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The Dumb Waiter

Harold Pinter

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Study Questions

Language is often echoed in the play as one character is forced to repeat the words of another. Discuss.

Pinter's dialogue deploys in terse rhythms that, while easy on the ears, often suggest the mechanization of language, the use of words as nothing but muted carriers of information. Words no longer have any emotional impact on the speaker. The very title of The Dumb Waiter highlights this notion of language as nothing but an emotionally silent conveyor of something out of the speakers' control. The characters are actually "dumb waiters," manipulated by someone more powerful (Gus by Ben, Ben by Wilson) to do his bidding.

Pinter compares echoes to silence, and when Gus and Ben echo the words of their superiors, it is as if they have been silenced. This is no more clear than in the two instances of verbal echoing. Gus repeats the instructions for murder from Ben. Gus breaks form on two occasions that point to Ben's eventual betrayal of Gus, most notably when Gus accidentally repeats "He won't know you're there" instead of translating "you're" into "I'm." This suggests that Gus ("he," the actual victim) won't know that Ben ("you're") is there (that Ben is betraying him), and when he reminds Ben that he hasn't been given instructions yet to take out his gun (showing that Ben wants Gus to be unarmed). The instructions are also delivered mechanically to counterpoint their horrific nature. Similarly, when Gus is catching on to the betrayal as Ben makes comments about newspaper articles, itself a mechanical ritual that drains the importance of deaths and other tragic news, he responds to the stories with detachment. However, when Ben receives instructions to execute Gus through the speaking tube, he repeats the words without any notable distress. He has already become desensitized to violence, and the murderous words are mechanical from the start for him.

Other than his potentially small bladder, what are some reasons for Gus's frequent trips to the bathroom?

Gus bemoans the dull routine of life, and nothing is more mundane and repetitive than the act of going to the bathroom; one fills up, then empties out. Moreover, the waste itself returns in some form, so even that is recycled. He cannot escape the routines of life and is thus highly aware of them, especially in the way they relate to his poverty. Ben, on the other hand, does not go to the bathroom throughout The Dumb Waiter and seems less concerned with his own repetitive station, and feels they are "fortunate" to have their jobs. Finally, the toilet flushes on a delay, so that after each trip to the bathroom there is a silence from the toilet—one that complements the many silences in conversation—and then it often interrupts the men later—one of the frequent interruptions by objects (the dumb waiter, speaking tube, and envelope are the others).

What is the effect of having the play set in one place without time stoppage?

Many of Pinter's plays take place in one location. As in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, the single location takes on the form of a prison for the characters, a space from which they either cannot leave or are afraid to do so. Rather than bore the audience with lack of variation, the repetitive actions that come along with the single space generally constitute one of Pinter's (and Beckett's) main themes. The environment also assumes attributes beyond its scope. The serving hatch, for instance, becomes a symbolic channel to a higher power, or God, whom Ben fears, while the bathroom develops into a place of mundane repetition for Gus (see second question above). The basement also functions as part of the mystery and betrayal of the The Dumb Waiter. Who owns the building? Is it still a café? Is Wilson inside?

Compare the silences of Ben with the silences of Gus, especially with respect to Pinter's belief that speech covers the nakedness of silence. Are both vulnerable? Do their silences protect this vulnerability, or hide it?

Discuss the use of props in the play (guns, matches, sheets, the photo of cricket players, etc.).

How do Gus's and Ben's attitudes toward money and class reveal themselves? How might a production of the play accentuate their positions?

Compare Ben and Gus with Vladimir and Estragon from Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Do the men in The Dumb Waiter complement each other in the same way that the tramps do in Godot? Are their conversations similar?

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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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