The most obvious example of irony in The Dumb Waiter is that Gus is the target who arrives at the door at the climax of the play. Gus, Ben, and the audience have been expecting a stranger, whom Ben and Gus are intended to kill, will arrive at the door. It is implied they have done this many times before. The shock of this reversal is built by Gus's questions throughout the play about who the target will be and when the target will arrive. At the climax of the play, while Ben stares at Gus with gun raised, the audience is able to reflect on the irony of those comments with the knowledge that Gus was always intended as the target.
Put On the Kettle (Dramatic Irony and Verbal Irony)
There are two elements of irony to Ben and Gus's fight over whether "put on the kettle" (97-8) is a common phrase. The first type of irony in this scene is dramatic irony, in which the audience knows something that a character does not. In the case of Ben and Gus's fight, the dramatic irony is that this phrase "put on the kettle" is certainly valid, even though Gus, the character that has this view, is forced to back down. Since Harold Pinter was an English playwright and his first audiences were English as well, he would assume that the audience would realize Ben's error and use this knowledge to make inferences about Ben's character.
The second type of irony in this scene—verbal irony—comes just after the argument has ended. Ben, who said just a page before, "I have never in all my life heard anyone say put on the kettle" (98), now says to Gus, "Put on the bloody kettle, for Christ's sake" (99). Pinter even underscores the ironic humor of this moment by writing the stage direction, "BEN goes to his bed, but,realising what he has said, stops andhalf turns. They look at each other" (99). The irony of this moment comes from it being unexpected for someone with such a strong view about a phrase to casually use the phrase himself.
The Apparent Endlessness of Waiting (Dramatic Irony)
In many Theatre of the Absurd works, the characters are trapped in a situation where all they can do is wait, with no apparent conclusion in sight—e.g., in Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon are endlessly waiting for Godot; and in The Dumb Waiter, Ben and Gus are condemned to wait for their target for a huge stretch of time—they simply need to take it on Wilson's word that the target will ultimately arrive. This is a salient case of dramatic irony: as viewers of a play like The Dumb Waiter, we know that there is going to be an end to the play in an hour or two, even though, to the characters, it seems as if the situation in which they are trapped could persist forever.
Tea for the People Above (Dramatic Irony)
Another example of dramatic irony in The Dumb Waiter comes when Ben promises the people on the other end of the dumb waiter that he will make them tea. As he makes this promise, Gus and the audience remember that there is no gas to make tea. This was clearly established earlier in the play when Gus tried in vain to make tea for himself and lamented the fact that Wilson did not pay for gas in their room. The humor of the moment is again drawn out through stage directions: when Gus reminds Ben that they cannot actually make tea, Ben smacks himself in the head and then "sits on his bed, staring" (113).
The Dumb Waiter Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Dumb Waiter is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.