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The Dumb Waiter | Study Guide

Harold Pinter

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The Dumb Waiter | Themes


The Threat of Violence

Harold Pinter shows how spoken and unspoken threats of violence can be more frightening than actions. The play itself contains little onstage physical violence. But there's a simmering electric undercurrent of anxiety, implying violence and death could happen at any time. Even ordinary-seeming interactions are suffused with threat.

There are indicators of physically aggressive violence. The two main characters are murderers for hire. They discuss killing. They carry weapons. But the real violence in the play lies in subliminal threats and power exchanges. Ben's small, impatient gestures, like repeatedly slamming his paper down, reveal his slow-boiling temper. Ben is continually warning Gus not to aggravate him. The audience is on edge whenever Gus asks a question; they wonder what Ben will do in response. Ben threatens to hit Gus several times before actually hitting him. The men know they're going to kill someone, but they have to wait for a call first. The knife-edge tension of knowing violence will come, but not knowing when, how, or to what extent, frightens both the characters and the audience.

Suggestions of violence offstage suffuse this play. The two men read newspaper stories about gruesome deaths. Gus considers the impact of a murder the men committed the previous night, reflecting "I can't remember a mess like that one." Violence both defines and disrupts the killers' world. They respond to offstage violence with onstage anger and anxiety. Their world's an unpredictable and terrifying one, and the play implies the audience's world is not much different.

Obedience to Authority

Much of the play's action surrounds the main characters' obedience to invisible authorities. They follow the instructions of their unseen mob boss, Wilson. They receive food requests from the dumbwaiter, which they interpret as orders they need to fill. Pinter shows the absurdity of Ben and Gus following orders they can't comprehend.

The characters' response to Wilson reveals their different stances on obedience. Ben does as he's told. He reveals he stopped the car in the morning because "We were too early"—implying he acted on instructions to wait. Since Ben is reserved and cautious in what he says, the audience never learns if Ben understands the reasons behind the authority's orders. Gus doesn't know the reasons, but he wants to. He feels Wilson has already tested their loyalty. Now Gus argues the men deserve to know what's happening and why.

The dumbwaiter presents another kind of authority—an inexplicable one telling the men to carry out impossible orders. Yet Ben and Gus are still desperate to obey. They're relieved when Ben decides "We'd better send something up." Even if they don't understand what's going on, at least they have an order to follow. As the meal orders grow increasingly complex, the men become increasingly panicked. Pinter reveals how the men crumble under the pressure of obeying authority but still find obedience easier than thinking for themselves.

Social Class and Power Dynamics

"What about us?" Gus asks Ben after he hears their invisible boss wants a cup of tea. Gus thinks the wealthy supervisor gets whatever he wants, while his working-class employees go hungry and thirsty. Wealth means power, access, and ability to make decisions. The dynamic of employer and employee mirrors the power imbalance of the rich and poor. Both imbalances are at work in the play, contributing to Gus's frustration, anger, and final fate.

While Gus complains about the upper class, Ben aspires to their habits. Ben takes pride in his clean gun and critiques Gus for not polishing his own weapon. He knows the ingredients of a fancy Greek dish the dumbwaiter requests. He places great importance on saying things correctly and properly. Ben tells Gus not to shout because "it isn't done" and insists the phrase "light the kettle" is "common usage." Ben's seniority in the job and his ability to mimic upper-class mannerisms position him as an authority over Gus.

But both Ben and Gus are on the lower end of a larger power dynamic. By serving food and drink through the dumbwaiter, Ben and Gus become "waiters" in another sense. They spend time waiting, and they wait on or serve the café patrons who they conjectured to be upstairs. As servants they're constantly afraid of displeasing authorities. Much of their ongoing anxiety, especially Ben's, comes from fear of aggravating the upstairs residents of the house.

As employees, Gus and Ben are unable to decide how to spend their time. As Gus says, they have to be on call or "on tap" constantly in case a job comes. They no longer get leisure time to see sporting events. They're at the mercy of an affluent boss who's holding them hostage in a basement. Pinter shows how this type of employment can be its own form of stasis and claustrophobia.

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