Themes and Meanings

Harold Pinter usually understates his themes; though broad, their subtlety prevents them from dominating his drama. In The Dumb Waiter, he provides symbols which approach allegorical significance concerning man’s inability to cope with the modern world. Man is stifled by an industrial society that never explains, that never lets him see the end product. Ben and Gus know nothing of what comes before their killing the victim or of what comes after. They are simply rote killers on an assembly line of death. The result is boredom, which for Gus leads to dissatisfaction and a presumably tragic end.

As uncomfortable as this monotony is, Ben and Gus feel terror at the interruption of routine. The ritual in their conversation and actions allows them to talk without being heard or hearing, to do without thought or reflection. They do not settle arguments by logic or fact but through hierarchy. In the mindless world of rote and ritual, thought is dangerous.

The dumbwaiter descends from above with its mundane but irrational demands like some unseen god, asking for more from man than he can give. Ben, the loyal servant, gives all he has and, without questioning tries to fill the impossible demands that are made of them. Gus, sensing the injustice of their lot, mundanely envisions the edenic world denied to him.

Ben and Gus also represent victims and victimizers in the political arena, where the remote lawmakers and an impervious bureaucracy obfuscate the purpose of the state. People are not served, they serve. The compartmental division of the state leaves the citizen blindly following without recourse. Pinter, the conscientious objector, may intend to evoke the imperatives of the military as well: The soldier must unquestioningly kill and be killed.

Even language becomes ritualized in the play, so that what is said is never comprehended. It never bothers Gus that Ben is not listening to him. When Ben reads to Gus, neither comprehends. They are unaware of the brutality in their own language, which, in turn, masks the brutality in their lives. Their existence is dreamlike, reality dissipated in the rote. Together they are isolated; they function in harmonic awareness only when the speechless ritual of murder occurs. Faced with a departure from their familiar routine, they end by terrorizing themselves.