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The Dumb Waiter

Harold Pinter


Themes, Motifs, and Symbols


The Silence and Violence of Language

Pinter's work is heavily influenced by Samuel Beckett, who used silence-filled pauses for a revolutionary theatrical effect. Pinter has spoken of speech as a stratagem designed to cover the nakedness of silence, and these aims are often evident in the dialogue of Gus and Ben. Ben's most prominent response to Gus's constant questions about the nature of their jobs is silence. Lurking underneath this silence is always the threat of violence, the anticipation of something deathly—the play ends as Ben trains his gun on Gus in silence.

Gus's questions and lamentations are also deflected, delayed, or interrupted. Ben frequently changes the conversation and never replies with any emotional depth to Gus's more probing questions. In the same way, they both avoid discussing with any profundity the newspaper articles about death, skipping past them to more trivial matters, such as the malfunctioning toilet. Ben sometimes delays his response until they are interrupted—by the sound of an inanimate object, such as the toilet (which flushes on a delay) and the dumb waiter.

The language itself is also tinged with violence, especially when the topic is something seemingly trivial. The men's argument over the phrase "Light the kettle" is filled with Ben's barbs that intimidate and shame Gus. Moreover, when Ben screams "THE KETTLE, YOU FOOL!" and chokes Gus, one gets the feeling that his words are intertwined with the act of physical violence.

In a sense, the looming presence of Wilson is the most dominating silence in the play. Assuming Wilson is the one sending the men messages through the dumb waiter and the speaking tube (and Gus does say at one point that sometimes Wilson only sends messages), then the audience never gets a chance to hear him, but only hears him through a secondary mouthpiece as the men read or repeat his orders. His mysteriousness is one of the more sinister components of the play, for Wilson seems to be everywhere through his multi- tiered organization. He performs an off-stage role similar to that of Godot in Beckett's Waiting for Godot, but whereas Godot symbolizes a neutral god-like figure for whom the characters wait, Wilson is a malevolent god whom the characters wait for in violent silence.

Anxiety Over Social Class

Gus and Ben are both lower-class criminals, and most productions of the play emphasize their social status with appropriate dialects and accents. Some productions may even opt to give Ben a slightly higher-ranking accent, as he is more concerned with his standing. He repeatedly admonishes Gus for his "slack" appearance and habits, urging him to make himself more presentable, but Ben also seems more resigned to his lowly criminal life; he considers them fortunate for having jobs. His profound shame over his class emerges in interactions with those upstairs via the dumb waiter, and much of this shame is tied to language. The food orders from the dumb waiter are for increasingly exotic foods with unfamiliar names, and Ben pretends to know how to make them only to a point. When they decide to send up their cache of food, even Gus feels he has to impress those upstairs by announcing the brand names of their pedestrian foodstuffs. Ben also happily reports that the man upstairs, presumably of higher social standing, uses the same debated phrase—"Light the kettle"—as he does, and he warns Gus to observe decorum when talking to the upstairs, as he demonstrates with his formal apology. Ben is far more reverent of Wilson than the inquiring Gus, and his deference is attributed less to feelings of respect than to an overriding inferiority complex; Wilson is their leader for a reason, and he must obey him at all costs, even if it means betraying his friend. In this light, The Dumb Waiter can be read as an anti-corporate update of Beckett's Waiting for Godot, an allegory of in- fighting and what corporate workers will do to please their superiors.



At the play's start and end, Ben expresses outrage at an article in the newspaper while Gus sympathizes. Similar repetitions mark the action throughout the play. Early on, Gus bemoans the dull sleep-and-work routine of his life, and various repetitive actions—from Gus's tendency to run out matches to his recurring trips to the bathroom—emerge as the basis of this cyclical fatigue. Language, however, is where Pinter's use of repetition points to violence and the nearness of death. Gus almost always has to repeat and rephrase his important questions to Ben, questions that touch upon darker issues Ben does not wish to reveal. Ben's mechanical instructions to Gus on how to execute their murder are repeated by Gus with similar detachment, and when Ben echoes through the speaking tube his own mission to kill Gus, it likewise echoes the previous interaction with Gus. Pinter has compared echoes to silence, and if one views the silences in his plays as indications of violence, then linguistic echoes and repetitive actions suggest violence as well.


The dumb waiter

The dumb waiter serves as a symbol for the broken, one-sided communication between Gus and Ben. If messages are to be sent via the dumb waiter, then only one person at a time can send them, and one cannot simultaneously speak and listen through the dumb waiter's speaking tube. Correspondingly, Gus and Ben never have a fully open dialogue—minimized even more by Ben's knowledge of his impending betrayal of Gus—and whenever Gus tries to bring up something emotional, Ben refuses to speak with him. This disconnection is the essence of their relationship. They do not speak with, but to each other. They are like the dumb waiter—mute carriers of information, not sharers of it. Moreover, Ben, especially, is manipulated by Wilson in the same way that the dumb waiter is controlled by its system of pulleys.

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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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