The Dumb Waiter | Study Guide

Harold Pinter

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The Dumb Waiter | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

The Stories in the Newspaper

The setting is a basement room with two beds. In between the beds is a closed serving hatch with a dumbwaiter, or small elevator, inside. On the left is a door to the kitchen and lavatory, or bathroom. On the right is a door to a passage. Ben, an experienced gangster, sits on the left-hand bed reading a newspaper. Gus, a more novice gangster, sits on the right-hand bed tying his shoes.

Gus walks slowly to the door as Ben watches him. Gus takes a flattened matchbox out of one shoe and looks Ben in the eye. Gus takes a flattened cigarette packet out of the other shoe. He and Ben look at each other again. Gus puts the packet in his pocket, reties his shoe, and keeps walking out the door. Ben slams down the paper and glares after him. A lavatory chain is pulled twice offstage, but the toilet doesn't flush.

Gus reenters the room. Ben tells him about a story in the paper. An 87-year-old man crawled under a lorry, or truck, to cross a busy street. Gus finds the story unbelievable. Ben says "It's down here in black and white."

Gus leaves and reenters the room again. The lavatory chain is pulled again without the toilet flushing. Gus says he wants to ask Ben something, but Ben reminds him to make tea. Gus tells Ben "He's laid on some very nice crockery," or dishes. Ben keeps reading the paper as Gus describes the fancy dishes. Ben tells Gus he'd better eat quickly if he wants to eat.

Gus notices he's out of cigarettes and asks if Ben has any. Gus adds he hopes their next job won't be long. He repeats he wants to ask Ben something. Ben tells him about another strange story in the paper. An eight-year-old girl killed a cat while her older brother watched from the toolshed. Gus guesses the brother killed the cat. Ben thinks he's right. Ben slams down the paper, disgusted by the story.

Gus asks when "he" will get in touch. He asks again when Ben doesn't respond. Ben asks what's the matter with Gus, telling him, "It could be any time." Gus asks Ben what's wrong with the tank in the lavatory. Ben suspects the tank has "a deficient ballcock." Gus is surprised.

Gus returns to his bed and says he didn't sleep well the night before. He asks Ben about a poster of cricket players on the wall. Ben, uninterested, asks again about the tea. Gus wishes the room had a window. The two men enter rooms when it's still dark out, Gus says. Then they sleep all day, do their work, and leave again at night. After a pause, Gus says he'd like a chance to look at the scenery.

Ben reminds him they get holidays. He accuses Gus of complaining as if they work every day, when they have jobs once a week at most. Gus retorts they have to be on call constantly. Ben says Gus's problem is he has no interests. Gus claims he does have interests. When Ben asks what they are, Gus pauses and repeats "I've got interests."

Ben says he works on woodwork and model boats himself so he's never bored. Doesn't Ben get fed up, Gus asks. "What with?" Ben replies. The men pause. Gus asks again for a cigarette, and the lavatory flushes.

Gus repeats the crockery's nice, but otherwise the place is awful. "He" doesn't care much about their comfort, Gus says. Ben tells him to be quiet and make the tea. Gus takes a packet of tea from a bag by his bed. He abruptly asks why Ben stopped the car in the middle of the road that morning. Ben claims he thought Gus was asleep.

Gus says he woke up when Ben stopped. Gus pauses and recalls Ben sat up straight in the car "like you were waiting for something." Ben says the men were too early. Gus is confused—didn't they get a call telling them to start right away? Ben quietly asks who took the call, and Gus says Ben did. Gus asks what they were too early for. After a pause, Gus wonders if someone had to leave before they could enter.

Gus sniffs his sheets and says they're dirty. This proves to him their living situation has gone downhill. Ben asks how Gus knows the sheets were dirty before the men arrived. Gus says the smell may have come from him, but he isn't sure.

While Ben goes back to the paper, Gus asks what town the men are in. Birmingham, Ben replies. Gus marvels—they're in Great Britain's second biggest city. Gus snaps his fingers. He excitedly says the men can watch the Villa, a football-playing sports club, the next day. Ben replies the Villa's playing an away game, and the men don't have time to watch a game anyway. Gus says they used to go to games. Ben responds, "Things have tightened up."

Gus recalls seeing the Villa lose a close match after a disputed penalty. Ben claims he wasn't there, but disagrees with Gus about the details of the match. They pause. Gus says the game he's describing must have been in Birmingham. Ben thinks the team was playing an away game. But Gus recalls the other team came from Tottenham, a town they've never been to. Ben looks at Gus and says "Don't make me laugh."

Gus wonders when "he" will get in touch. He asks Ben if he wants to see the Tottenham Hotspurs play football the next day. Ben says the Spurs are playing an away game. Then they might be coming to Birmingham to play the Villa, Gus says. Ben murmurs again, "The Villa are playing away."

Argument Over the Teakettle

The men pause. An envelope appears under the door. Gus calls Ben's attention to it, and Ben asks where it came from. Gus has no idea. Ben orders him to pick up the envelope, which is sealed and unmarked, and open it. Twelve matches fall out. Ben tells Gus to open the door and see if anyone's standing outside. Gus pockets the matches and takes a revolver from under his pillow before opening the door. He sees no one outside. Ben thinks someone came and went quickly.

Gus and Ben agree the matches will come in handy since Gus is always losing matches. When Gus scratches his ear with a match, Ben slaps his hand and tells him to light the kettle. "You mean the gas," Gus comments. Ben, getting more aggressive, insists he means the kettle. Gus asks how he can light a kettle. Ben insists it's a common figure of speech. Gus disagrees—he thinks the saying is "put on the kettle." The men stare at each other. Ben slowly says he's never heard anyone say "put on the kettle" in his life. Gus replies his mother used to say it. Ben asks why Gus is bringing up his mother.

