The Dumb Waiter
by Harold Pinter
The Dumb Waiter is a one-act play by Harold Pinter written in 1957.
“Small but perfectly formed, The Dumb Waiter might be considered the best of Harold Pinter’s early plays, more consistent than The Birthday Party and sharper than The Caretaker. It combines the classic characteristics of early Pinter – a paucity of information and an atmosphere of menace, working-class small-talk in a claustrophobic setting – with an oblique but palpable political edge and, in so doing, can be seen as containing the germ of Pinter’s entire dramatic oeuvre”.
“The Dumb Waiter is Pinter distilled – the very essence of a writer who tapped into our desire to seek out meaning, confront injustice and assert our individuality.”
Two hit-men, Ben and Gus, are waiting in a basement room for their assignment. As the play begins, Ben, the senior member of the team, is reading a newspaper, and Gus, the junior member, is tying his shoes. Gus asks Ben many questions as he gets ready for their job and tries to make tea. They argue over the semantics of “light the kettle” and “put on the kettle”. Ben continues reading his paper for most of the time, occasionally reading excerpts of it to Gus. Ben gets increasingly animated, and Gus’s questions become more pointed, at times nearly nonsensical.
In the back of the room is a dumbwaiter, which delivers occasional food orders. This is mysterious and both characters seem to be puzzled why these orders keep coming; the basement is clearly not outfitted as a restaurant kitchen. At one point they send up some snack food that Gus had brought along. Ben has to explain to the people above via the dumbwaiter’s “speaking tube” that there is no food.
Gus leaves the room to get a drink of water in the bathroom, and the dumbwaiter’s speaking tube whistles (a sign that there is a person on the other end who wishes to communicate). Ben listens carefully—we gather from his replies that their victim has arrived and is on his way to the room. Ben shouts for Gus, who is still out of the room. The door that the target is supposed to enter from flies open, Ben rounds on it with his gun, and Gus enters, stripped of his jacket, waistcoat, tie and gun. There is a long silence as the two stare at each other before the curtain comes down.
The dumb waiter of the title refers to the serving hatch and food lift that delivers orders to the gunmen. It could also refer to Gus, who fails to realise that he is waiting to be the victim, or even to Ben, whose obedience to a higher authority eventually forces him to eliminate his partner.
The windowless basement is characteristic of Pinter’s sets. “Pinter’s rooms are stuffy, non-specific cubes, whose atmosphere grows steadily more stale and more tense. At the opening curtain these rooms look naturalistic, meaning no more than the eye can contain. But, by the end of each play, they become sealed containers, virtual coffins.”
Pinter’s writing in The Dumb Waiter combines “the staccato rhythms of music-hall cross-talk and the urban thriller”. The dialogue between Ben and Gus, while seemingly concerned only with trivial newspaper stories, football matches and cups of tea, reveals their characters. In Pinter’s early plays, “it is language that betrays the villains – more pat, more cliché-ridden, with more brute power than that of their victims”.
In the theatre, the emotional power of the play is more readily felt than understood. Pinter “created his own theatrical grammar – he didn’t merely write characters that had an emotional response to something… But instead, through his characters’ interactions and phrasings, Pinter seemed to conjure the very visceral emotion itself”.
Although the play is realistic in many ways, particularly the dialogue between Ben and Gus, there are also elements that are unexplained and seemingly absurd, particularly the messages delivered by the dumb waiter itself, and the delivery of an envelope containing twelve matchsticks. Pinter is notable for leaving the plays open to interpretation, “wanting his audience to complete his plays, to resolve in their own ways these irresolvable matters”. Pinter stated that “between my lack of biographical data about [the characters] and the ambiguity of what they say lies a territory which is not only worthy of exploration but which it is compulsory to explore”.
One interpretation is that the play is an absurdist comedy about two men waiting in a universe without meaning or purpose, like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. “The Dumb Waiter…. achieves, through its unique blend of absurdity, farce, and surface realism, a profoundly moving statement about the modern human condition”.
