Chekhov famously wrote, "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off." In The Dumb Waiter, Pinter plays with expectations by making guns important props in the play but never having a character fire one. In this way, guns symbolize the threat of violence that pervades society. The mere possibility of violence happening, whether on purpose or by mistake, builds the suspense and tension of the play. This is especially true of the moments when Ben and Gus clean, examine, and even point their guns; though these actions never result in the guns actually being fired, audience members must brace themselves for the violence that might occur. Guns are also powerful, masculine items, so the moments when Ben and Gus choose to interact with the guns could also be understood to symbolically represent them seeking control and assurance of their masculinity.
In The Dumb Waiter, matches symbolize powerlessness and absurdity. Shortly after the play begins, Gus pulls flattened cigarette and matchboxes out of his shoes, seeming surprised and baffled to find them there. This is the first sign that The Dumb Waiter will be a work of Theatre of the Absurd. Because the men have no matches, they are not able to make tea, which reminds them and the audience of their powerlessness and low social class.
Later in the play, an envelope is slid under the door of the room the men are waiting in. Upon opening it, Gus finds that the envelope contains twelve matches. This moment is absurd and ironic because the men expected a note of some sort, rather than matches. The moment is also mysterious in a way that reminds the men of their powerlessness: they have no way of finding out who delivered the matches, and it is unclear how someone would know they lacked matches in the first place.
The absurdity increases even further when Gus discovers there is no gas for the stove. Even with matches provided, the men still cannot make tea. While this realization again demonstrates Ben and Gus's low class by showing they are not able to meet their basic needs even with help, it is the reminder of their lack of knowledge and power in the situation that is greatly unsettling to Gus. Near the end of the play, Gus brings the matches back up, asking Ben repeatedly, "Why did he send us matches if he knew there was no gas?" (117.) Gus clearly has come to believe that the matches were purely symbolic: rather than meaning for the men to use them, Wilson provided the matches to demonstrate his complete knowledge and power, and to demonstrate Ben and Gus's lack thereof.
The Dumb Waiter (Symbol)
The titular dumb waiter represents lack of communication. Dumb waiters were first created so that gossip and conversation could not be spread after meals by living waiters. In The Dumb Waiter, the identity and intent of the people on the other end of the dumb waiter are obscured by the nature of the communication, leaving Ben and Gus confused about how to proceed with the situation. At first, Ben and Gus can only communicate through the dumb waiter using notes, which makes the process of communication incredibly lengthy and difficult. Once they discover the speaking tube, communication can be accomplished more rapidly, but they still cannot tell the identity of who they are talking to and cannot see how they are reacting to information.
The Newspaper (Symbol)
Throughout The Dumb Waiter, Ben repeatedly returns to reading his newspaper. The newspaper is an important symbol for a number of reasons. First of all, Ben's character is established by the fact that he reads the newspaper: since this is the first thing we as an audience see him do, it takes on great importance. From the fact that Ben is reading the newspaper, one can surmise that he is educated and perhaps intelligent, especially compared to Gus, his partner. Additionally, the newspaper is used to introduce the theme of violence. The violence Ben and Gus discuss and carry out due to their job is foreshadowed by the events Ben reads about in the newspaper: an old man being run over and a child killing a cat. Finally, the newspaper is part of a theme of trust and belief. Like Ben and Gus trust their boss to supply them with a target who deserves to be killed, they also trust the newspaper to tell them facts about society. When they grapple emotionally with what they read in the newspaper, like when they decide not to believe that a little girl killed the cat, it symbolizes them grappling with how much to trust in the information other people, especially powerful people, give them.
While tea was once a drink only for the higher classes, by the 1900s tea had become popular for all classes in the United Kingdom. In Pinter's The Dumb Waiter, tea is used to call attention to the play's themes of wealth and social class. Throughout the first half of the play, Ben and Gus discuss making tea, but they are hindered because they first do not have matches, and then they have matches but do not have gas. This lack of basic necessities to make a widespread and culturally significant drink implies to audiences, especially British audiences, that the characters are either middle or lower class. Later in the play, Ben and Gus start to get messages through the dumb waiter, and they offer their tea bag to the people above. The tea bag is sent back along with complaints about the food that was sent along with it, and the men apologize. Even later, the people above ask for tea to be made, and Ben promises to do this, forgetting that he and Gus couldn't make tea for themselves. Even though the audience does not know the social class of the people sending notes down through the dumb waiter, their requests and reactions, especially regarding tea, set them in contrast to Ben and Gus.
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.