After a brief silence Ben says he doesn't mean to be unreasonable. But he's the senior partner, he reminds Gus. He's just trying to teach Gus something he needs to know. Gus repeats he's never heard the expression. Ben asks what the gas lights. "The kettle, you fool!" Ben shouts, grabbing Gus by the throat.

Tension Increases Between Ben and Gus

The men separate. They pause. Gus says he wants to test the matches. He tries to light a match on the box, but it won't strike. Gus then lights a match against his shoe successfully. Ben asks him to "put on the bloody kettle." Ben walks to his bed, then stops, realizing what he's just said. He turns around and looks at Gus.

As Gus leaves the room, Ben slams his paper down on the bed. Gus returns and says the stove is on. Gus wonders aloud who it will be tonight. He repeats he wants to ask Ben something. Ben swears impatiently. Gus walks over to sit on Ben's bed. Ben asks why Gus is asking so many questions. What's come over him? Can't he shut up and do his job? Gus says he was wondering about the job and thought Ben might know something. Ben looks at Gus. Then Gus asks if Ben knows "who it's going to be tonight."

After a pause Ben asks Gus if he feels all right. He tells Gus to go make the tea. When Gus leaves, Ben checks his hidden revolver for ammunition. Gus returns and says the gas has been cut off. They'll have to add money to a gas meter, but neither man has money. Ben says they have to wait for Wilson. Gus reminds him Wilson doesn't always come. Ben polishes his revolver and says Gus needs to get ready anyway.

Gus throws a packet of tea on the bed. He thinks Wilson should bring them some money, or at least leave enough gas to warm a cup of tea. Gus says the place is Wilson's after all. Ben thinks Wilson's just rented the place. Gus is convinced the place belongs to Wilson. All the other places they go to are empty, with a key and teapot waiting for them. Gus pauses and remarks no one ever seems to hear them or complain about their noise. He and Ben never see anyone "except the bloke who comes." Gus wonders if the walls are soundproof. Half the time, he adds, Wilson doesn't show up. Ben says Wilson's busy. Gus says he finds Wilson hard to talk to. Ben tells him to "scrub round it," or ignore it.

Gus pauses and says he has a lot of questions for Wilson. After pausing again Gus tells Ben he's thinking about the last job—a girl. Ben grabs the paper. Gus asks how many times he's read the same paper. Ben angrily slams the paper down, stands up, and accuses Gus of criticizing him. Ben threatens to hit Gus if Gus doesn't "watch [his] step." Still frustrated, Ben murmurs "How many times have I ..." and sits back down.

Gus is still thinking about the girl. He says her murder was a mess and her body didn't "hold together" as well as a man's does. Ben sits up, rubbing his eyes. Gus asks who cleans up after he and Ben leave. Ben reminds him their organization has "departments for everything." Gus continues talking, but he's interrupted by a loud noise from the wall. Something's descending from the dumbwaiter hatch between the two beds.

Filling the Dumbwaiter's Food Orders

The men grab their revolvers and face the wall. The noise stops. Ben gestures to the wall, and Gus bangs the wall with his gun. While Ben moves back to his bed, Gus lifts a panel in the wall. He finds a dumbwaiter or serving elevator, "a wide box ... held by pulleys." Gus retrieves a piece of paper from the box. Ben tells him to read it aloud. Someone's written an order for food on the paper—two meals of steak and chips; two sago puddings, which are desserts made using starch from tropical palm trees; and two teas without sugar.

Gus isn't sure what to make of it. "Give us a chance!" he says when the box goes up, and adds "they're in a hurry." Ben says the building must have been a café before. The basement where the men sleep was a kitchen. The place changed owners overnight, Ben thinks, and the people who ran the café "didn't find it a going concern." Gus pointedly asks who owns the building now.

After a brief silence Gus repeats his question, asking "if they moved out, who moved in?" Ben says "That all depends—" before the box descends again with a note. This time someone's placed an order for soup, liver and onions, and a jam tart. Both men read the note. Ben looks into but not up the hatch. Gus motions for Ben to be quiet, then looks up the hatch. Ben hurriedly pulls him away.

Ben tosses his revolver on the bed and says they'd better send up some food. Gus agrees. They're both relieved. Ben asks what food Gus has in his bag. To Ben's alarm, Gus shouts up the hatch "Wait a minute!" Gus has biscuits, a chocolate bar, a half-pint of milk, and a tea packet with him. Gus doesn't want to send the tea, but Ben says they can't make tea anyway without gas. Gus reveals he has an Eccles cake, a type of pastry. Ben asks why Gus didn't bring one for him, and Gus says he didn't think Ben would want one. They can't send up just one Eccles cake, Ben says. He asks Gus to get a plate.

Gus stops and asks if he can keep the Eccles cake. Whoever's upstairs doesn't know they have it. Ben says "That's not the point" and tells Gus to send up the cake. Gus leaves to get a plate. Ben finds a packet of crisps or chips in Gus's bag. When Gus returns Ben asks where he got the crisps. Gus asks where Ben found them, and Ben says "You're playing a dirty game!" Gus claims he was saving the crisps to eat with beer. Ben threatens, "I'll remember this." He orders Gus to put everything on the plate. The men pile the food onto the plate. Then the box goes back up without the plate or food.

Ben, disgruntled, says they'll have to wait until the box comes back down. He puts on his tie and shoulder holster, telling Gus to get ready. Gus puts on his own tie and holster, then asks Ben "What's going on here?" They pause.

