The Dumb Waiter

The Dumb Waiter Summary and Analysis of The Dumb Waiter - Part 2


Now that the men have the matches that were slid under the door, Ben tells Gus to go make tea. They bicker over whether the phrase "light the kettle" (97) makes sense, with Gus insisting that he has never heard the phrase and that Ben should say "light the gas" (97) instead. Their emotions run quite high during this conversation, with the men staring at each other angrily and getting out of breath from their raised voices. Ben brings up that he is the senior partner of the two of them, and when Gus continues to argue back, Ben chokes Gus with both hands. Gus removes Ben's hands but does not seem very disturbed by the violent behavior. The men go back to talking logistically about making tea, and Gus goes into the other room and lights the stove.

Gus reenters the room and sits on his own bed, then moves over to sit on Ben's bed with him. Gus starts to ask Ben a question, though Ben rebuffs him at first for asking "so many damn questions" (99) rather than just doing his job. Gus tentatively asks Ben if he knows anything about the job they're doing that day—specifically "Who it's going to be" (100). Ben does not tell anything to Gus, instead pushing again for him to go make tea. Gus leaves the room again, and Ben checks his revolver for ammunition while Gus is gone. When Gus comes back, he says that there is no gas and that he doesn't have any money to pay for more. Ben tells Gus that they'll have to wait for Wilson to show up, and Gus reminds him that sometimes Wilson sends a message instead of coming in person. Ben polishes his revolver, and the men talk about whether Wilson has rented the room, or perhaps the whole building, where they're currently waiting.

Gus tells Ben that he has a hard time talking to Wilson. He adds that he's been thinking about the last person who came to them as a target; she was a girl, which is seemingly out of the ordinary, and when they shot her it made more of a mess than usual. This conversation seems to make Ben uncomfortable, but Gus continues, pondering aloud who cleans up after they leave. Ben makes fun of Gus for not realizing that there are people in many other departments working for the same organization to which the two of them belong.

Suddenly, the men hear a clatter. The grab their revolvers and face the wall, then bang on the wall and realize it's hollow. Gus finds the rim of the dumb waiter, opens it, and finds a piece of paper that has been sent down from above. The note reads, "Two braised steak and chips. Two sago puddings. Two teas without sugar" (103). The box is pulled back up quickly. Ben suggests that there likely used to be a cafe above them. While the men argue about who may own the space above them currently, the dumb waiter clatters again as another note is sent down: "Soup of the day. Liver and onions. Jam tart." (104). The men move around in indecision, looking up the dumb waiter's hatch and touching one another on the shoulder.

Ben announces that they should send something up, and he orders Gus to empty out the contents of his bag and send up any food and drink. They argue over some of the items Gus had not planned on sharing. Just when they've piled everything onto a plate, the box is pulled back up in the dumb waiter again. The men start to get dressed, putting on ties, waistcoats, and jackets, while arguing about whether the room they are in could possibly have been a kitchen before, seeing as it's so sparsely equipped. The box descends with another note asking for fancy foods. They put the plate of Gus's snacks into the dumb waiter and yell the contents up the hatch.

They finish getting dressed, and Ben lies back down on his bed. Gus continues fussing with his revolver and jacket; he tells Ben that he feels sick and hopes to get the job over with quickly. The box comes back down with another request, this time for Chinese dishes, and the tea bag. They look for a pencil to write a note back saying they don't have any more food, and they stumble upon a speaking-tube that can be used to communicate to the people above. There is a whistle to blow into to alert the people on the other end to listen to the tube. Ben speaks to the people above in a polite, deferential way, apologizing for the poor quality of their food. The people above instruct him to make tea. When Ben stops talking to the people above, Gus reminds Ben that they weren't even able to make tea for themselves. Ben sits down on his bed sadly, and Gus complains with increasing passion about how they sent all of their food up when the people above them may already have lots of things they don't.

Ben tells Gus to quiet down so that they can go over their instructions. They go back and forth, Ben saying a phrase and Gus repeating the phrase almost verbatim. The instructions are for Gus to stand behind the door and not open it if there is a knock. When the person comes into the room, Gus is to shut the door behind him without alerting the person to his presence. The person will walk toward Ben, and Ben will pull out his gun. If the person turns around, Gus will be there with his gun out. There is a break in the instructions when Ben reminds Gus that he has forgotten the part where he takes out his gun. At the end of the instructions, Gus asks Ben what they do if it's a girl; Ben says that they will do the exact same thing in that case.

