The Dumb Waiter
Part Four: Speaking Tube until End
Ben decides that they should write a note telling the people upstairs that they can't fill the orders and, while looking for a pencil, he finds a speaking tube (an intercom-like device for communicating upstairs). Gus whistles into the tube, to alert the people, and says, "The larder's bare!" Ben takes the tube from him and more formally states that they are out of food. He listens into the tube and reports to Gus that the food they sent up was stale or went bad, and apologizes through the tube. When he hangs up, he informs Gus that the person on the other end used the phrase "Light the kettle" when he asked for a cup of tea. They then realize that they can't light the kettle, for there is no gas. Gus is upset because he is thirsty and hungry, while the man upstairs, who probably has food, wants tea from them.
Ben, quietly and with fatigue, gives Gus the instructions for the job, instructions that Gus repeats out loud. Ben instructs Gus to stand behind a door, but to not answer a knock on the door. He must shut the door behind the man who comes in without exposing himself (Gus), allowing the man to see and approach Ben. When Ben takes out his gun they will have cornered the man. At this point, Gus reminds Ben that so far he hasn't taken his own gun out, but Ben then includes that Gus should have taken his gun out when he closed the door. Moreover, Ben states, the man—or girl—will look at them in silence.
Gus excuses himself to the bathroom, where the toilet again does not flush, and returns. He paces about, looking troubled, and asks why they were sent matches if the man upstairs knew there was no gas. He repeats the question and then asks Ben if he knows who is upstairs. They argue, and Gus reminds Ben that he told him who owned the place, and wants to know why he's playing these games. Ben hits him twice on the shoulder. Gus wants to know why they're being toyed with since they passed their tests years ago and proved themselves. Another order comes, accompanied by a whistle from the speaking tube. Gus reads the order and yells into the tube that they have nothing left. Ben pushes Gus away and slaps him, ordering him to stop.
They retreat into silence—Ben reading his newspaper—as the dumb waiter goes up and comes down again. Ben expresses outraged amazement at a news article, and Gus, in increasingly lower tones, concurs. Gus leaves to get a drink of water, and the speaking tube whistle blows. Ben listens through the tube and repeats out loud the order that the man has arrived and they will be commencing their job shortly. He hangs up and calls for Gus, and shifts his jacket to obscure his gun. He levels his gun at the door and Gus stumbles in, stripped of some of his clothes and his gun. He looks up at Ben, and they stare at each other through a long silence.
The dumb waiter, with its accompanying speaking tube, becomes an agent for murder as the play ends, but the device is also a metaphor for the type of communication that has already split apart Ben and Gus. Whenever Gus broaches an important topic—here, especially, Wilson and his "games"—Ben deflects the question or descends into silence. They communicate as if with a dumb waiter; one says something, it travels to and registers with the other, and then a reply is made (if at all). It is impossible for both men to speak their minds at once, just as the dumb waiter restricts language (either in the form of a note or the speaking tube) to one person at a time; its very name indicates muteness. They do not converse in true dialogue with one other. Rather, they speak to each other, not with one another. Fittingly, when he finds the speaking tube, Gus ironically says, "Funny I never noticed it before." He and Ben have had a block in their communication with each other that is highlighted by his reference to the tube used for communication.
This lack of communication heightens the sense that Ben has been withholding information from Gus and perhaps even betraying his partner. Whenever Gus strays too close to the truth—a truth Ben seems to be more aware of—Ben withholds and alters crucial information (such as his lie about the café's changing ownership), almost as if he were retracting the evidence on a dumb waiter and adjusting it for the return trip. His language throughout the play, then, stands on its own as a betrayal, a closely monitored transaction of information that takes pains not to give too much away. Betrayal is a constant theme in Pinter's work—he has a play titled Betrayal—and here we must take Ben's word that the job is about to commence, but we do not know if it will be carried out the way he originally indicated or whether he will end up actually shooting Gus.
But the repetitive, mechanical quality of language is the ultimate murderer here. The characters' repetition of their newspaper routine—an act that surely occurs every day—is part of the slow approach to death that Gus spoke of at the start of the play when he bemoaned his dull, cyclical life. Ben's instructions, which Gus repeats, similarly drain the life out of an act that itself seeks to end life. Gus's toneless echo is actually a form of silence that seeks to avoid having to perform the horrifying act.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!