Theatre of the Absurd is a genre of plays mainly produced in Europe in the 1950's and 60's. Some of the playwrights considered central to Theatre of the Absurd are Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov, and Harold Pinter, author of The Dumb Waiter. Plays in the genre generally put forth the idea that life is random or meaningless and show humans struggling to find purpose and control. The plays generally have tones of negativity, tragedy, and boredom, though many also include elements of comedy. The Theatre of the Absurd movement also shocked audiences with revolutionary approaches to language, plot, and character. Compared to theatre of the early 20th century, poignant and metaphorical language and repetitive actions took the place of realistic dialogue and plot.
Theatre of the Absurd was popularized as a genre in large part by Samuel Beckett's 1952 play Waiting for Godot. The influence of Beckett on Pinter, and of Waiting for Godot on The Dumb Waiter, is clear. Both Waiting for Godot and The Dumb Waiter are absurdist, one-act plays in which two male characters wait for a third man to arrive. Both include repetitive dialogue, absurd actions, hierarchy, questions, and a lot of waiting. Pinter acknowledged this influence, once stating in an interview, “If Beckett’s influence shows in my work that’s all right with me. You don’t write in a vacuum: you’re bound to absorb and digest other writing and I admire Beckett’s work so much that something of its texture might appear in my own” (Sadreddini).
Two major elements of absurdity in The Dumb Waiter are lack of action and repetitive dialogue. For example, Gus tries to ask Ben questions throughout the play, but rarely gets answers. This leads to him asking the same question again or asking other questions, increasing the tension between the men but not advancing the plot. Ben finally lashes out at Gus about his questions, saying, "What's the matter with you? You're always asking me questions. What's the matter with you?...You never used to ask me so many damn questions. What's come over you?...Stop wondering. You've got a job to do. Why don't you just do it and shut up?" (99.) This quote again includes repetitive dialogue, and it clearly underscores themes of struggling with meaninglessness and lack of control.