The Speaking Tube

Ben asks what Gus means. Gus asks how the building could have been a café. The gas stove only has three rings, Gus says, which can't cook much food. Ben irritably says the stove explains the café's slow service. As Ben puts on his waistcoat, Gus asks what happens when the men aren't there. He speculates the menus must have come down the dumbwaiter for years with no food coming back up.

The box drops again, and Gus brings out a note. This time the order's for two complex Greek dishes. Ben tells Gus to send up the plate of food. Gus puts the plate in the box and yells a list of the plate's contents up the hatch. Ben adds the half-pint bottle of milk. The food goes up, and Ben tells Gus not to shout. Ben thinks they've sent up enough food for the moment and they'll be called any minute now for their job.

Gus complains about the lack of tea and biscuits. Ben says "Eating makes you lazy" and criticizes Gus for slacking off on the job. Ben points out Gus's gun isn't even polished. Gus polishes his revolver on the sheet and wonders where the café's cook is. Maybe there's another kitchen, Gus speculates. "Of course there is," Ben says. He asks if Gus has any idea how complex it is to make a Greek dish.

Gus sticks his revolver in his holster. Gus can't wait to get out of the house and wonders why Wilson hasn't gotten in touch. Checking the ammunition in his gun, Gus says he and Ben are reliable employees. Gus adds he can't wait until the evening's job is over. He hopes whoever they kill tonight won't "get excited." There's a brief silence.

The box descends again. This time the note requests a Chinese dish. Both men are bewildered. The packet of tea they sent up is also in the box. Ben wonders anxiously why the tea was sent back. After a brief pause Ben says he and Gus should tell whoever's upstairs they can't send up the food. Gus looks for a pencil to write a note but notices a speaking tube hanging from the right wall of the hatch. He asks Ben what it is.

Ben says the men should have been using the speaking tube all along. Ben notices a whistle beside the tube and tells Gus to blow into it. This alerts the people upstairs someone wants to speak. Gus, confused, blows into the whistle. Ben tells him to speak. Gus shouts "The larder's bare!" into the speaking tube.

Ben grabs the tube from Gus and begins speaking into it respectfully, as if to an authority. Ben apologizes and says he's sent up all the food they have. The person on the other end of the speaking tube makes unheard remarks to Ben, who listens and responds politely. Ben tells Gus the food they sent up was stale, sour, and moldy. Ben agrees to a request the unheard speaker makes. He hangs up the tube, excitedly telling Gus the speaker said to light the kettle—"Not put on the kettle! Not light the gas!" Gus asks how they can light the kettle without gas anyway. Ben says the speaker wanted a cup of tea. Gus complains he's wanted tea all night himself.

As Ben wonders what to do, Gus gripes "What are we supposed to drink? What about us?" Ben sits on his bed and doesn't answer. Gus says he and Ben are thirsty and hungry but have to serve someone else. Gus wonders why he and Ben sent up all their food anyway. "Who knows what he's got upstairs?" Gus speculates. He lists food items he thinks are upstairs, pausing between listing items. Gus says "They do all right" upstairs and thinks the situation is "past a joke." He notices Ben doesn't look well and asks what's wrong.

Ben says it's almost time for their job. He needs to give Gus instructions. Gus points out they always follow the same procedure. But Ben repeats "Let me give you your instructions."

The Instructions and the Call

Gus sits beside Ben on the bed. Ben states instructions in short phrases, which Gus automatically repeats after him. When the men get the call Gus will stand behind the door. If someone knocks, Gus won't answer the door. But no one will knock. A victim will come in. Gus will shut the door behind the victim without revealing his presence. The victim will approach Ben without knowing Gus is there. Ben will take out his gun. The victim will stop in his tracks. If he turns around he'll see Gus.

Gus thinks Ben left out a step. When does Gus take out his gun? Ben says Gus takes his gun out after he's closed the door. Gus points out Ben's never left this step out before. Ben continues stating instructions as Gus repeats them. When the victim sees Gus behind him and Ben in front of him, he'll feel "uncertain" and "uneasy." He'll look at the two men. No one will say a word. They pause. Gus asks what they'll do if the victim's a girl. Ben says "Exactly the same." After another pause, Gus asks if he's sure they'll do nothing different. "Exactly the same," Ben repeats.

Gus gets up, excuses himself, and walks out the door. The lavatory chain pulls again without flushing. Gus reenters the room, pacing and thinking. He slowly asks "Why did he send us matches if he knew there was no gas?" When Ben says nothing, Gus repeats the question into Ben's ear. Gus asks who sent the matches. Who's upstairs?

Ben asks "What's one thing to do with another?" and tries to read the paper. Gus repeats he's asked Ben a question. Who moved in when the café owners moved out? Ben warns Gus to shut up.

Excited, Gus says "I told you before who owned this place." Ben hits him on the shoulder twice. Gus asks why the owner is playing games with them. Haven't they been through tests years ago and proven themselves? Haven't they always done their job? As Gus speaks he advances on Ben.

The box suddenly drops, accompanied this time by a whistle. Gus grabs the note in the box. It's an order for scampi. Gus blows on the whistle and yells into the tube "We've got nothing left!" Ben yanks the tube from Gus and slaps him across the chest, yelling at him to shut up.

Ben hangs up the tube and retreats to his bed. The box goes up, and the men's eyes meet quickly. Gus returns to his bed. The men look at each other as the serving hatch falls back into place.

Ben looks at the paper and remarks on a story without sharing the details. Between pauses, he says "What about that, eh?" and "Have you ever heard such a thing?" Gus and Ben dully repeat the same dialogue they exchanged earlier about news stories. Ben puts the paper down and fixes his revolver in the holster.

