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Last Updated on July 31, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 363

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Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter is a short one-act play that deals with existentialism and the search for meaning, as experienced by two hitmen awaiting their target. While the men are waiting, they discuss their plan, and the more experienced hitman tries to help the younger man understand some of the jargon and ideas associated with assassination. Their dialogue, while humorous, deals with thematic elements that are quite deep.

The Search for Meaning in Life

There is an overall theme of the search for, or lack of, purpose in The Dumb Waiter. Ben and Gus are discussing the purpose behind what they're doing while they await their target. Gus, the newcomer, is a bit confused about how they're performing the hit and why. He wants to understand the purpose of the hit, but that purpose remains unclear in the end. Gus represents all naive human beings who wish to understand the reason for their existence but can't get a clear answer. They go through the motions but debate the way those motions are supposed to be carried out, as shown when Gus questions the semantics of the hitmen's jargon because he doesn't understand it properly.

The Ambiguous Nature of God

The action of the play revolves around the idea of deciphering ambiguous messages from beyond. Gus and Ben are receiving cryptic messages through the dumbwaiter requesting the delivery of various foods, although the men are not in a kitchen but a basement room. They are perplexed by these messages but continue responding. They attempt to send up food, hoping to appease the mysterious message-sender above to no avail. Thus Gus and Ben represent the human attempt to decipher messages from God or the universe about their purpose and doing what they can to appease this higher power they cannot understand.

Confronting the Reality of Death

Gus and Ben discuss at length the man they are planning to kill, who is facing his own mortality. It later turns out that Gus himself is the target. This illustrates the idea that people are all too willing to discuss death when it is an impersonal, abstract concept, but when death becomes present and real, it is much more frightening.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 380

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.