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The Dumb Waiter | Study Guide

Harold Pinter

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The Dumb Waiter | Context


Theatre of the Absurd

Harold Pinter has been credited with bringing the surreal, bizarre Theatre of the Absurd to England. The dramatic trend had already shaken up theater elsewhere in Europe with the works of playwrights like Ireland's Samuel Beckett and Romania's Eugène Ionesco.

The horrors of World War II and the nuclear threat of the Cold War (1947–91, ideological conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union over the spread of communism and nuclear proliferation) led writers to question the order and stability people had once taken for granted. Did life have meaning or purpose? Could people control what happened to them? European novelists Albert Camus and Franz Kafka embraced the philosophy of existentialism, which considers human existence fundamentally absurd and hopeless. Novelists and playwrights put their characters in strange scenarios reflecting the existentialist view of life. Plays often lacked plots in the conventional sense. There was no forward momentum or sense of progression. Instead the action onstage was illogical, irrational, and arbitrary. Characters kept themselves busy but never met their goals. The absent plots underscored the futility or pointlessness of human activity. Dialogue was repetitive, full of puns and clichés. Characters often didn't respond to what other characters said—they'd either stay silent or add a strange non sequitur. The dialogue highlighted the difficulty of true, honest communication.

There was no formal movement of absurdists, but many writers handled similar themes, including Pinter himself. Hungarian English writer Martin Esslin coined the term Theatre of the Absurd, and the phrase stuck.

Experts often consider Pinter as an absurdist playwright. His characters, like the characters of Beckett, Kafka, and Ionesco, get trapped in claustrophobic settings and respond with what critic Chris Jones calls "animalistic and repetitive aggression." The two characters in The Dumb Waiter, Ben and Gus, appear in a distinctly absurd scenario. They're stuck in a basement room, passing time while awaiting a call from their boss. Meanwhile an unknown person sends them food orders from a serving hatch or dumbwaiter, and they feel obligated to respond. Their situation highlights "the boredom of everyday life" and the way people manufacture problems to keep themselves occupied, according to writer Mike Fischer.

But while other absurdist playwrights set their plays in surreal alternative universes, Pinter anchored his plays in the real world. The Dumb Waiter is set in Birmingham, an English city. Ben and Gus speak in working-class slang recognizable to a British audience.

Pinter's work has been compared both to absurdist playwrights and to a group of realist British male writers in the 1950s called the Angry Young Men. The Angry Young Men's work was often explicitly political in nature. These writers, including English novelist Kingsley Amis and English playwright John Osborne, resented how the entrenched British class system favored wealthy elites. Pinter, who came from a working-class background, often highlighted class differences or social issues in his plays. The Dumb Waiter gets much of its tension from a strict class hierarchy. Ben and Gus become waiters or servants, highlighting their subordinate status.

Unlike the overt statements of the Angry Young Men, however, Pinter created subtle characters with unexplained backgrounds. Though Pinter's characters may have believable lives, they appear "shrouded in a twilight of mystery," according to critic Bernard Dukore. To audiences who could see the simmering emotions onstage, the mystery became a threat.

The Dumb Waiter shares characteristics of both realist and absurdist works. Audiences could apply the fear and brutality onstage to their own lives, which made the world of the play more unsettling. Like real people Pinter's characters search for purpose and justice in their lives, and they question the world around them.

Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Other Influences

The Dumb Waiter draws inspiration from Irish playwright Samuel Beckett's best-known play Waiting for Godot. Pinter's play has been described as an ode or homage to the Beckett classic. A staple of absurdist theater, Waiting for Godot features two men waiting for a third man who never arrives.

After reading some of Beckett's work in a poetry magazine, Pinter resolved to learn more about the Irish writer. In 1955 Pinter saw Waiting for Godot for the first time. He admired Beckett's work tremendously, calling Beckett "the most courageous, remorseless writer going." He and Beckett struck up a friendship. They sent each other notes on drafts of their plays. Beckett especially influenced Pinter's early works such as The Dumb Waiter.

Both men were pioneering a new form of drama. They kept their plays short but paid painstaking attention to detail. Their plays surprised audiences with the scripts' disconnected dialogue and frequent, meaningful pauses. The plays' silences forced audiences to feel the characters' boredom and despair.