Gus exits through the door, claiming he's getting a glass of water. Ben dusts off his clothes. The whistle in the speaking tube blows. Ben listens through the tube. He nods and confirms "We're ready." Ben repeats the instructions he's given through the tube—their victim has arrived and they'll use "the normal method."

Ben calls for Gus and combs his hair. The lavatory flushes. The door on the right opens. Ben turns, aiming his revolver at the left-hand door. Gus stumbles into the room through the right-hand door without his jacket, tie, waistcoat, holster, or gun. His arms are at his sides. The two men stare at each other.

Analysis

Setting the Scene: Trapped and Struggling Characters

The basement setting signals to the audience the characters are trapped in one room. Harold Pinter's plays frequently evoke claustrophobia, the fear of being stuck in an enclosed space. From the beds, the audience can tell Ben and Gus have been waiting a long time, at least overnight. The stage is set for one of the play's overriding questions—how much longer will the men have to wait?

The doors on the left and right give the option of exits. The audience isn't sure what's behind the doors. They later learn Ben and Gus aren't quite sure either. The characters never solve the mystery of what happens elsewhere in the house. The doors represent the uncertainty surrounding the characters' actions. The door on the right isn't used until the final moments of the play, and the drama's outcome hints at violence behind the door.

Before the dialogue begins, audiences learn a lot about the characters. Gus spends time tying his shoes, an action reflective of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot. Beckett's character Estragon begins the play trying and failing to take off his shoes. Gus, like Estragon, is the less powerful member of the duo onstage. Gus is first seen hoarding his essential items and studying what he'll need for survival. Both items eventually fail him. The cigarettes are a way to pass the time. But Gus runs out, and he can't get more. He hopes the matches will help him make a cup of tea. But there's no gas in the house and he can't light the stove. Despite Gus's preparations he ends up powerless.

Ben, on the other hand, already simmers with irritation. He slams the paper down twice before he speaks. The sudden aggressive gesture indicates he's habitually impatient with Gus. He and Gus make eye contact after each item Gus examines—the matches and the cigarettes. Gus is silently alerting Ben to his needs and desires. While Gus wants to smoke and have a cup of tea, Ben has different expectations. When Ben finally speaks he makes an animal-like cry, "Kaw!" designed to get attention. Ben's authoritative voice shows he expects to be listened to when he talks.

The script builds several silences into the characters' initial action sequence. The silences mimic the quiet but fraught state the characters occupy. They're anxious about what's to come. Sounds offstage, like the repeated pulls of the lavatory chain, add to the sound and texture of the play. The chain pulls, but the toilet doesn't flush, indicating the appliance doesn't work the way it should. This sound alerts the audience something larger is amiss.

Slow Revelations of Violence and Class Anxiety

The first dialogue the men exchange, commentary about the first newspaper story, will recur toward the end of the play. But they'll repeat the dialogue without adding the details of the story. Are the men reacting to a news item, or simply having a perpetual, unchanging conversation? The repetition implies the two men have had a similar dialogue with similar responses before. They'll probably have it again.

As in many absurdist plays, the repetition of details erodes a sense of progress. Plot and dialogue don't move forward with the momentum audiences expect. The characters don't learn or grow. Their set doesn't change. They're stuck in stasis. The idea of being trapped in time, like being trapped in a physical location, increases the terrifying sense of claustrophobia. Ben and Gus later reveal they don't know who owns the building they're in or what the building's purpose is. They expect a call, but they have no idea when. As the characters struggle to operate without structure or stability, audiences realize how frequently people rely on stability or a normal plot in their lives.

The first newspaper story Ben reads introduces the violence and death in the world outside the basement. The man in the story attempted to take matters into his own hands. But he was crushed by the larger, more powerful force of the truck. It's a cautionary tale about taking risks in the face of greater power. Each character's response to the story foreshadows his actions and reactions in the play. Gus expresses alarm and doubt. Ben believes what he hears, just as he'll later do what he's told.

Silence follows their initial dialogue. Whereas a pause in a Pinter play represents a threat or moment of tension, silence reflects a charged crisis point. Characters make decisions during silences—they may emerge entirely changed. In this case Gus is about to begin questioning Ben. But Ben immediately deflects Gus's question by telling him to make tea. The partners' relationship reflects a clear class hierarchy. Working-class servants prepare tea for members of the upper classes. Ben, the senior partner, treats Gus like a servant.

Gus instantly shows he feels like a second-class citizen with Ben and resents being made to feel this way. Gus's admiration of the crockery—dishes and silverware—feels innocent at first. The audience can tell he pays close attention to his surroundings. Gus notices the fancy items upper-class people like the owner of the house can access. When Ben says "What do you want plates for?" he implies the silverware isn't laid out for Ben and Gus. The more Gus contemplates how he and Ben are treated differently than the home's mysterious residents, the angrier he'll become.

Ben's silent actions during Gus's monologues indicate increasing danger. The audience is never sure when Ben will speak or if he'll be upset. They wonder if Gus will say something he shouldn't. They keep listening to find out.

Then a few more curious details appear. Gus introduces the mysterious "he." The audience knows "he" provides utensils for Ben and Gus to eat. In some way the two men are at this unknown person's mercy. Gus wants to control his environment by bringing something to eat with his tea. Ben reminds Gus the environment is out of their control.

When Ben says "Time's getting on," he ramps up the tension onstage. The withheld information becomes a source of anxiety. The two men are waiting for something to happen, but the audience isn't sure what. Whenever Gus wants to ask a question, Ben cuts him off.

The second newspaper story delivers more direct violence. This time the details startle both men. Gus will later reveal the partners' last "job" was a woman whose death still bothers him. Here he's surprised and alarmed by a young girl's involvement in killing a cat. Ben is more outraged by the immorality of the crime itself.

