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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

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