Gus goes into the lavatory and tries to flush it again unsuccessfully. He comes back into the room and is visibly troubled. He asks Ben, "Why did he send us matches if he knew there was no gas?" (117), and when he gets no response he gets closer to Ben and says it again. Growing more and more agitated, he presses Ben on who sent the matches, who is upstairs, who moved into the space above them, and why Wilson is "playing all these games" (118). He rants loudly that they have been through tests for years, doing their job without questioning, and Wilson is still playing games. At the climax of his rant, a note comes down the dumb waiter with another note asking for food, and Gus shouts up the tube that they don't have anything left. Ben flings Gus away from the tube, slaps him on the chest, and yells at him to stop. He then goes back to his bed, lays down, and picks up the newspaper again. Gus goes back to his bed and sits down, and there is silence for a while. Twice, the men lock eyes and then look away. Ben laments another story he sees in the newspaper, and Gus responds dully without knowing what happened in the story.

Ben rises from bed and puts his gun in his holster. Gus goes into the kitchen for a glass of water. The whistle blows, so Ben goes to the speaking tube and listens. He receives instructions from the speaking tube and responds that they understand their target has arrived, and they are ready for him. He adjusts his hair and jacket while calling to Gus. The toilet flushes. He calls to Gus again out of the door stage left. The door on the right opens, and Ben turns and points his gun at it. Gus stumbles in the door on the right, not wearing his jacket, waistcoat, tie, holster, or revolver. His head and body are stooped, and he raises his head to look Ben in the eyes. They stare at each other in silence, and the curtain falls.


The main theme in the second half of the play is violence. The audience comes to expect that the climax of the play will be an act of extreme violence; this is built up by the memories the men discuss of past jobs they've done and the instructions that Ben makes Gus repeat. However, there are also moments of sudden violence that go almost unremarked upon, showing how numb to violence the men have become due to 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.

The dramatic moment in which Ben states the instructions for carrying out the job and Gus repeats the instructions is both important to the plot and the comedy of the play. The repetition back and forth creates a lulling rhythm that is sharply broken when Gus says something different or incorrect. In some places, this repetition is used to call attention to a certain line of the instructions, such as the fact that the person who comes to the door won't see Gus (which turns out to be true, since the person is Gus). In other places, a classic comedic device is played out: Gus repeats something without changing the pronoun the way Ben wanted, as in the example, "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" (115). Like the violence discussed in the preceding paragraph, this scene of repetition is used to reinforce the power dynamic between Ben and Gus; both men know the instructions by heart, but Ben still gets to say them first and correct Gus when he lags, forgets, or questions.

Nothing is revealed in the play about how the targets that Ben and Gus kill are chosen. However, it becomes clear that almost all—but not one hundred percent—of the targets are male. Gus fixates on the memory of a woman they killed seeming to react physically differently to being shot. While male and female bodies are different, it is possible that the shock of having to shoot a woman when so many of the targets are men caused Gus to create a memory that was more vivid. It is also noteworthy that Ben and Gus use only male words like "bloke," "he," and "him" (115) when going over the instructions at first, and then Gus clarifies whether the instructions will be the same for a woman. By bringing the subject of women as targets up twice, Pinter creates a theme of violence against women. That he does so without having a female character demonstrates two forms of oppression of women in a patriarchal, hyper-masculine society.

The Dumb Waiter was written in 1957, and Harold Pinter himself lived from 1930 to 2008. This means that Pinter grew up in Europe during World War II and the Cold War. In response to these fraught periods, many artists focused their work on systems of power and authority, especially on the negative effects of not questioning authority. The question is left open as to whether at the end of the play Ben will shoot his friend or question authority. However, there are parallel moments earlier in the play where Gus and Ben do not question the authority of those instructing or demanding that they do things. One example is the people communicating through the dumb waiter. Because they get a message telling them to do so, Gus and Ben give up all of their food and drink, even though they had wanted to enjoy them themselves and don't know who is asking for food or why. They receive no compensation, and the people who take the items from them are not even grateful.

Two stage directions Pinter sprinkles liberally throughout "The Dumb Waiter" are Pause and Silence. These stage directions give the director and actor the freedom to define how long there will be silence and what, besides dialogue, might happen during these quiet moments. Moments of pause or silence can build boredom or draw out tension, and both of these emotions may have a place in a production of this complex play.