Again the men's responses indicate their character. Ben has a strict idea of how the world should work, and he disapproves when distant events don't conform to his view. Gus has a similar skepticism and disgust about the world. But he wants to investigate. He wants to learn the truth. Gus is the first to suspect the newspaper altered a significant detail in the story. Then he moves on to analyze his immediate surroundings. He's curious about the broken lavatory and the cricket poster.

Absurdist Features: Alienation, Doubt, and Questionable Reality

When Gus wants details about their task, Ben shuts him down. Ben thinks Gus should accept the uncertainty of reality rather than probing for more information. "He" could get in touch any time. Nothing's the matter with the broken lavatory. Their world simply is the way it is.

Gus's curiosity isn't sated. He suspects the room's subpar state reflects the partners' social standing. His desire for a window indicates a desire to see beyond his own reality. The absence of light signals the men's alienation. They enter a dark room, unable to orient themselves to their surroundings. Darkness also indicates obscurity—someone's deliberately keeping information from Ben and Gus.

After a pause, Gus declares he wants something different. He'd like to learn about and assess his environment by looking at the scenery. Gus knows the absurdity of the characters' situation and is seeking a way out.

Ben doesn't know why Gus wants a better life. All things considered, Ben says, the conditions of their job are good. Ben reveals how he really copes with the alienating nature and unanswered questions of the men's work. He has mastered boredom. By busying himself with hobbies like woodworking, Ben can ignore the fact the men spend most of their days waiting. He presents another possible solution to the absurdity of human existence. He simply finds a task to pass the time. Gus's questions remind him of all he's trying to forget.

After Gus is honest about his discomfort, there's a silence. This silence indicates a subtle change in the men's dynamic. Gus knows his questions are making Ben uncomfortable, but he persists.

Gus moves on to doubt the motives and methods of the still unnamed "he." The audience discovers "he" controls Ben and Gus's comfort, convenience, schedule, and other aspects of their lives. Gus's pause after asking "You did stop, didn't you?" indicates the stop itself may have been significant. Even though he knows the car stopped, Gus wants confirmation. As senior partner Ben controls much of Gus's reality and environment. Gus is challenging this control.

Ben knows what Gus is doing. Knowledge is a form of power over another person, and Ben had knowledge Gus didn't. He knew what time the men had to be there. Gus's question "Too early for what?" means Gus is starting to ask about the work itself. Gus can sense something's off. Ben counters Gus's attack by making the junior partner doubt his own senses. After Gus mentions his bed sheets may not be clean, Ben asks him how he knows this and tries to draw attention back to the newspaper. Gus keeps inquiring about reality.

The setting of Birmingham and the mention of the Villa, a recognizable sports organization, anchor the play in the audience's world. The characters onstage don't come from an alternate universe. To a British audience in the 1960s Ben and Gus could be their neighbors. But the men are uniquely isolated within their larger setting. Ben and Gus's dialogue implies the pair once had freedom to attend sporting events between jobs. Now they're too busy. The invisible authorities are cracking down on the men's schedule and job performance. As Ben says, "Things have tightened up." The word tightened implies an unseen hand at work, tightening the screws and adding menace.

Meanwhile Gus continues to peel back the layers of his reality, hoping to learn the truth. His debate with Ben over the disputed penalty shows the two men witnessed the same reality but disagree about its details. After a pause Gus moves on to a more risky line of questioning. Gus is trying to remember which city the game was in. Ben's line "Don't make me laugh" indicates he thinks Gus's attempt to figure out real-world details is ridiculous. Gus, according to Ben, should just accept reality as unfathomable. Ben's automatic, mumbled response each team is "playing away" doesn't make sense. How can every single team be playing an away game? Ben's using the technique of evasion to keep Gus from honing in on more details.

The pause after Gus's increasingly anxious "When's he going to get in touch?" reminds audiences the men are still waiting. Pinter keeps both characters and audience members nervous.

Power Imbalance

The envelope changes the atmosphere onstage. The drama isn't just the two men subtly competing for power. An unseen third party could threaten them both. Ben's upper hand in the competition becomes clearer. He insists Gus take the risk of facing the unknown. Gus repeats "Who, me?" as he slowly realizes Ben will put him in danger if necessary. The episode with the envelope also marks the first appearance of a gun. Once Pinter introduces the weapon, the violence is no longer an abstraction. It's an inevitability. Someone onstage will either point or face a gun before the play's end.

For the moment Ben and Gus are stuck in stasis. They repeat the same three brief lines to each other—"They'll come in handy," "Yes," and "Won't they?"—about the matches. The quick interchange, like their dialogue about the newspaper, implies the men perpetually have the same conversations. Gus repeats thoughts even when they're no longer truths. He says "We haven't got any [matches]" even after getting 12 matches in an envelope.

Gus's behavior around the matches reveals his mindset. He constantly sees a shortage of goods. Ben says he "cadges," or begs, for matches all the time. Gus is protective of whatever he's able to scrounge, and he holds onto it.

The fight about the precise wording of a phrase with a clear meaning—"light the gas" or "light the kettle"—has a comic element. The intensity of the argument doesn't match the seemingly minor nature of the disagreement. Gus wants to describe what's really happening. The match lights the gas. It's a logical, useful statement. Ben wants to use the "right" or proper expression. "Light the kettle" is what most people say. It's a socially acceptable statement. The men describe the same experience, but they have different versions of the experience. Each man's reality is informed by his worldview.

The argument enforces, for the first time, Ben's insistence on Gus's obedience. When Gus tries to defend his own worldview, Ben grows increasingly angry. Ben's ominous line "When did you last see your mother?" suggests Gus's work has deprived him of connections to a past and a family. While the dialogue pauses and the men stare at each other, the audience contemplates the line's implications. Ben is taking over the job of being Gus's parent or guardian, telling him what he can and can't say.

