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Appunti di Letteratura inglese della prof.ssa Vallaro su Dumb Waiter: context, Plot Overview, Character List, Themes, Motifs (Repetition), Symbols, Part One: Beginning Until The Envelope, Part Two: From the Envelope to Ben's Gun, Part Three: After Ben Checks his Gun, Part Four: Speaking Tube until End.

Esame di Letteratura inglese docente Prof. C. Vallaro




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 Lon-

don'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 hu-

man 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 presi-

dent 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 be-

en 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 silen-


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.

Plot Overview

In a basement with a kitchen and beds Ben reads a newspaper while Gus ties his shoelaces. Gus

walks to the kitchen door, then stops and takes a flattened matchbox out of one shoe, and a flatte-

ned cigarette carton out of the other. He puts both items in his pocket and leaves for the bathroom.

There's a sound of the toilet chain being pulled without it flushing, and Gus returns. Ben reports to

Gus a newspaper article about a truck running over an elderly man. Ben orders Gus to make tea.

Gus hopes, "it won't be a long job." Ben reports on an article about a child who kills a cat. Gus

asks if Ben has noticed how long it takes for the toilet tank to fill.

Gus complains he didn't sleep well on the bed, and wishes that there were a window. He laments

that his life revolves around sleeping all day in an unfamiliar, dark room, then performing a job, and

then leaving at night. Ben tells him they are fortunate to be employed. Gus asks if Ben ever gets

fed up, but they soon fall silent. The toilet finally flushes. Ben commands him to make tea, as they

will go to work very soon. Gus asks Ben why he stopped the car that morning in the middle of the

road. Ben says they were early. Ben tells Gus they are in the city of Birmingham. Gus wants to

watch the Birmingham soccer team tomorrow (Saturday), but Ben says that there is no time and

that they have to get back. Gus speaks about a Birmingham game they once saw together, but

Ben denies it. An envelope slides under the door.

Neither one knows what is in the envelope. Ben orders Gus to pick it up and open it. He does, and

empties out twelve matches. They are confused, and Ben commands Gus to open the door and

see if anyone is outside. With a revolver for protection, Gus finds no one. Gus says the matches

will come in handy, as he always runs out. Ben tells him to light the kettle instead. They debate the

phrase "light the kettle." Gus feels one should say the "gas," since that is what is being lit, or "put

on the kettle," a phrase his mother used. Ben denies this and challenges Gus to remember the last

time he saw his mother. After further arguments about the phrase, in which Ben reminds Gus that

he has seniority, Ben chokes Gus and screams "THE KETTLE, YOU FOOL!"

Gus acquiesces and tries to see if the matches will light. They don't light on the flattened box, but

they work on his foot. Ben says, "Put on the bloody kettle," then realizes he has used Gus's phra-

se. He then stares at Gus until he leaves. Gus comes back, having lit the kettle, and wonders,

"who it'll be tonight." He says he wants to ask Ben something, and sits on Ben's bed, which annoys

him. Ben asks Gus why he barrages him with so many questions, and tells him to do his job and

shut up. After Gus repeatedly asks who it's going to be tonight and a moment of silence, Ben or-

ders him to make tea. After he leaves, Ben checks his revolver under his pillow for ammunition.

Gus returns and says that the gas has gone out and the meter needs to be refilled with coins. Ben

says they'll have to wait for Wilson. Gus says that Wilson doesn't always come—he sometimes

sends only a message. Gus argues that since no one ever hears anything, Wilson must own all the

places they go to; Ben says Wilson rents them. Gus also finds it hard to talk to Wilson, and says

he's been thinking about the "last one"—a girl. He remembers the job was a "mess." He wonders

who "clears up" after they leave. Ben reminds him that there are many "departments" in their "or-

ganization" that take care of other matters.

They are interrupted by a sound from the wall. They investigate and find a box on a dumb waiter (a

small elevator used for conveying food and dishes between stories of a building). Gus pulls a piece

of paper out, and reads out an order for food. The dumb waiter ascends. Ben explains that the

upstairs used to be a café, the basement was the kitchen, and that these places change ownership

quickly. The dumb waiter descends again, and Gus pulls out another order for food. Gus looks up

the hatch, but Ben pushes him away. Ben decides they should send something up, but they have

only a little food. They put everything on a plate, but the dumb waiter ascends before they can put

the plate on it. The box descends again with another order, this time for "high class" exotic food.

They put the plate on and Gus calls up the brand names of the food. Ben tells him not to shout, as

"It isn't done." Gus then discusses, without Ben's answering, his feelings of anxiety about the job

and Wilson. Another order comes down the passage for more food with which they are unfamiliar.

The packet of tea they sent up has also returned.

Ben decides they should write a note telling them they can't fill the orders, but then they notice an

intercom tube. Gus yells into the tube that there is no food. Ben gives Gus the instructions for the

job. They must corner the target with guns when he or she enters the room. Gus excuses himself

to the bathroom, where the toilet again does not flush, and returns. He asks Ben who is upstairs.

They argue, and Gus wants to know why they have to play these "games." Ben hits him twice on

the shoulder. Another order comes, they fight again, and then they retreat into silence, Ben reading

his newspaper, as the dumb waiter goes up and comes down again. Gus leaves to get a drink of

water, and the speaking tube whistle blows. Ben listens through the tube and confirms that it is

time to do their job. He hangs up and calls for Gus. He levels his gun at the door and Gus stum-

bles in, vulnerably stripped of some of his clothes and his gun. He looks up at Ben, and they stare

at each other through a long silence.

Character List

Gus - Gus is a submissive junior hit man who is constantly bossed around by Ben. Both Gus and

Ben are protagonists of the play, but the audience, also limited in knowledge, sees the play from

Gus's point-of-view, and empathizes more with him. Gus is more sensitive, has a conscience about

his job, and is bored by the stale routine of his lower-class life. He also questions the inner wor-

kings of their job more, especially with regards to the mysterious Wilson.

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, pe-

stering Ben with numerous requests, complaints about their environment, and questions. He is ge-

nerally submissive to Ben's orders—everything from making tea to investigating outside the do-

or—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 na-

ture of the elusive employer Wilson. He is concerned with the consequences of his job. He is haun-

ted 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 produc-

tion; although Ben tells him otherwise, Gus believes that Wilson owns the café and should therefo-

re 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 stan-

ding, 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—mani-

pulated by others to carry out their directions, unable to speak for himself.

Ben - Ben is the senior hit man, the dominant foil to his submissive partner Gus. He runs their

outfit, but pays strict attention to the demands of Wilson, their boss. He often broods silently, reads

the newspaper, doesn't question their job, and evades Gus's probing questions.

Ben is the more dominant of the two criminals. As such, they resemble the various couples in Sa-

muel 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 cha-

racter 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 chil-

ling 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 na-

ked 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


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 "de-

partments"), but he does not have the same class-consciousness as Gus; his partner is more awa-

re 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 is a mysterious figure, the boss of Gus and Ben. He never shows up but the mes-

sages from the dumb waiter may be from him. He may also own the café in which the play is set.

Regardless of his physical reality or lack thereof, he plays an important role in the other characters'


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 syn-



The Silence and Violence of Language

Pinter's work is heavily influenced by Samuel Beckett, who used silence-filled pauses for a revolu-

tionary theatrical effect. Pinter has spoken of speech as a stratagem designed to cover the naked-

ness of silence, and these aims are often evident in the dialogue of Gus and Ben. Ben's most pro-

minent response to Gus's constant questions about the nature of their jobs is silence. Lurking un-

derneath 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 chan-

ges 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 intimida-

te 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 Wil-

son 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




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