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The Dumb Waiter

Harold Pinter

Part One: Beginning Until The Envelope

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Part Two: From the Envelope to Ben's Gun

Summary

The setting is a basement with two beds, a serving hatch, a kitchen and bathroom to the left, and another passage to the right. In silence, Ben reads a newspaper on his bed while Gus ties his shoelaces on his bed. Gus finishes and walks to the kitchen door, then stops and shakes his foot. Ben watches as Gus takes a flattened matchbox out of his shoe. After he and Ben exchange a glance, Gus puts it in his pocket. From his other shoe, he takes out a flattened cigarette carton. They exchange another look, and Gus puts the carton in his pocket before he leaves for the bathroom. There's a sound of the toilet chain being pulled without it flushing, and Gus returns.

Ben angrily relates to Gus a newspaper article, which reports on an elderly man who tried to cross a busy street by crawling under a truck, which then ran over him. Gus agrees that it is abominable. Gus again tries to flush the toilet, but it doesn't work. When he returns, Ben orders him to make tea. Gus admires the dishware. He asks Ben for a cigarette, and hopes, "it won't be a long job." He remembers he wanted to ask Ben something, but is interrupted by Ben who reports on an article about a child killing a cat. Gus then asks if Ben has noticed how long it takes for the toilet tank to fill. Ben suggests that it is a "deficient ballcock."

Gus complains that he didn't sleep well on the bed and then sees a picture on the wall of cricket players entitled "The First Eleven." Neither he nor Ben knows that the "first eleven" refers to a school's top cricket players. He wishes for a window in the room and laments that his life revolves around entering a dark room he's never seen before, sleeping all day, doing a job, and then leaving at night. Ben tells him that they are fortunate to be employed only once a week and tells Gus his problem is a lack of interests. Ben, for example, has woodwork and model boats, and never stays idle. Gus asks if Ben ever gets fed up, but they soon fall silent. The toilet finally flushes, which Gus comments on before further criticizing the basement. Ben commands him to make tea, as they will be "on the job" very soon. As Gus takes out a tea bag and examines it, he asks Gus why he stopped the car that morning in the middle of the road. Ben says that they were early. Gus asks if they were too early to move in, which explains why the sheets seemed dirty to him.

Gus has forgotten what town they are in and Ben tells him that they are in Birmingham. Gus says that it is an industrial city, the second-biggest city in Great Britain. Gus wants to watch the Birmingham soccer team tomorrow (Saturday), but Ben says that there is no time and that they have to get back, even though they used to stay over after a job. Gus speaks about a Birmingham game they once saw together, but Ben refutes the details that Gus remembers. An envelope slides under the door.

Analysis

The influence of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett on Harold Pinter is apparent in this play, and numerous similarities and allusions to Beckett's Waiting for Godot crop up in this section. As with Godot, there are two characters, one dominant, one submissive, who share the amount of letters and syllables in their names (although Pinter's Gus and Ben are simpler names—and simpler characters—than Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon). Gus's difficulty in putting on his shoe corresponds to a similar problem with a boot in Beckett's play. In both plays, moreover, the characters have been stranded in one place with an unclear purpose, at least from the audience's perspective. The single location is a staple of Pinter's other plays, as well.

Pinter's use of repetition and silence also harkens back to Beckett's work. Beckett's primary use of these is to suggest the ideas of alienation and the approach of death, but Pinter fashions them with a more sinister, violent touch. Pinter has said that silence is a form of nakedness, and that speech is an attempt to cover this nakedness. Gus keeps wanting to ask Ben something but is interrupted, an exchange that will repeat throughout the play. The dialogue in between is often Ben's attempt to delay answering Gus's question—here, a trivial matter about the toilet. Ben also uses silence to deflect the potential for more intimate probing from Gus. Not only are Ben's delays and interruptions a form of silence, but even they are interrupted—Ben's reports of the death of the elderly man and the cat, serious matters of mortality, are quickly aborted in favor of more mundane concerns. The men do not break the silence themselves usually. Rather, the sound of an inanimate object—the toilet—jolts them back into discussion.

The toilet serves as a base for Gus throughout the play. It represents repetition, and the futility of repetition. Like the choppy dialogue, the toilet works on a delay—the flush is preceded by a long pause—solidifying the notion that repetition effects little change. Just as Gus transfers the flattened matchbox and carton (both defective objects) from his shoes to his pocket—one receptacle to another—the receptacle of the defective toilet transfers human waste to the receptacle of the sewers. The waste, however, does not disappear; it will return in some form, and is part of the cyclical nature of life that bores Gus, the dull repetition of work and sleep.

The characters' complete separation from the upper class is also introduced and will be explored in further depth later. Their unfamiliarity with the sporting terms of posh cricket and their affection for the more working-class game of soccer immediately defines their social standing.

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Dumb Waiter's Ben

by ArtIzar, August 26, 2013

I don't agree about Ben's knowing that he was going to betray Gus, I think he is a poor puppet who can only follow orders literally, so if they tell him "shoot the man who comes through the door", he simply does it. In my opinion, that's the essence of the last silence, the finding out and the inevitability of the task. I don't find any clue in the characterization of Wilson that he would have any need of giving that information to his inferior.

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