow in it and then listen. Gus hears nothing and rudely shouts into the tube, “The larder’s bare!” Ben grabs the tube and says, “with great deference,” that they have nothing more to give. Someone speaks back to him and relates dissatisfaction with the earlier offering. Excitedly, Ben tells Gus that the speaker said to light the kettle, not the gas. Gus counters that there is no gas. Ben is despondent because they cannot comply, but Gus complains that, although they gave all they had, the speaker still is not satisfied.

Ben leads Gus through the procedures to occur when the victim arrives but forgets the part where Gus takes out his gun. Gus exits, left, and the lavatory chain is again pulled but does not cause the toilet to flush. Gus returns, pondering who sent the matches, who is upstairs, and why whoever it is plays these games. Ben, unable to reply, hits Gus twice.

The dumbwaiter returns with a request for scampi. Gus shouts in the tube that they have nothing left. Ben violently takes the tube away and calls Gus a maniac. The box goes up and the hatch closes. Returning to his paper, Ben asks Gus to listen again as he reads aloud. Although all the vital facts are omitted from the article which Ben reads, the two men respond in formulaic manner: Gus, as usual, expresses incredulity, and Ben wants to vomit. Gus exits, left, for a glass of water. The speaking tube whistles and Ben answers. He tells the tube that they are ready and calls out for Gus to return. He receives no answer, but the lavatory flushes for the first time. Ben calls again. No answer. The right door opens. According to the stage directions, “Ben turns, his revolver levelled at the door, and Gus stumbles in” through the door, stripped of jacket and tie, holster and revolver, his body stooping. They stare at each other; after a long pause, the curtain closes.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438

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 course of events in the play. It becomes a third character, far more than a mere prop. From this point on in the course of the action, the audience cannot give its full attention to Ben and Gus until the dumbwaiter closes for the last time. The dumbwaiter provides a standard which the men cannot match. Not even Ben, who tries to perform his job mechanically, can match the implacable, impervious aplomb of the machine, and so he must fail.

The final stage directions are acutely important. They do not say that Ben shoots Gus. As Gus stumbles through the door, Ben turns with pistol at the ready, but he does not fire. He stares at Gus, pistol leveled, and the curtains close on that tableau. Much of the audience may hear a gunshot, although none is sounded. Even critics of the play have claimed that Ben shoots Gus. Psychologists have long known that witnesses to an event fill in missing details from their normal associations; when a man points a gun, the assumption is that he will use it. Here, however, Pinter provides one last unsettled event, and his audience is left wondering; the conclusion of the play is as enigmatic as its beginning.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 281

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).


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 151

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.

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