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The Dumb Waiter

Harold Pinter

Plot Overview

Context

Character List

In a basement with a kitchen and beds Ben reads a newspaper while Gus ties his shoelaces. Gus walks to the kitchen door, then stops and takes a flattened matchbox out of one shoe, and a flattened cigarette carton out of the other. He puts both items in his pocket and leaves for the bathroom. There's a sound of the toilet chain being pulled without it flushing, and Gus returns. Ben reports to Gus a newspaper article about a truck running over an elderly man. Ben orders Gus to make tea. Gus hopes, "it won't be a long job." Ben reports on an article about a child who kills a cat. Gus asks if Ben has noticed how long it takes for the toilet tank to fill.

Gus complains he didn't sleep well on the bed, and wishes that there were a window. He laments that his life revolves around sleeping all day in an unfamiliar, dark room, then performing a job, and then leaving at night. Ben tells him they are fortunate to be employed. Gus asks if Ben ever gets fed up, but they soon fall silent. The toilet finally flushes. Ben commands him to make tea, as they will go to work very soon. Gus asks Ben why he stopped the car that morning in the middle of the road. Ben says they were early. Ben tells Gus they are in the city of Birmingham. 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. Gus speaks about a Birmingham game they once saw together, but Ben denies it. An envelope slides under the door.

Neither one 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 is outside. With a revolver for protection, Gus finds no one. Gus says the matches will come in handy, as he always runs out. Ben tells him 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 denies this and challenges Gus to remember the last time he saw his mother. After further arguments about the phrase, in which Ben reminds Gus that he has seniority, Ben chokes Gus and screams "THE KETTLE, YOU FOOL!"

Gus acquiesces and tries to see if the matches will light. They don't light on the flattened box, but they work on his foot. Ben says, "Put on the bloody kettle," then realizes he has used Gus's phrase. He then stares at Gus until he leaves. Gus comes back, having lit 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.

Gus returns and says that the gas has gone out and the meter needs to be refilled with coins. Ben says they'll have to wait for Wilson. Gus says that Wilson doesn't always come—he sometimes sends only a message. Gus argues that since no one ever hears anything, Wilson must own all the places they go to; Ben says Wilson rents them. Gus also finds it hard to talk to Wilson, and says he's been thinking about the "last one"—a girl. He remembers the job was a "mess." He wonders who "clears up" after they leave. Ben reminds him that there are many "departments" in their "organization" that take care of other matters.

They are interrupted by a sound from the wall. They investigate and find a box on a dumb waiter (a small elevator used for conveying food and dishes between stories of a building). Gus pulls a piece of paper out, and reads out an order for food. The dumb waiter ascends. Ben explains that the upstairs used to be a café, the basement was the kitchen, and that these places change ownership quickly. The dumb waiter descends again, and Gus pulls out another order for food. Gus looks up the hatch, but Ben pushes him away. Ben decides they should send something up, but they have only a little food. They put everything on a plate, but the dumb waiter ascends before they can put the plate on it. The box descends again with another order, this time for "high class" exotic food. They put the plate on and Gus calls up the brand names of the food. Ben tells him not to shout, as "It isn't done." Gus then discusses, without Ben's answering, his feelings of anxiety about the job and Wilson. Another order comes down the passage for more food with which they are unfamiliar. The packet of tea they sent up has also returned.

Ben decides they should write a note telling them they can't fill the orders, but then they notice an intercom tube. Gus yells into the tube that there is no food. Ben gives Gus the instructions for the job. They must corner the target with guns when he or she enters the room. Gus excuses himself to the bathroom, where the toilet again does not flush, and returns. He asks Ben who is upstairs. They argue, and Gus wants to know why they have to play these "games." Ben hits him twice on the shoulder. Another order comes, they fight again, and then they retreat into silence, Ben reading his newspaper, as the dumb waiter goes up and comes down again. Gus leaves to get a drink of water, and the speaking tube whistle blows. Ben listens through the tube and confirms that it is time to do their job. He hangs up and calls for Gus. He levels his gun at the door and Gus stumbles in, vulnerably stripped of some of his clothes and his gun. He looks up at Ben, and they stare at each other through a long silence.

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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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