The Dumb Waiter | Study Guide

Harold Pinter

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The Dumb Waiter | Quotes


It's down here in black and white.


Ben responds to Gus's claim a violent news story is "unbelievable." Ben thinks if the story's printed in the newspaper it must have really happened. He trusts the information he gets from outside sources. When he gets the dumbwaiter's food orders later in the play, he'll show a similar willingness to believe what authorities tell him.


I want to ask you something.


Gus introduces the dynamic present throughout the play. He's seeking information, but he never gets answers to his questions. Ben responds with anger, dismissal, or redirection. The audience is looking for information along with Gus. They feel the anxiety of not knowing, which adds to the play's creeping sense of unease.


It could be any time.


Characters in absurdist theater may lose a sense of time. They may not know how much time they've spent repeating a certain action or remaining in a certain place. For instance, Ben and Gus are waiting indefinitely for a call that could arrive "any time." They're constantly on edge, and they can't relax. Even if the call never comes, they'll still wait. Without a clear end time in mind, they're stuck in stasis and anxiety.


Don't you ever get a bit fed up?


Gus doesn't accept the limitations or frustrations of his job. He feels he's kept in the dark, literally and figuratively, all the time. He enters houses when it's still dark outside, and he gets almost no information about what he's doing. Yet he's expected to be constantly ready to work. When Gus announces he's "fed up" with waiting in limbo, he issues his first direct challenge to the authority represented by Wilson, the dumbwaiter, and Ben. This challenge provides a main source of conflict in the play.


If I say go and light the kettle I mean go and light the kettle.


Characters in Pinter plays rarely say exactly what they mean. Pinter felt language often obscures rather than enables honest communication. For instance, Ben and Gus argue over the precise wording of a phrase. Ben insists the proper wording is "light the kettle." But his phrasing doesn't make the meaning any clearer. Instead he wants to intimidate Gus into accepting his authority.


Who clears up after we're gone?


Gus imagines the possible consequences of the two men's work. He speculates about the laborers who will clean up after Ben and Gus murder someone. Gus envisions the catastrophic effects their work can have, picturing a dead body left with no one to clean its remains. His thoughts veer into moral territory—are they doing something wrong? Who might be affected?


We'd better send something up.


This statement marks a turning point in the play. Ben and Gus turn from passive waiters into active agents affecting the play's outcome. They can't explain or fill the orders from the dumbwaiter, but they see the orders as commands they have to follow. Just as in their jobs as hit men, they work to please an invisible authority.


What's going on here?


Gus senses something's off about their situation. If the house was formerly a café, why doesn't it have a working stove? Is someone taking advantage of the two men somehow? Gus senses a larger plan at work, something more than coincidence "going on." He feels Ben might even be involved. Once characters become aware of their situation's absurdity and start searching for clarity, the absurdist play takes on a different, more poignant dimension. Characters start to seek escape or rescue. Gus will spend the rest of the play looking for escape hatches.


Yes, but what happens when we're not here?


As Gus continues to speculate about consequences, he gets to the heart of the play's unanswered questions. Who lives in the house? Who's sending down orders from the dumbwaiter? Why did Wilson send the men matches? Nothing is certain, and the characters feel distanced from reality. They're in a world they know nothing about. Many absurdist plays feature characters with no sense of place, confused about where they are. Though Ben and Gus are in a recognizable world, they still don't understand their surroundings.


I feel like I've been here years.


As Gus waits for a call, he loses his sense of the passage of time. A day stretches into years. He's trapped in a basement room, but he's also trapped in one moment in time. The play encourages audiences to imagine Ben and Gus's plight if they're stuck there forever. The characters lose the continuity of their existence—they have no past, present, or future. Unmoored from context, the characters' sense of self may disappear.


We send him up all we've got and he's not satisfied.


Gus's frustrations extend beyond the invisible authority's refusal of their food. He's working to satisfy supervisors who can never be satisfied. The people sending down orders will never be pleased. It's a thankless, pointless job, but he has to continue—he has no choice. As Gus realizes the tragedy of his situation, he also senses escape will be impossible.


They do all right, don't worry about that.


Gus wonders why he and Ben sent their food to the upper floors of the house. The "they" Gus pictures are the house's residents or café patrons, who he imagines to be wealthy. He thinks about the measures he and Ben took to please the wealthy at their personal cost. His statement illustrates the class anxiety pervading the play.


Let me give you your instructions.


Ben recites the steps of the hit men's job in a rhythmic pattern, one he's repeated over and over again. The list of "instructions"—clear steps to follow—provides safety and stability. But it also traps the men in clearly defined roles. The sense of encroaching threat comes from both the implications of the instructions and their rapid-fire delivery. The instructions unfold as a predetermined fate, unable to be changed. As they progress, the hypothetical victim slowly begins to resemble Ben and Gus—feeling "uncertain" and "uneasy."


Nobody says a word.


Ben's final instruction illustrates the significance of silence in the play. The silence is an intimidation technique. The unknown victim is trapped, just as Ben and Gus are. The two main characters await instructions from their own mostly silent supervisor Wilson and the silent dumbwaiter. Like their victim, they're anxiously awaiting what's next.


What's he playing these games for?


Gus demands a reason behind Wilson's manipulative "games." He believes their boss Wilson owns the house and is deliberately taunting Ben and Gus with orders from the dumbwaiter. One staple of absurdist theater is unanswered questions, and Gus's question is unanswered here. The audience and characters never learn if the "games" have a larger purpose.

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