When Ben says "I'm only looking after your interests," he introduces a new dimension to the argument. Ben has more control over the pair's situation. He acts as a buffer between Gus and malevolent, unknown outside forces. He implies Gus has to learn how to behave correctly and properly, or there will be consequences. What are the consequences? The audience doesn't know. After Gus takes Ben's hands from his throat, he pauses to consider what Ben's authority is protecting him from.

Onstage several elements work together at once. The explosion of physical violence is both unexpected and frightening. Gus's attempt to light the matches provides comedy. The wordplay in the pair's debate evokes the back-and-forth banter of comic duos like Abbott and Costello. In the mid-20th century Bud Abbott and Lou Costello's popular style of stage comedy featuring slapstick action and rapid-fire dialogue made them Hollywood stars. But even in comedies there's a power struggle. Each person wants to be right. When Ben says "Put on the bloody kettle," inadvertently using Gus's expression, he realizes he's carelessly ceded some of his power to Gus.

Then Gus wonders "who it'll be tonight," and the atmosphere shifts again. The silence after his statement indicates Gus's question has gone too far. He's imagined the person on the other end of the gun. He's not supposed to question the logistics of his job, let alone the ethics. The audience grows uneasy. The actors shift from physical comedy to a reminder of who their characters really are—murderers for hire. The vague nature of Gus's wording adds to the unease. He asks "who it's going to be," not who the two are going to kill. Even he doesn't want to get too close to the gruesome details.

The Invisible Third Parties—the Boss and the Victim

What leads Gus to start probing? Ben's statements suggest the two have been working together for a long time and Gus never asked questions before. Ben's refusal to engage Gus's questions reveals how the men cope with their job. They don't think about it too much. They follow orders they don't understand and murder people they don't know anything about. If they were to contemplate what they're really doing, the job might become impossible. Through the characters' evasions Pinter exposes the fundamental absurdity and tragedy at the situation's heart.

The silence after Gus asks "who it's going to be" means he has to accept he won't get an answer. But he has sealed his fate by opening his mouth. Once Gus is gone, Ben checks his revolver for ammunition. He reminds the audience physical violence and death are always right around the corner.

Once Ben names Wilson, the pair's invisible boss, Wilson becomes more real to the audience. Wilson controls whether the two men onstage have tea, beds, heat, gasoline, and food. He's not reliable; he won't always show up to a job.

Gus notices how much power Wilson has to shape their environment. He sees how much the two men surrender to serve Wilson. As Gus compares Wilson's wealth as the possible owner of the house with his own powerlessness to make a cup of tea, the contrast starts to bother him. Gus thinks he and Ben deserve more than they're receiving. He slowly exposes the class anxieties simmering under the play's surface.

Larger secrets of the men's work come to the forefront too. Gus observes how isolated they are, remarking "there's never a soul in sight" at the houses they visit. His pause indicates he's beginning to put details together. The secrecy of their work requires premeditated planning beyond the two men. When are all the houses emptied? Who's arranging for the neighbors to be gone? The suggestion of other forces adds an extra layer of mystery and menace.

Gus finds their wealthy mob boss disconnected from the working-class world in which he and Ben operate. He tries to bond with Ben by saying he finds Wilson hard to talk to. But Ben reinforces his own position of authority and shuts Gus down. After a pause, Gus reveals he hasn't accepted Ben's silent request for him to leave Wilson alone. Gus still plans to address Wilson directly.

Then audiences see why Gus started to ask so many questions. The change in Gus's demeanor is connected to the murder of the girl the previous night. When Gus says "That girl," Ben sees where Gus is going. His curiosity challenges Ben's approach of shutting up and following orders.

Ben snaps unexpectedly over an insignificant, innocent-seeming question Gus asks. But Ben's anger is about something else. He interprets Gus's challenges as critique. He's appalled Gus has the nerve to question his personal behavior. Gus doesn't respect Ben's authority enough to assume he has his reasons, the way Ben assumes Wilson has his reasons. And Gus may have picked up on the fact Ben's reading the paper to avoid discussing their work. The question threatens Ben's attitude of distance and avoidance, the attitude that helps him survive.

Gus is struggling to survive himself. He's bothered by the larger implications of their murders. The grotesque image of the dead woman's body spreading with "a looser texture" puts murder at the forefront of the audience's minds. Pinter leaves the most shocking elements of his plays offstage. The play addresses the everyday moments surrounding monumental action and violence. It shows how people react, what they remember, and how they perpetuate violent power dynamics in day-to-day behavior.

The audience learns more about the larger forces shaping Ben and Gus's actions. Gus's rhetorical question "How many jobs have we done?" implies the two have worked together for a long time. They're employed by a large, unnamed "organization." Like the dumbwaiter, the organization is a mechanical and impersonal force. Ben and Gus are caught up in the organization as cogs in the machine, but they have no control.

A Mysterious Force Controlling the Characters' Destiny

Just as Ben brings up the organization, another outside threat of "something descending" intrudes. Both men are instantly on guard. Their reaction shows the fear and anxiety they feel in each moment. Gus, as the junior employee, knows he'll have to put himself at risk first.

The characters and audience never learn who's sending the orders down or why. Is it Wilson, the mob boss and possible owner of the house? Is it the staff of the closed café, expecting a cook to prepare the meals? Is it someone else with an entirely different purpose? What do they expect? The mystery makes the plot developments both comical and frightening.