Waiting for Godot in particular turned the rules of playwriting upside down. Its two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wonder about the purpose of their existence. They seek answers from the mysterious, absent Godot. Comedy blends with tragedy—the men are frequently funny, but they're miserable. Beckett dismissed the idea of a forward-moving plot, and he didn't orient his characters in time and space. Audiences were confused. Young playwrights like Pinter, however, were delighted. Beckett's revolutionary play gave them permission to experiment as well.

Audiences felt The Dumb Waiter and Waiting for Godot had a lot in common. Both plays involve two men engaging in what a critic called "music hall patter and vaudevillian humor." In both plays the more powerless character of the duo—Beckett's Estragon and Pinter's Gus—struggles with his shoe when he first appears onstage. Both plays include distressed characters pondering the meaning and horror of their existence. Both plays derive menace from an invisible authority that seems to control whatever's happening onstage.

But Pinter's style is distinct. Unlike Beckett, Pinter anchored his play in a recognizable English world using specific cultural references. Beckett's Godot is a strange unknown figure. Pinter's unseen Wilson, however, is an aggressive mob boss who may or may not communicate with the play's two characters, Ben and Gus. Beckett created an imaginary world where characters ponder philosophical questions. Pinter created an off-kilter but realistic world where characters negotiate social and psychological boundaries.

Pinter enjoyed American gangster films, and he imitates some of these films' tropes (common themes or devices) in The Dumb Waiter. Ben and Gus use slang to discuss their work; they describe a murder as a "job." They wear their guns in holsters, like gangsters in a 1950s film might. The play's absurdity parodies gangster films' contrived suspense. When Ben and Gus interact, they discuss seemingly random topics. Critic Zach Freeman compares Ben and Gus's "loopy and humanizing digressions" to the dialogue of television mobsters like Tony Soprano, a character from HBO's drama The Sopranos.

The Dumb Waiter also carries political overtones. Pinter started his plays by imagining characters interacting in a certain setting, not by advancing a certain theory. But his beliefs still made it into his scripts in subtle ways.

When the play was written in the 1950s, Great Britain was still recovering from World War II. People feared government authority and violence. Like Pinter's characters, the population was on edge. Pinter later said his early plays, including The Dumb Waiter, took "an extremely critical look at authoritarian postures." He described how state and religious authority worked to silence "the questioning voice." The character of Gus, the more curious and discontented of the two hit men, represents this questioning voice in The Dumb Waiter. The higher-ranking character, Ben, continually silences Gus. Both men blindly obey an outside authority they don't understand. Pinter's play analyzes how people respond to political power and how far they'll take obedience and fear.

Pinter's Signature Style: Language, Silence, and the Pinter Pause

A Pinter play features several elements unique to the playwright. Observers began using the adjective Pinteresque to describe plays with Pinter's combination of mystery; quiet, slow-growing menace; and revealing silences. A Pinteresque scene "hinted at more than it should," and a Pinteresque dialogue "said less than it meant," according to critic Robert Simonson. Characters spoke in everyday language and interacted in familiar settings. But their behavior was a little strange and their atmosphere a little surreal. Threats always simmered beneath the surface.

Pinter plots are simple, without as much dramatic action as most plays. The set designs are sparse. Two or three characters are isolated and trapped, or confronted by a third intruder. The characters then engage in a struggle for power. Violence ripples below the surface and occasionally explodes. But most of the action consists of nothing more than characters sitting and talking. Pinter proves drama can still be riveting without special effects onstage.

Pinter deliberately leaves his characters vague. He doesn't offer much background information about characters like Ben and Gus. Instead he wants audiences to explore the unknown terrain of his characters' motives and history. Ben and Gus, for instance, are often calm and placid on the surface. But each character masks strong emotion and potential for violence. Neither character emerges as reliable or trustworthy. Audiences don't know whose side to take when Ben and Gus argue.

Dialogue typically reveals character details and motivations. Pinter, however, uses dialogue to expose the limits of language and communication. He described speech as "a constant stratagem to cover nakedness." Speech can be a different kind of silence, he claimed. The words people hear only indicate the words they aren't hearing.

