What are the absurdist elements in The Dumb Waiter?

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The absurdist elements in The Dumb Waiter are rooted in the overall lack of conventional realism throughout. The two characters are caught in a fantasy-like situation but only obliquely seem to question it, while they outwardly play roles that conform to a kind of normality which is an illusion.

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The static, claustrophobic setting of The Dumb Waiter creates the background for the absurdist themes of the play. And the briefest description of the plot shows a negation of the conventional slice-of-life format typical of the realistic or naturalistic theater.

Two men are sitting in a room waiting for something—eventually revealed to be the appearance of a man they are supposed to kill—while engaged in a pointless dialogue about various irrelevant matters. Ben reads a story in the paper about an eighty-seven-year-old man killed when he tried to cross the road by crawling under a truck. The two argue about whether one should say "light the kettle" or "light the gas" when making tea, as if this were an important point.

Orders for food begin to be sent to them on a dumb waiter (a small lift for carrying food up from the basement kitchen of a restaurant). The men somehow think they should try to fulfill these orders with the small amount of snack food they have on hand, although there is no apparent reason anyone upstairs should think that the building has a functioning kitchen and the men have no idea why these food orders are being issued.

All of these elements relate to a kind of directionless quality in the two men's thinking and in the action of the play. The two are hit men, waiting to kill someone, but they argue about petty details and fail to question the bizarre situation that unfolds around them. The dialogue and the plot seem without purpose, and comically so.

Though this lack of realism is typical of absurdist literature, there is a higher kind of realism in the fact that the men's behavior is a metaphor of the general pointlessness of real life. Even if two hit men, such as they are, were to act in a naturalistic manner (as in a conventional Hollywood film, for instance), the whole idea of killing someone is absurd anyway. Pinter's style is analogous to satire, in which reality is deliberately distorted but the purpose is to show that the actual reality is not much better than the distorted version.

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