The Dumb Waiter

The Dumb Waiter Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Wilson is a major character in The Dumb Waiter, but he is never seen or heard onstage. Why do you think Pinter chose not to have Wilson onstage in the play?

    By not having Wilson present as a character onstage, Pinter allows him to take on symbolic importance representing power and authority. Wilson's control and omniscience could be read as representing God, the government, or upper social class. In any of these readings, Wilson's lack of physical presence makes it easier to read Ben and Gus's reactions to him as representing their views on abstract authority figures, rather than as normal human relationships. The fact that Ben and Gus can be trusted to carry out Wilson's will without him being there also reinforces Wilson's total control over them. Ben chides Gus for questioning their job even when Wilson is not present, showing the extent to which Ben has internalized either his devoutness (in a religious reading) or brainwashing (in a social or political reading).

  2. 2

    Repetition is used at various points in The Dumb Waiter. Analyze how this device is used to create different tones over the course of the play.

    Repetition is a key device used in Theatre of the Absurd, and it can have many effects. It can suggest boredom or lack of action, focus the audience's attention on particular symbols or themes, and create comedic moments. One way repetition is used throughout the play is to call attention to Gus's struggle to understand and accept his job. He repeatedly says variations of the sentence "I want to ask you something" (86). Because Ben won't answer Gus's questions, Gus must keep repeating them, building tension in their relationship and focusing the audience on the moral dilemma of doing a job one doesn't fully understand or believe in. Repetition is also used to illustrate characters' personalities. Ben repeatedly returns to reading the newspaper, signaling his intelligence and belief in truth and structure. In contrast, Gus repeatedly moves around the rooms in the basement, showing his anxiety, lack of attention, and relatively low intelligence. Finally, repetitive dialogue is used to create moments of complex comedy, such as when Ben and Gus repeat the instructions about the job they are going to do. When Gus messes up the pattern of repetition, a small moment of comedy is created from the error, but the audience is also alerted to the disconnect between the men's boring repetition and the dark tone of what they are describing.

  3. 3

    Pinter frequently writes pauses or moments of silence into his plays. Choose one pause or silence in The Dumb Waiter and analyze what impact this stage direction might have on the audience.

    Pinter uses pauses and silences to create tension and suspense, as well as to communicate emotions. One of the most important silences in the play comes at the very end. The climax of the play, when Gus appears as the target, is written as a stage direction: "[GUS] raises his head and looks at BEN. A long silence. They stare at each other. Curtain" (121). Pinter refuses to give the audience the catharsis or release of tension of Ben making a decision, be it to kill Gus or save him. Instead, the audience has to consider the emotions and relationship of Ben and Gus in order to infer what happens in the plot after the curtain falls. Through this silence and other pauses in the play, Pinter also gives directors and actors great artistic freedom to decide how long a silence should be and what, outside of dialogue, might happen in those quiet moments. A director might choose, in this final scene, to have Ben: begin to speak and then stop; smile; or clench his gun. Each of these choices would create a different effect on the audience's emotions and inferences about what happens next.

  4. 4

    Identify moments when women are seen or discussed in The Dumb Waiter. What themes or messages about gender is the audience meant to take away from the play?

    One message regarding women and gender in The Dumb Waiter is that women and men are fundamentally different. This can be gathered from the two times women are mentioned in the play: when Ben reads a newspaper story about a girl killing a cat and when Gus recalls shooting a woman. In the first moment, Ben and Gus agree that a little girl wouldn't kill a cat, suggesting that her older brother must have done it. This puts forth the idea that people of different genders function in fundamentally different ways, specifically implying that men are more predisposed to violence than women. In the second moment, Gus reflects on how more of a mess resulted from killing a woman than when he and Ben usually kill men. Again women are referenced in conjunction with male violence, and again the woman in the scenario is made out to be the victim. Gus's focus on the amount of mess made by women compared to men creates a negative tone around femininity and again stresses differences between people of different genders.

  5. 5

    Analyze the titular symbol of the dumb waiter in The Dumb Waiter. How does it contribute to the broader themes of the story?

    The dumb waiter symbolically represents lack of communication. In The Dumb Waiter, the identity and intentions of the people on the two ends of the dumb waiter are obscured by the form of communication. This results in Ben and Gus being confused about how to proceed with the situation—specifically, how respectful to be. Communication through the dumb waiter is lengthy and difficult, calling attention to how difficult it can be to communicate with people of different social status or who have a different set of beliefs or information.