"BEN is lying on a bed, left, reading a paper. GUS is sitting on a bed, right, tying his shoelaces, with difficulty. Both are dressed in shirts, trousers and braces.
These sentences are the first stage directions of The Dumb Waiter, and they describe what the audience would experience before hearing any dialogue. The stage directions immediately establish multiple things that will be crucial to understanding the play. The first is the difference in intellect and status between Ben and Gus; this is demonstrated through Ben doing an intellectual activity, reading, while Gus struggles to do something simple and manual. Additionally, Pinter establishes the similarities between the men: they are dressed very similarly, showing that they are of a similar social class and job. Finally, the fact that Pinter specifically calls for "Silence," even setting the word apart in its own sentence, foreshadows the liberal use of pauses and silences throughout the play to create tension and confusion.
"BEN (slamming his paper down). Kaw!
GUS. What's that?
BEN. A child of eight killed a cat!
GUS. Get away.
BEN. It's a fact. What about that, eh? A child of eight killing a cat!
GUS. How did he do it?
BEN. It was a girl.
GUS. How did she do it?
BEN. She - He picks up the paper and studies it. It doesn't say.
GUS. Why not?
BEN. Wait a minute. It just says—Her brother, aged eleven, viewed the incident from the toolshed.
GUS. Go on!
BEN. That's bloody ridiculous.
GUS. I bet he did it.
GUS. The brother.
BEN. I think you're right.
(Slamming down the paper.) What about that, eh? A kid of eleven killing a cat and blaming it on his little sister of eight!"
In this quote, Pinter engages with three main themes in The Dumb Waiter: gender, belief, and power hierarchies. In the dialogue, Ben and Gus discuss a story Ben reads in the newspaper that alleges that a young girl killed a cat. The men decide that the little girl couldn't have killed a cat, saying that it must have been her older brother who killed the cat and blamed his sibling. By disregarding what the newspaper says, the men are trying to rebel in a small way against hierarchies of power and influence, which they experience in their job and in society at large as members of the middle class. However, by doubting that a girl would kill a cat, as evidenced by Gus immediately jumping to the conclusion that the brother did the alleged crime, the men confirm their belief in a traditional hierarchy and distinction between genders.
"GUS. I saw the Villa get beat in a cup tie once. Who was it against now? White shirts. It was one-all by half-time. I'll never forget it. Their opponents won by a penalty. Talk about drama. Yes, it was a disputed penalty. Disputed. They got beat two-one, anyway, because of it. You were there yourself.
BEN. Not me.
GUS. Yes, you were there. Don't you remember that disputed penalty?
GUS. He went down just inside the area. Then they said he was just acting. I didn't think the other bloke touched him myself. But the referee had the ball on the spot.
BEN. Didn't touch him! What are you talking about? He laid him out flat!"
This moment shows a classic mixture of comedy and tension in the conversations between Ben and Gus throughout The Dumb Waiter. It also specifically underscores the themes of memory and belief in the play. Gus seems to remember the sporting event clearly, even recalling specific details like the color of the shirts of the team playing and the scores at half-time and the end of the game. However, Ben casts doubt on Gus's memory by saying one key detail, that they attended the match together, is not true. This parallels other moments in the text when Ben doubts Gus's intelligence or memory, correcting him with a tone of authority. This moment is particularly interesting because Ben then casts doubt upon his own recollection by arguing back about a particular penalty, making it seem likely that he actually did attend the game. The theme of belief is present both in the audience not knowing whose account of the story to believe and in Gus and Ben's own views on whether the player who was supposedly fouled upon should have been believed. Athletes are known to exaggerate the amount of harm done to them to get penalties called on the other team; this connects with both Ben and Gus's lack of belief in what they see or read and their numbness to violence.
"BEN. What's that?
GUS. I don't know.
BEN. Where did it come from?
GUS. Under the door.
BEN. Well, what is it?
GUS. I don't know.
They stare at it.
BEN. Pick it up.
GUS. What do you mean?
BEN. Pick it up!
GUS slowly moves towards it, bends and picks it up.
What is it?
GUS. An envelope.
BEN. Is there anything on it?
BEN. Is it sealed?
BEN. Open it.
BEN. Open it!"
Ben and Gus's relationship is clearly demonstrated in this drawn-out scene, as underscored by Pinter's use of repetition. Ben emphasizes his dominance in their professional relationship by repeating the commands such as "Pick it up" and "Open it" (95), intensifying the power of his delivery on the second instance of each (as Pinter instructs by replacing the period with an exclamation point). Gus's repetition, on the other hand, demonstrates his fundamental confusion, both about his relationship with Ben and about their job. He repeats "I don't know" and repeatedly asks "What" (95), showing hesitance and uncertainty.
"BEN (vehemently). Nobody says light the gas! What does the gas light?
GUS. What does the gas—?
BEN (grabbing him with two hands by the throat, at arm's length). THE KETTLE, YOU FOOL!
GUS takes the hands from his throat.
GUS. All right, all right."
