The Dumb Waiter – Harold Pinter

THE DUMB WAITER

 

Context

 

Harold Pinter is one of the most acclaimed contemporary British playwrights, noted particularly for his early body of work. He was born in the working-class neighborhood of East London‘s Hackney (an ironic name for such an original writer) in 1930, the son of a Jewish tailor. He evacuated to Cornwall, England, at the outbreak of World War II in 1939, and returned to London when he was 14. He began acting in plays at his grammar school, and later received a grant to study at London‘s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. He left the school after two years, and spent most of the 1950s writing his published poetry (under the name Harold Pinter) and acting in small theater productions (often under the pseudonym David Baron). In 1957, he wrote his first play in four days, The Room, a sign of the prolific output to come. His first produced play—The Birthday Partycame a year later. The reception was unfavorable—it closed within a week—but Pinter’s next full-length play, The Caretaker (1960), won more accolades.

 

The Dumb Waiter, also staged in 1960, helped cement Pinter’s status as a major theatrical figure. He frequently directed, and sometimes acted in, his growing body of work in the 1960s and 1970s, while disseminating his work into radio, television, and film. After 1978’s Betrayal, Pinter did not write another full-length play until 1994, but he continued writing shorter plays and adapting the work of others for the stage and screen. A conscientious objector of war when he was eighteen (for which he was fined by the Royal Academy), Pinter was motivated to be more political—both in his works and in his public life. He was particularly distressed by the dictatorial coup that overthrew Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973. He has since become an outspoken advocate of human rights, and has criticized the Gulf War bombings and other military actions. His actions are not without controversy or contradiction—he attacked the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999, and in 2001 joined The International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian president arrested by the United Nations for crimes against humanity.

Pinter’s plays generally take place in a single, prison-like room. His works, which blend comedy and drama, often focus on jealousy, betrayal, and sexual politics, but it is his dialogue—and the lack of dialogue—for which he is known. Pinter’s language, usually lower-class vernacular, has been described as poetic. His compressed, rhythmic lines rely heavily on subtext and hint at darker meanings. Just as important, however, are the silences in his plays. Pinter has spoken much on the subject, and has categorized speech as that which attempts to cover the nakedness of silence. His most obvious forbear is Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, who took silences to a new level, and other playwrights of the Theatre of the Absurd (a French dramatic movement in the 1950s), but whereas Beckett’s silences hint at alienation, boredom, and the slow approach to death, Pinter’s are ominous and violent. The true natures and motivations of his characters emerge in their silences.

Despite Pinter’s relative decrease in creative output, academic attention on Pinter remains as heavy as ever. The Harold Pinter Society was founded in 1991. It publishes The Pinter Review and organizes conferences.

 

Context

 

Harold Pinter is one of the most acclaimed contemporary British playwrights, noted particularly for his early body of work. He was born in the working-class neighborhood of East London‘s Hackney (an ironic name for such an original writer) in 1930, the son of a Jewish tailor. He evacuated to Cornwall, England, at the outbreak of World War II in 1939, and returned to London when he was 14. He began acting in plays at his grammar school, and later received a grant to study at London‘s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. He left the school after two years, and spent most of the 1950s writing his published poetry (under the name Harold Pinter) and acting in small theater productions (often under the pseudonym David Baron). In 1957, he wrote his first play in four days, The Room, a sign of the prolific output to come. His first produced play—The Birthday Partycame a year later. The reception was unfavorable—it closed within a week—but Pinter’s next full-length play, The Caretaker (1960), won more accolades.

The Dumb Waiter, also staged in 1960, helped cement Pinter’s status as a major theatrical figure. He frequently directed, and sometimes acted in, his growing body of work in the 1960s and 1970s, while disseminating his work into radio, television, and film. After 1978’s Betrayal, Pinter did not write another full-length play until 1994, but he continued writing shorter plays and adapting the work of others for the stage and screen. A conscientious objector of war when he was eighteen (for which he was fined by the Royal Academy), Pinter was motivated to be more political—both in his works and in his public life. He was particularly distressed by the dictatorial coup that overthrew Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973. He has since become an outspoken advocate of human rights, and has criticized the Gulf War bombings and other military actions. His actions are not without controversy or contradiction—he attacked the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999, and in 2001 joined The International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian president arrested by the United Nations for crimes against humanity.

Pinter’s plays generally take place in a single, prison-like room. His works, which blend comedy and drama, often focus on jealousy, betrayal, and sexual politics, but it is his dialogue—and the lack of dialogue—for which he is known. Pinter’s language, usually lower-class vernacular, has been described as poetic. His compressed, rhythmic lines rely heavily on subtext and hint at darker meanings. Just as important, however, are the silences in his plays. Pinter has spoken much on the subject, and has categorized speech as that which attempts to cover the nakedness of silence. His most obvious forbear is Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, who took silences to a new level, and other playwrights of the Theatre of the Absurd (a French dramatic movement in the 1950s), but whereas Beckett’s silences hint at alienation, boredom, and the slow approach to death, Pinter’s are ominous and violent. The true natures and motivations of his characters emerge in their silences.