Each man responds based on his own ideas about authority. Gus's nerves and impatience kick into high gear. Ben thinks of a simple, logical explanation. At least his explanation seems logical on the surface. The former café changed ownership too quickly to stop its regular business. But this explanation produces an equally absurd image. Customers and café staff wait upstairs for food that will never arrive.

Ben accepts the strangeness of the situation. Gus doesn't. His questions escalate from curious inquiries to demands. When he asks "WHO'S GOT IT NOW?" it's urgent. He needs to know who owns the building. The silence reveals the question's significance. Whoever owns the building has Ben and Gus's fate in their hands. On the upper floors of the house, the invisible owners are literally and figuratively above the men in the basement.

In the short, nonverbal exchange that follows, Ben shows why he wields authority so dramatically over Gus. Ben fears jeopardizing his unseen leadership. He shows real fear when Gus looks up the hatch. Gus promises to stay silent, but Ben still doesn't want him investigating.

Both men are relieved when they decide to do something familiar to them—follow instructions. Their life is easier when an authority defines their task. This decision leads to the comic situational irony of the men delivering all their available food. Ben and Gus can't possibly fill the exact orders. Most of the food they do have is old or stale. They have no idea who's at the receiving end. But they try their hardest to meet the impossible demands anyway. When they prepare the plate and the dumbwaiter box goes up without it, their reaction provides pure physical comedy.

Other details add a vague sense of danger. Ben seems to believe the two men are being watched. Although no one else is around to see how much food the men have, Ben insists for Gus to send up all their food. Gus is confused, since no one's looking over their shoulder. But as Ben says, "That's not the point." Their job is to comply with authority no matter what. If they give whatever they have, they're good employees. They show willingness to sacrifice for the work at hand. Because the two men have no power, they get to keep nothing. Ben senses the rules of the game are irrational, but they still have to play.

When Gus tries to hide his own secret bag of crisps, Ben accuses him of "playing a dirty game." Gus is seeing how much he can get away with. But Ben knows Gus has no possibility of winning. Anything hidden, however minor, becomes a troubling secret.

Gus thinks the invisible people upstairs have their own secrets. He asks "What's going on here?" and pauses, indicating he hasn't spoken his mind. Does Gus feel someone's deliberately tormenting them? Does he think Ben knows more than he's letting on? Gus points out other unsettling details—the inadequate stove, the lack of cooks. Something feels off, but he isn't sure what.

Gus asks the big question, the one Ben wants him to avoid: "What happens when we're not here?" He sees the absurd, hopeless situation of a nonfunctional café where people still order food. Gus pictures the café as a place where time is suspended, the way it is for the two men in the basement. Orders could be sent downstairs for years with no results.

Gus is making two mistakes, according to Ben. He's asking about the reasons behind their orders, and he's speculating about the unknown. The dumbwaiter comes to represent the unseen world of the powerful and wealthy. Gus notes the Greek dishes are "pretty high class." The food orders become more upscale, and to the characters more unfamiliar.

Ben, like the dumbwaiter, represents an increasing threat. He operates with a single-minded focus. He stays silent as Gus speaks, dressing for his job. There's authority in Ben's silence, since Gus is forced to wait for Ben's response and guess at his thoughts. He scolds Gus about acceptable modes of behavior, telling him not to shout. He complains about Gus's unprofessional appearance and presentation. The audience senses Gus is in danger he doesn't fully understand. Gus is thinking about the past and the future of the café, unaware he's trapped in the present moment.

Wilson becomes more of a prominent offstage presence as the anxiety mounts. Wilson's silence speaks for him—it's the ultimate use of power. Ben knows they'll receive the call "any minute now," as Gus reminds himself of his value to Wilson, repeating "We've never let him down." Another unsettling offstage presence is the men's unknown victim. Gus hopes the person they kill won't "get excited." But he's feeling more and more like a victim himself.

Then the two men realize they've somehow displeased the authority above them. Ben becomes visibly nervous when the tea's sent back. His silence makes the audience fill in his questions. What do the people upstairs want? What can they possibly expect? What did Ben and Gus do wrong? Ben and Gus seem to be losing a game without knowing the rules. The speaking tube adds a new dimension to the game. Now voices—words—come into play. Pinter believed language often stifled communication, and the speaking tube is an example. The voice in the speaking tube doesn't clarify the two men's situation or answer any lingering questions. It only makes matters worse.

Both men speak through the tube in coded, deliberate language. Gus postures defensively and aggressively, yelling "The larder's bare!" Ben apologizes and speaks politely as if to a superior. Ben senses the person upstairs needs to be handled delicately and gracefully. The pacing of his one-sided dialogue is deliberately slow. Each silence makes Gus and the audience more apprehensive. What's the person on the other end telling Ben?

Then Ben methodically tells Gus how he failed to meet unstated expectations. Ben and Gus lost a game they didn't know they were playing. The men sent all their food, and it wasn't good enough. The situation highlights the fundamental hopelessness the absurdists found in life. No matter how hard people try, they fail. No one can win.

Gus Approaches His Fate as Victim

Here Ben and Gus start transitioning into the roles of assailant and victim. Ben triumphantly reports the person upstairs said "light the kettle." The invisible authority speaks Ben's language. While Ben tries to figure out how to please the person upstairs, Gus starts to rebel. Gus's monologue beginning with "What are we supposed to drink?" grows increasingly bitter. He pauses as he imagines the fancy food the people upstairs are enjoying. They didn't need the two men's food at all, Gus thinks. There is no restaurant. The rich people upstairs are just mocking and tormenting them, putting them through their paces to see how much they'll take.

Gus gets more indignant with each pause. The cadence of the speech reflects his growing rage. He repeats "he wants a cup of tea," disgusted at the invisible authority's indulgence at their expense. The situation's turned serious; it's "past a joke" to Gus. He's truly angry about how he has been treated.

