Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter is a short comedic play about two hitmen, Ben and Gus, who are lying in wait for their next target. The play explores existential themes and discusses mortality and the meaning of life, making it a deeply philosophical work—albeit one centered on the unlikeliest of characters.
Gus: There's a photo here of the first eleven.
Ben: What first eleven?
Gus: (studying the photo) It doesn't say.
Ben and Gus carry on an increasingly ludicrous conversation while awaiting their target. As Gus sits calmly reading a newspaper and telling Ben about some of the articles in it, the dialogue between the two men reveals the deeper meaning of the play. One of the major themes involves attempting to apprehend the unknown and receiving unclear messages from beyond; the two men are holed up in a basement room that acts as a microcosm, and every communication they receive from the outside, through the newspaper and the dumbwaiter, is confusing and lacks context. In this way, Pinter portrays the existential experience of being adrift in an absurd universe in which messages from God—if He exists—are impossible to correctly interpret.
Gus: I thought perhaps you? I mean? Have you got any idea? Who it's going to be tonight?
Ben: Who what's going to be?
Gus (at length): Who it's going to be.
The two men refuse to acknowledge the deed before them. They are busy discussing anything other than their assignment at hand, until Gus finally asks who they're going to kill. Ben's response has two potential implications. The first is that he knows Gus is the intended target. The second possibility is that he doesn't know Gus is the target but is nevertheless refusing to address the situation, in spite of the fact that he will eventually have to carry it out. The men don't want to address death and mortality when it's so close at hand.
Gus: We send him up all we've got and he's not satisfied. No, honest, it's enough to make the cat laugh. Why did you send him up all that stuff? Why did I send it up? . . . Who knows what he's got upstairs? He's probably got a salad bowl . . .
As the play draws nearer to its conclusion, the two men attempt to send some food up to the demanding entity at the other end of the dumbwaiter. They have no idea what would soothe it and end its incessant nagging, so they send what they have on hand. Their dialogue shows that they're doing what they think might please the entity on the other end, but they have no idea who or what that entity might be. This illustrates humanity's naïveté and shows Pinter's absurdist view of religion and spirituality. Ben and Gus have no idea what's on the other end of the dumbwaiter, and they represent humanity's futile attempts to communicate with and comprehend reality or the divine. When they sit back and consider it, the hitmen are left with a profound confusion and no understanding of how to properly address it.
The audience never sees Gus speaking to the person operating the dumbwaiter; Ben is the only character who speaks with the unseen character upstairs. Not only does this imply that Ben is hiding information from Gus (and may know that Gus is the target of the assassination), but it hints at the history of elite members of society controlling communication with the divine for their own benefit. Throughout history, various religious leaders have claimed exclusive communion with God, not allowing their followers to speak directly with the divine or to read and understand the texts that were supposedly given to them by God. This system of control oppresses individuals and secures power for those endowed with divine authority, much as Ben has more control over the situation than Gus because he speaks with the person upstairs, while Gus does not.