Despite Pinter’s relative decrease in creative output, academic attention on Pinter remains as heavy as ever. The Harold Pinter Society was founded in 1991. It publishes The Pinter Review and organizes conferences.

 

Analysis of Major Characters

 

Gus

The audience is meant to sympathize with Gus, the well-meaning, slightly slower junior partner-in-crime to Ben. We are in the same position as Gus: like Gus, we are not familiar with the job they are going to perform, we don’t know what exactly is happening upstairs from the basement, and Ben’s betrayal should be as much of a shock to us as it is to Gus. Gus is somewhat child-like, pestering Ben with numerous requests, complaints about their environment, and questions. He is generally submissive to Ben’s orders—everything from making tea to investigating outside the door—though he stands up for what he believes in, as with the "Light the kettle" argument.

Gus is more sensitive than Ben to issues of traditional human concern. He often touches upon deeper issues Ben does not wish to contemplate—about death, the dull routine of life, and the nature of the elusive employer Wilson. He is concerned with the consequences of his job. He is haunted by the image of their messy murder of their last victim, a girl, and is anxious about this next job. He is fed up with the dull routine of life, but can do nothing to get out of it. His recurring trips to the bathroom underscore his imprisonment to routine, especially in contrast with Ben, who never goes to the bathroom. Unlike Ben, he has no hobbies, which accounts for his awareness of his static life.

If one were to read The Dumb Waiter as an allegory of capitalist slavery, then Gus is the employee who, because life offers him so little, recognizes something wrong with the class structure. He sees cracks in the façade of Wilson—he is unafraid to yell and peer up the serving hatch to where the god-like figure reposes—but still feels uneasy in his presence, as most underlings do with their powerful bosses. He also places accountability on Wilson as the controller of the means of production; although Ben tells him otherwise, Gus believes that Wilson owns the café and should therefore pay for the gas meter (he is also miffed that Wilson, or the person upstairs, wants tea while they are hungry and thirsty). Gus’s class-consciousness includes some shame about his poverty, but it is less than that exhibited by Ben. When they send their working-class food up the dumb waiter, Gus calls out the brand names as if announcing a fancy dinner menu. Many productions of The Dumb Waiter will give the actor playing Gus a Cockney accent to emphasize his lower-class standing, but little else is known about his background. We learn that he has not seen his mother in a long time, that he enjoys soccer, and is somewhat unfamiliar with the richer sport of cricket.

By the end of play, Gus becomes somewhat resigned to his life enslaved to routine. He accepts Ben’s instructions to kill by mechanically repeating them. When he realizes that Ben is betraying him, his silence does not seem like one of shock. Rather, he has turned into a dumb waiter—manipulated by others to carry out their directions, unable to speak for himself.

 

Ben

Ben is the more dominant of the two criminals. As such, they resemble the various couples in Samuel Beckett‘s Waiting for Godot, who also complement each other with submissive and dominant traits. Ben broods and reads his newspaper, and his silences are as much a feature of his character as his dialogue. Whether Gus is asking him about the job, Wilson, or if he ever gets bored with life, Ben refuses to enter into a meaningful discussion. Part of the reason, of course, is that he does not want to reveal the purpose of the job: to execute Gus. The other reason is that Ben’s chilling silences are laced with a defensive violence. Harold Pinter has defined speech as a strategy designed to cover the nakedness of silence, and Ben is a prime example. He compensates for his naked silences with a constant aura of violence and intimidation. And just as he frequently checks his gun to maintain his potential for violence, his often-venomous speech further obscures his naked vulnerability. In the argument over the phrase "Light the kettle," the marriage of violent speech and violent action seems appropriate when Ben chokes Gus while screaming "THE KETTLE, YOU FOOL!"

Ben’s language denotes other parts of his personality, especially his shame over his lower class. He feigns understanding the names of the orders for exotic dishes sent down via the dumb waiter (where upstairs, presumably, someone of higher standing, physically and socially, presides). When they run of food in the basement, he tells Gus (who yells up the hatch) to observe decorum, then strains to make a formal apology. He is also immensely pleased when the person upstairs uses Ben’s phrase "Light the kettle." Like Gus, Ben is a slave to the organization (one with several "departments"), but he does not have the same class-consciousness as Gus; his partner is more aware of their unfortunate lot in life, while Ben considers themselves "fortunate" and diverts himself with hobbies. He also accepts whatever Wilson tells him to do, making him as much a manipulated mute carrier of actions as Gus is to Ben—a human "dumb waiter." His betrayal of Gus at Wilson‘s behest is an unsettling reminder of what workers will do to gain the acceptance of their superiors.

 

Wilson

Wilson never appears in the play, but he is directly or indirectly behind the messages from the dumb waiter and speaking tube. His obvious theatrical corollary is Godot in Beckett‘s Waiting for Godot. Both are off-stage characters who exercise a powerful, god-like influence over the on-stage characters. When Gus suggests that Wilson is playing "games" with the men (the orders for food), it raises the possibility of Wilson‘s having a sadistic personality—a malevolent god. Not only is he going to execute Gus, for unknown reasons, but he will put him through an agonizing final day. Gus also mentions that Wilson put them through tests several years ago to prove themselves, so we know that Wilson may also be paranoid (a reasonable expectation for the head of a crime syndicate).

