The Dumb Waiter

The Dumb Waiter Themes

Lack of Communication

Dumb waiters were first created so that gossip and conversation could not be spread after meals by living waiters. While they were created to limit one negative form of communication, they also created general disconnect and confusion: as in the play The Dumb Waiter, guests would have to use notes or a muffled speaking tube to communicate with the people serving them during a meal. The importance of the dumb waiter to the plot and symbolism of The Dumb Waiter makes it clear that communication and lack thereof is a major theme of the play.

In The Dumb Waiter, lack of communication is inextricably connected to hierarchy and class. Because Ben is a more senior employee than Gus, Ben gets to communicate over the phone and speaking tube with Wilson while Gus gets information about their job secondhand. Similarly, Ben and Gus argue over who will communicate with the people ordering through the dumb waiter and how this should be done. The identity and intent of the people on the other end of the dumb waiter are obscured by the nature of the communication, leaving the men confused about how to proceed with the situation. Since some of the orders are quite complex, Ben seems to assume they are from someone of a higher class, so he speaks and acts toward them with deference—even though Ben and Gus technically have the power to decide whether or not to communicate back. There are also gaps of communication between Ben and Gus, the play's two main characters, which are created and exacerbated by their differences of personality and status: Gus asks many questions, and Ben chooses to respond to relatively few of them.


In The Dumb Waiter, normal people suddenly becoming victims is just a part of life. This is most clear from the way Ben and Gus understatedly talk about the target they know will arrive at their room at some point to be killed. They have accepted that, whoever the victim is, it is not their place to question why that person is a victim. Furthermore, when it turns out that Gus is the target, it becomes even more clear that anyone, even someone who had power or control previously, can become a victim. This theme is also shown through Ben and Gus's discussions about the stories in the newspaper. Ben and Gus respond strongly to stories in the newspaper about an old man and a cat being killed. The victimhood of these defenseless, sympathetic characters momentarily break the men out of their numbness about violence, but they quickly move on after these conversations, perhaps to avoid confronting reality.


Difference due to gender is one of the central themes in The Dumb Waiter. While there are only two male characters in the play, they discuss women multiple times, and, in every case, they refer to gender differences. The first mention of a female is when Ben reads a news story about a little girl killing a cat. Ben tells Gus that her older brother allegedly saw her do it, and the men agree that the brother must have actually killed the cat and framed his sister. From this scene, the men imply that males are inherently more violent than females.

Later in the play, the differences between females and males as victims of violence are also discussed. Gus implies that rarely, but at least one time, the target they've had to kill has been female. Gus says of a woman that they killed, "She wasn't much to look at...It was a mess though, wasn't it. What a mess. Honest, I can't remember a mess like that one. They don't seem to hold together like men, women" (102-3). Not only does Gus trivialize the worth of a woman's life by bringing her physical appearance into the discussion, but he again puts forward a view that women are fundamentally different from men.

Interestingly, this view is contrasted with Ben and Gus's final discussion of women. Ben gives Gus the instructions about what to do when the target arrives, as it seems is required by their employer. During these instructions, he only uses male terms and pronouns to describe the victim. At the end of the instructions, Gus clarifies, "What do we do if it's a girl?" (116), to which Ben responds, "We do the same" (116). While the men seem to agree that there are differences between people of different genders, Ben, the more intelligent and powerful character, is able to set these differences aside in some circumstances.


Like victimhood, violence in The Dumb Waiter is sudden, severe, and numbing. Suspense is created throughout the play by the threat of a climactic demonstration of violence against an innocent, or at least unknown, victim. As the audience awaits this display, they also witness smaller acts of violence and see how numb Ben and Gus have become to violence because of their jobs. Ben chokes Gus over the argument about saying "put on the kettle" (98); Ben flings Gus away from the dumb waiter; and Ben "slaps [Gus] hard, back-handed, across the chest" (118). In every case, this violence is perpetrated by Ben against Gus, reinforcing their power dynamic and foreshadowing the climax of the play. Interestingly, at the climax of the play, violence is actually withheld. The curtain closes with Ben's gun pointed at Gus but without a shot having been fired, leading the audience to wonder whether an act of violence would or should follow.


Since very few new events happen while Ben and Gus wait for their target to arrive, many of their conversations center on shared memories. Often, they get to arguing because they do not remember things the same way, demonstrating the fallibility of memory. Perhaps the clearest example of this is their discussion about football (i.e. soccer). Ben accuses Gus of misremembering facts about a past game—both that they attended the game together and the specifics of a penalty that occurred. At the same time, Gus also repeatedly forgets that Ben has told him the Villa are playing away, giving the scene a circular, absurd quality. Because of Ben's role as Gus's superior, the audience is led to believe Ben is the one who remembers the events, and Gus is generally the one who backs down in arguments between the two men. However, in most cases, both men seem to have flawed memories and logic. In the case of the football game, Ben tells Gus that he was not at the game, but he later passionately contradicts Gus on the cause of a penalty, implying that he actually did see the game. This shows that both of the men have fallible memories, and often they are constructing their memories to support their current beliefs.


Under all the other actions and emotions of The Dumb Waiter are the boredom, tension, and mystery of waiting. From the beginning of the play until the climax at the very end, Ben and Gus wait for contact from Wilson and for their target to arrive. On a smaller scale, they wait for notes to come by dumb waiter and wait out long periods of silence.

This theme, along with the play's plot in general, can be read as an allusion to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, which premiered in 1953, 6 years before The Dumb Waiter. The parallels between The Dumb Waiter and Waiting for Godot are clear, and would have been especially obvious to audiences in the 1950's: both are absurdist, one-act plays in which two male characters wait for a third man to arrive. Both plays highlight the idea of waiting by including the word "wait" in their titles. Scholars have interpreted the theme of waiting in both plays through religious, political, and historical lenses. These interpretations generally suggest that the characters waiting for the length of the entire play, paired with the other elements of absurdism in both plays, shows the lack of control and meaning in their lives due to their submissive relationship to God or to people in positions of power.


At the outset of the play, Ben is seen reading a newspaper and Gus is seen struggling to tie his shoes, juxtaposing their levels of intelligence. Later, it is implied that Ben and Gus went through training together and have worked together doing the same job for a long time, but Ben at some point became Gus's superior. Through the relationship of Ben and Gus, Pinter demonstrates that intelligence is linked to power.

Not only does Ben have power over Gus hierarchically, but there are also moments where Ben demonstrates physical power while attention is called to his intelligence. For instance, at the climax of Ben and Gus's heated fight about the phrase "Light the kettle" (97), Ben chokes Gus with two hands while yelling, "THE KETTLE, YOU FOOL!" (98.) Ben calling Gus a name suggestive of lower intelligence ("fool") and physically assaulting him ends the argument: Gus assents, "All right, all right" (98).

Pinter also links knowledge, an element of intelligence, with class. Ben attempts to impress Gus by showing off his knowledge of fine foods, saying, "Do you know what it takes to make an Ormitha Macarounada?" (109.) When Gus says that he doesn't, Ben responds, "Buck your ideas up, will you?" (109.) Because social class is itself strongly linked to power in British society, Ben uses a display of knowledge to confirm his dominant role in the relationship between Gus and himself.