Ben doesn't respond to agree or disagree, at least not verbally. But his silence indicates he's internally shifting gears. He makes another move to establish dominance, telling Gus to repeat the "instructions" they both know perfectly well.

The rhythm of the automatic repetition accelerates the dialogue. It's a tonal shift in the script. The repetition resembles music—the sound is just as important as the words. Audiences have to listen carefully to figure out what's being said and who it's referring to. The pronouns you and I even confuse Gus occasionally. The misunderstandings and the interplay between the two characters resemble the banter in a comic duo's routine. But these characters are rehearsing instructions for how to kill someone. The tone is light, but the words are dark—the contrast evokes the uneasy feeling of comic menace. Irving Wardle's 1958 article "Comedy of Menace" uses wordplay on the comedy of manners genre to describe Pinter's earlier works.

Ben's error at first seems genuine. He forgot to add the step where Gus takes out his gun. But Gus notices "You've never missed that out before." The omission foreshadows Gus's eventual fate as victim, a fate Ben may know even before he gets the official word.

As the instructions continue, the two men describe themselves closing in on a victim. The sense of gathering danger spreads to the audience. Gus's pause indicates he hasn't stopped thinking about the effects of their actions on others. He wonders about the victim's humanity. What if she resembles the girl they killed the night before? When Gus asks "We don't do anything different?" he's giving Ben one last chance to consider the victim. Ben doesn't take it.

The extended silence and Gus's pacing warn audiences there's trouble ahead. The characters are still trapped. The lavatory's still broken. Things continue the way they always have. Meanwhile Gus is closing in on the true source of the conflict.

Gus's first question after the extended silence unravels the web of mystery. What does "he"—the person upstairs—want from them? Did he send matches with violent intent? Were the matches part of a game? Ben's evasion and unease might indicate he knows the answers to Gus's questions. Is he really on Gus's side?

The tension comes to a boiling point. Audiences feel Gus railing against his lack of power. While silence indicates power, vicious, rapid-fire questions indicate anxiety and powerlessness. Gus thinks Wilson is the owner of the house, and Wilson is using the two men as pawns in a game. More importantly, Gus sees the futility of trying to prove his worth. He's put in the effort and completed every procedure. But he hasn't earned respect. He doesn't have control over his own life. He's still being tested. He reminds Ben they have played by the rules and done everything the authorities asked of them. If complete obedience doesn't get them out of their trap, what will? What's the point of obedience?

The audience expects a response from Ben. But instead the dumbwaiter's whistle sounds independently for the first time. The whistle may be an indication someone upstairs heard Gus. The dumbwaiter speaks with an audible voice, inserting itself into the conversation and continuing the game.

Gus wants to put a stop to the game for good. He's out of patience. The men have "NOTHING"—no leverage, no assets, no way to buy time. Gus gives in. Ben interrupts, "savagely" according to the stage directions, to remind Gus he can't simply surrender. His "I'm warning you!" indicates Gus doesn't know what's at stake.

The Final Revelation: No Way Out

The next silences simmer with fear. Each time Ben and Gus hear the dumbwaiter, they wonder about the person upstairs. What's motivating the invisible person? What will the dumbwaiter send next? When the men's eyes meet, they share alarm.

Then Ben tries to engage the two in dialogue. This shift is surprising—throughout the play Gus has been chatty while Ben's quiet. Now their roles switch. Gus takes on the more powerful role of the silent partner. Each pause adds to the anxiety of what Gus is thinking. When Gus finally speaks, his voice is low. He's lost his energy and desire to play along.

The men repeat the same lines they said at the very beginning, without a news story this time. They're resigned to an eternally similar script, over and over. Gus tried to break the cycle by rebelling against authority, but he failed. The rhythm of the dialogue mimics the repeated instructions earlier in the play—a set of rote, repeated guidelines. Even the characters' small talk is dictated by pattern and rules.

But their dynamic has permanently shifted. Gus finally exits to meet his own needs of hunger and thirst. He no longer asks permission. Ben "brushes dust off his clothes and shoes" immediately after Gus leaves, as if he knows the call's coming. And he's right. The audience, accustomed to waiting along with the characters, might be surprised the call actually comes. Unlike Beckett's unseen Godot, the boss Wilson appears in a sense onstage.

The precision and analytical language of Ben's response, asserting "the normal method to be employed," indicates a respect for procedure. Ben seems comforted by the familiarity. But his last-minute grooming and adjusting of his jacket show his nervousness. The audience is nervous too. Will a third character finally show up? Will they ever find out who has been upstairs?

In a final twist Gus himself is the victim. According to the stage directions Gus is "stooping, his arms at his sides." He's resigned and defenseless. He enters from the right-hand door, which hasn't yet been used in the play. Several questions remain unanswered. Was Wilson or someone else waiting for Gus? Was Gus supposed to be the victim all along? Did Ben already know? And why was Gus, who looked desperately for a way out, sent to be killed? Is he suffering a penalty for questioning orders? Pinter deliberately lets the audience wonder. He opens up a larger question about the absurdity and hopelessness of a life bound by sometimes-inexplicable rules and guidelines. Is it ever possible to win the dumbwaiter's game?

The Dumb Waiter Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Ben and Gus comment on newspaper stories.

Rising Action

2 The men receive an envelope full of matches.

3 Gus wonders about the girl they killed.

4 The men get their first order from the dumbwaiter.

5 Ben speaks to the person upstairs.

6 Ben and Gus repeat their instructions.

Climax

7 Gus demands to know who's upstairs.

Falling Action

8 Ben gets the call from Wilson.

Resolution

9 Gus appears to be Ben's victim.

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