This moment in the text shows how numb to violence Ben and Gus are due to their job, which symbolizes humanity's numbness to violence in contemporary society. Ben and Gus begin to argue over a simple phrase, and instead of keeping a light tone that would be reasonable for such a topic, their argument escalates to physical violence. Both Ben's willingness to commit an act of assault over an issue of such low stakes and Gus's acceptance of an assault on himself for no reason demonstrate their acceptance of violence as a way of solving problems. Pinter also brings in the theme of intelligence through Ben's line "THE KETTLE, YOU FOOL!" (98.) Ben pairs a show of physical dominance with an implication of intellectual dominance to solidify his higher professional position and his power over Gus.
"BEN. What's the matter with you? You're always asking me questions. What's the matter with you?
BEN. You never used to ask me so many damn questions. What's come over you?
GUS. No, I was just wondering.
BEN. Stop wondering. You've got a job to do. Why don't you just do it and shut up?"
Gus's questioning and Ben's purposeful lack of questions and answers are central to political and religious allegorical readings of The Dumb Waiter. Like other plays in the Theatre of the Absurd genre, questions without answers and effects without clear causes are used to symbolize lack of reason or meaning in society and life. Harold Pinter was especially known for including political satire and allegory in his plays. Reading this key quote with a political message in mind, it would seem that Ben symbolizes government or authority trying to overpower middle- and lower-class citizens by telling them to do their jobs and not ask questions about government or society. Some absurdist plays, including Waiting for Godot, which The Dumb Waiter parallels in many ways, have also been famously read as religious allegories. Reading this quote for religious allegory, one might interpret Ben's lack of answers as encouraging Gus to have faith that higher powers always have a plan, even when one does not understand it.
"GUS. She wasn't much to look at, I know, but still. 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. A looser texture, like. Didn't she spread, eh? She didn't half spread."
This important quote holds key information about the themes of gender and violence in The Dumb Waiter. From the quote, it is clear that Ben and Gus believe in fundamental differences between genders. A negative view of females is expressed by Gus commenting "She wasn't much to look at" and repeating the word "mess." With regard to violence, this quote is perhaps the most vivid description of Ben and Gus's job found in the play. At most other points, the characters speak ambiguously about their jobs or focus on their actions rather than on the experience of the target during or after the encounter. While this quote reveals the gruesome result of Ben and Gus's work, Gus still saves the men from responsibility for their actions by skipping over their shooting the woman and focusing repetitively on the effect caused.
He brings the tube slowly to his ear.
To ear. He listens. To mouth.
No, all we had we sent up.
To ear. He listens. To mouth.
Oh, I'm very sorry to hear that.
Well, we're very sorry about that.
Tube to ear.
Yes certainly. Certainly. Right away.
To ear. The voice has ceased. He hangs up the tube."
This humorous, drawn-out moment in the play uses comedy to draw attention to the play's theme of lack of communication. After Ben and Gus discover the speaking tube, they are able to communicate to the people above more quickly than sending notes back and forth. However, communication is even more hindered because one is unable to speak and listen at the same time when using the speaking tube. Because Ben does not know whom he is speaking to on the other end of the dumb waiter, he has to put on an act of respect and reverence, but this tone is broken each time he must ask "What?" because of the lag time from switching the tube between mouth and ear. Pinter's stage directions reflect the intended frantic pace of the scene by shortening from "To ear. He listens. To mouth" early in the quote to "To ear" and "To mouth" by the end of the quote.
"BEN. He won't see you.
GUS. He won't see me.
BEN. But he'll see me.
GUS. He'll see you.
BEN. He won't know you're there.
GUS. He won't know you're there.
BEN. He won't know you're there.
GUS. He won't know I'm there."
While repetition is a device Pinter uses throughout The Dumb Waiter, in no scene is it more important than that in which Ben gives Gus their instructions. The repetition in this scene creates boredom, contrast, comedy, and foreshadowing. The sheer amount of repetition creates boredom: there is very little progression of the plot since the men are going over instructions for later action, without actually prompting any action at this moment. The back-and-forth from Ben to Gus has the effect of lulling the audience into security, thinking Gus will always repeat what Ben says first. This security sets up the moments of contrast where comedy and foreshadowing occur. In the quote above, Gus forgetting to change the pronoun when he repeats Ben's instruction is humorous because of how such a simple error can derail the back and forth dialogue. Furthermore, moments like this where the repetition breaks down foreshadow the climax of the play, in which Gus is revealed to be the target. In this quote, Gus's pronoun mistake focuses the audience on where he will be when the target enters the room.
"The door right opens sharply. BEN turns, his revolver levelled at the door.
GUS stumbles in.
He is stripped of his jacket, waistcoat, tie, holster, and revolver.
He stops, body stooping, his arms at his sides.
He raises his head and looks at BEN.
A long silence.
They stare at each other.
Similarly to how the play began, the play ends with silence and stage direction. Pinter withholds the climax until the tension is the highest, finally revealing that Gus is the target at the very end of the play. Some audience members might find the ending anti-climactic: while there is the shock of Gus appearing at the door, the catharsis or release of tension that would result from Ben shooting Gus does not occur. The ending underscores the importance of silence and pauses in the play. It is left to the audience to decide whether Ben does not speak or act due to shock, fear, indecision, morality, or something else entirely.
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.