 

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

 

Themes

The Silence and Violence of Language

Pinter’s work is heavily influenced by Samuel Beckett, who used silence-filled pauses for a revolutionary theatrical effect. Pinter has spoken of speech as a stratagem designed to cover the nakedness of silence, and these aims are often evident in the dialogue of Gus and Ben. Ben’s most prominent response to Gus’s constant questions about the nature of their jobs is silence. Lurking underneath this silence is always the threat of violence, the anticipation of something deathly—the play ends as Ben trains his gun on Gus in silence.

Gus’s questions and lamentations are also deflected, delayed, or interrupted. Ben frequently changes the conversation and never replies with any emotional depth to Gus’s more probing questions. In the same way, they both avoid discussing with any profundity the newspaper articles about death, skipping past them to more trivial matters, such as the malfunctioning toilet. Ben sometimes delays his response until they are interrupted—by the sound of an inanimate object, such as the toilet (which flushes on a delay) and the dumb waiter.

The language itself is also tinged with violence, especially when the topic is something seemingly trivial. The men’s argument over the phrase "Light the kettle" is filled with Ben’s barbs that intimidate and shame Gus. Moreover, when Ben screams "THE KETTLE, YOU FOOL!" and chokes Gus, one gets the feeling that his words are intertwined with the act of physical violence.

In a sense, the looming presence of Wilson is the most dominating silence in the play. Assuming Wilson is the one sending the men messages through the dumb waiter and the speaking tube (and Gus does say at one point that sometimes Wilson only sends messages), then the audience never gets a chance to hear him, but only hears him through a secondary mouthpiece as the men read or repeat his orders. His mysteriousness is one of the more sinister components of the play, for Wilson seems to be everywhere through his multi- tiered organization. He performs an off-stage role similar to that of Godot in Beckett‘s Waiting for Godot, but whereas Godot symbolizes a neutral god-like figure for whom the characters wait, Wilson is a malevolent god whom the characters wait for in violent silence.

 

Anxiety Over Social Class

Gus and Ben are both lower-class criminals, and most productions of the play emphasize their social status with appropriate dialects and accents. Some productions may even opt to give Ben a slightly higher-ranking accent, as he is more concerned with his standing. He repeatedly admonishes Gus for his "slack" appearance and habits, urging him to make himself more presentable, but Ben also seems more resigned to his lowly criminal life; he considers them fortunate for having jobs. His profound shame over his class emerges in interactions with those upstairs via the dumb waiter, and much of this shame is tied to language. The food orders from the dumb waiter are for increasingly exotic foods with unfamiliar names, and Ben pretends to know how to make them only to a point. When they decide to send up their cache of food, even Gus feels he has to impress those upstairs by announcing the brand names of their pedestrian foodstuffs. Ben also happily reports that the man upstairs, presumably of higher social standing, uses the same debated phrase—"Light the kettle"—as he does, and he warns Gus to observe decorum when talking to the upstairs, as he demonstrates with his formal apology. Ben is far more reverent of Wilson than the inquiring Gus, and his deference is attributed less to feelings of respect than to an overriding inferiority complex; Wilson is their leader for a reason, and he must obey him at all costs, even if it means betraying his friend. In this light, The Dumb Waiter can be read as an anti-corporate update of Beckett‘s Waiting for Godot, an allegory of in- fighting and what corporate workers will do to please their superiors.

 

Motifs

Repetition

At the play’s start and end, Ben expresses outrage at an article in the newspaper while Gus sympathizes. Similar repetitions mark the action throughout the play. Early on, Gus bemoans the dull sleep-and-work routine of his life, and various repetitive actions—from Gus’s tendency to run out matches to his recurring trips to the bathroom—emerge as the basis of this cyclical fatigue. Language, however, is where Pinter’s use of repetition points to violence and the nearness of death. Gus almost always has to repeat and rephrase his important questions to Ben, questions that touch upon darker issues Ben does not wish to reveal. Ben’s mechanical instructions to Gus on how to execute their murder are repeated by Gus with similar detachment, and when Ben echoes through the speaking tube his own mission to kill Gus, it likewise echoes the previous interaction with Gus. Pinter has compared echoes to silence, and if one views the silences in his plays as indications of violence, then linguistic echoes and repetitive actions suggest violence as well.

 

Symbols

The dumb waiter

The dumb waiter serves as a symbol for the broken, one-sided communication between Gus and Ben. If messages are to be sent via the dumb waiter, then only one person at a time can send them, and one cannot simultaneously speak and listen through the dumb waiter’s speaking tube. Correspondingly, Gus and Ben never have a fully open dialogue—minimized even more by Ben’s knowledge of his impending betrayal of Gus—and whenever Gus tries to bring up something emotional, Ben refuses to speak with him. This disconnection is the essence of their relationship. They do not speak with, but to each other. They are like the dumb waiter—mute carriers of information, not sharers of it. Moreover, Ben, especially, is manipulated by Wilson in the same way that the dumb waiter is controlled by its system of pulleys.

 

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