Ben and Gus make small talk or chitchat onstage about seemingly arbitrary details, like the events in the day's newspaper. But even simple statements mean a great deal in Pinter plays. Gus's clarifying questions, for instance, show both his desire for information and the larger, more serious questions he's hiding. Characters who don't talk much, like Ben, come with layers of thought and meaning behind their words.

Even when Pinter's dialogue seems nonsensical or innocent, it's a combat tool. Ben and Gus frequently use language as a weapon. They disagree about the right words to describe lighting a gas stove, and they escalate to a physical confrontation. They employ cryptic phrases to cover up their true intentions. Actor Kenneth Tynan said Pinter viewed language "as a barrier that keeps [people] apart." The more characters in Pinter plays talk, the less they understand one another.

Pinter's resonant silences provide their own kind of dialogue. When Ben doesn't respond to Gus's questions, he establishes himself as an authority. Pinter paid attention to the sound of language, including its spaces, interruptions, rhythms, and patterns. Critic John Lahr says Pinter "changed the way we hear language." Actress Gina McKee compares Pinter's punctuation to the precision of a musical score.

Silences in Pinter plays are heavy with meaning. He was less fascinated by what people said than by what they chose to leave unsaid. Pinter's argued silences communicate more than words do. His characters, he claimed, don't have failures of communication. They stay quiet because "Communication is too alarming. To enter into someone else's life is too frightening." Characters are defined by what they're unwilling or unable to say out loud. The Dumb Waiter's Ben, for instance, has aggressive emotional outbursts in the play. Otherwise he's a man of few words. Critic Catherine Rampell finds Ben's pauses and hesitations more frightening than his actions.

Pinter is known for a distinct type of silence in his scripts: the Pinter pause. Characters will frequently pause for a moment or two while delivering lines of dialogue. These moments bring out what writer Drew Hunt calls "the subtext of the narrative" or the unspoken thoughts, ideas, and possibilities surrounding the characters. Playwrights can use silences for both menacing and comic effect. Pinter's own use of pauses was partially inspired by the delivery of 1950s comedian Jack Benny.

Pinter emphasized how each pause has a purpose. Pauses, he felt, should make organic sense in the script and reflect on the play's action. Pinter took a special interest in how people leave things unsaid. Do they pause for a short time, or do they settle into complete silence? Director Sir Peter Hall once identified what the different silences mean in Pinter's scripts. Three dots, or an ellipsis, signify a character's searching for a word under pressure. A pause signifies a moment of tension or threat. A silence signifies an unexpected point of crisis, a moment where a character undergoes significant change. To Pinter and his audiences a pause was as important as a line. Critic Chris Jones said a pause indicates where "the real action, the action of human revelation" will begin.

Comedy of Menace

Pinter combines an encroaching sense of danger with sharp comic timing. Plays like The Dumb Waiter are often considered comedies of menace. British playwright David Campton introduced the term comedy of menace in 1957 to describe four of his own short plays. Theater critic Irving Wardle later used the term to describe Pinter's work.

In comedies of menace, characters feel threatened by a distant force or personality. They may not have a clear idea exactly what they're afraid of, and the audience may not know either. Onstage the characters have seemingly ordinary conversations about everyday topics. But their interaction is a power struggle in which one character dominates as another character submits. Dialogue may include clever or sarcastic comic lines interspersed with indirect threats.

The humor in The Dumb Waiter and other early Pinter plays comes from character and personality observation. Physical humor arises from the bizarre situations the characters handle. Ben and Gus struggle to fill restaurant orders sent by a mysterious person upstairs, even though they have little food on hand. The nonsensical events and reactions onstage don't just provide comic relief—they add to the menace of the unknown. The Dumb Waiter critic John J. O'Connor says, "has the irresistible logic of a nightmare."

Comedies of menace reveal the psychological warfare of everyday life. Pinter's famous pauses, for instance, often come when characters don't respond to a statement someone else made. The characters violate the typical guidelines of conversation, making their conversational partner—and the audience—uneasy. Communication begins to break down. As two or three characters compete for the upper hand in their relationships, they use words and silences as weapons.

Pinter's plays highlight the sometimes brutal, violent nature of everyday discourse. The cruelty onstage is rarely physical or aggressive. It's expressed more subtly through indirect threats. Pinter shows how these threats lead to more overt forms of brutality. His familiar settings reveal violent undercurrents running through every type of relationship, from coworkers to spouses to family members.

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