The Dumb Waiter
Part Two: From the Envelope to Ben's Gun
Neither Ben nor Gus knows what is in the envelope. Ben orders Gus to pick it up and open it. He does, and empties out twelve matches. They are confused, and Ben commands Gus to open the door and see if anyone's outside. With a revolver from under his pillow for protection, Gus investigates but finds no one. Gus says the matches will come in handy, as he always runs out. Ben reprimands him for probing his ear with a match, telling him not to waste them and to light the kettle instead. They debate the phrase "light the kettle"; Gus feels one should say the "gas," since that is what is being lit, or "put on the kettle," a phrase his mother used. Ben will have none of this, and challenges Gus to remember the last time he saw his mother (he can't remember). After further arguments about the phrase, in which Ben reminds Gus that he's the senior partner, Ben chokes Gus and screams "THE KETTLE, YOU FOOL!"
Gus acquiesces and tries to see if the matches light; they don't on the flattened box, but they work on his foot. Ben says, "Put on the bloody kettle," then realizes he's used Gus's phrase, and looks at Gus until his partner leaves. Gus comes back, having put on the kettle, and wonders, "who it'll be tonight." He says he wants to ask Ben something, and sits on Ben's bed, which annoys him. Ben asks Gus why he barrages him with so many questions, and tells him to do his job and shut up. After Gus repeatedly asks who it's going to be tonight and a moment of silence, Ben orders him to make tea. After he leaves, Ben checks his revolver under his pillow for ammunition.
Ben's dominance and Gus's submission intensify in this section. Ben continually bosses Gus around, and even puts him in danger when he tells him to open the door. It is becoming clear that they are hit-men—the "who" in "who it'll be tonight" refers to their victim—and Pinter contrasts the violence of their jobs with their commonplace language and concerns. In ways, The Dumb Waiter is a precursor to a major conceit of modern gangster films, such as those of Quentin Tarantino, films that juxtapose, often to comic effect, the violence of the criminal's job with his banal, but revealing, small talk. The argument over "light the kettle" is seemingly trivial but divulges key information about the men: Gus no longer sees his mother, and Ben is the senior partner.
The debate also produces the men's first physical confrontation after much verbal build-up. It is no accident that Ben screams and chokes Gus at the same time. Pinter is known for the innate violence in his characters' language, violence that lurks beneath the clipped structure of the language, and Ben's dialogue is a part of, and nearly causes, the physical violence. The violence is offset by the comic effect, which occurs after the confrontation, when Ben unconsciously uses the same language as Gus. Moreover, his comical use of Gus's phrase after displaying intense hostility to it implies that repetition of language can dull its effect, and that it can mechanically flow between people as an unconscious transaction.
Pinter reinforces the mechanical feeling with his use of repetition. Gus twice says that he doesn't know what the envelope is, and twice that "no one" and "nothing" were outside. These last two statements both express an absence—both of knowledge and of the physical presence—that constitute a type of silence, and Ben's repetitive queries try to cover this naked, fearful mystery with extraneous speech. He later deflects Gus's question referring to who they will victimize, answering with silence and then ordering Gus to make tea. The other theme behind repetitiveness in the play is how it dulls life into a cyclical routine, and we can view Gus's running out of matches as a symbol of how life continually burns down and then refuels. Ben's scolding Gus over not wasting the matches is almost pointless. Sooner or later, they will be wasted, but their supply will be replenished.
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