Another interpretation is that the play is a political drama showing how the individual is destroyed by a higher power. “Each of Harold Pinter’s [first] four plays ends in the virtual annihilation of an individual…. It is by his bitter dramas of dehumanisation that he implies “the importance of humanity”. The religion and society, which have traditionally structured human morality, are, in Pinter’s plays, the immoral agents that destroy the individual.” Pinter supported the interpretation of The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter as “political plays about power and victimisation”.
Overall, “it makes much more sense if seen as a play about the dynamics of power and the nature of partnership. Ben and Gus are both victims of some unseen authority and a surrogate married couple quarrelling, testing, talking past each other and raking over old times”. It is “a strongly political play about the way a hierarchical society, in pitting the rebel against the conformist, places both at its mercy”, but at the same time “a deeply personal play about the destructiveness of betrayal”.
“For an audience to gaze into Ben and Gus’ closed basement room and overhear their everyday prattle is to gain insight into … the terrifying vision of the dominant-subservient battle for power, a battle in which societies and individuals engage as a part of daily existence”.
Although the play uses “the semantic nit-picking that is a standard part of music hall comedy” and is generally considered funny, this is not comedy for its own sake, but “a crucial part of the power-structure”.
“The comedy routines in the early plays are maps to the themes and meaning of the plays as a whole…. Our failure to laugh may be an indication that we, the audience, have come to side (or have been taught to side) with the victim rather than the victimiser.”
The stories Ben picks out from his newspaper have a similar purpose. He describes an old man, wanting to cross the street, who crawls under a lorry and is run over by it (but it is not clear if the man is killed or not). Ben seems to expect the response, “What an idiot!” but Gus replies “Who advised him to do a thing like that?” which shifts responsibility and suggests the old man was a victim to be pitied. “The eventual split between Ben and Gus is foreshadowed in the very first joke…. By the end of the play, Pinter has trained us to see that the content of the joke-exchange is meaningless: what is important is the structure, and the alliances and antagonisms it reveals.”
The world premiere was in Frankfurt as Der Stumme Diener in February 1959 with Rudolf H. Krieg as Ben and Werner Berndt as Gus.
The first performance in London was in January 1960, as part of a double bill with Pinter’s first play The Room, at the Hampstead Theatre Club, directed by James Roose-Evans, with Nicholas Selby as Ben and George Tovey as Gus. The production transferred to the Royal Court Theatre in March 1960.
In 1989 a revival at the Theatre Royal Haymarket was directed by Bob Carlton, with Peter Howitt as Ben and Tim Healy as Gus.
In 2007 a 50th anniversary revival at the Trafalgar Studios was directed by Harry Burton, with Jason Isaacs as Ben and Lee Evans as Gus.
In 2013 a revival at The Print Room was directed by Jamie Glover, with Clive Wood as Ben and Joe Armstrong as Gus.
In 2019 the play was performed as part of a season of Pinter’s plays, with Danny Dyer as Ben and Martin Freeman as Gus.
In 2004 The Oxford Playhouse presented The Dumb Waiter and Other Pieces by Harold Pinter, directed by Douglas Hodge with Jason Watkins as Ben and Toby Jones as Gus.
1959 – the play was turned down by the BBC, being considered “too obscure” for the TV audience.
1985 – Kenneth Ives directed a made-for-TV feature film version of The Dumb Waiter, starring Kenneth Cranham and Colin Blakely, first broadcast by the BBC in July 1985.
1987 – Robert Altman directed a made-for-TV feature film version of The Dumb Waiter, starring John Travolta and Tom Conti, filmed in Canada and first televised in the United States on WABC-TV on 12 May 1987, as part of Altman’s two-part series entitled Basements; part one is Pinter’s first play The Room.
- Derbyshire, Harry. “Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter (review)”, Modern Drama, vol 53, no 2 (2010), pp266-268.
- Glover, Jamie. “The Dumb Waiter” (programme notes). The Print Room, 2013.
- Billington, Michael. Harold Pinter. Faber & Faber, 2nd edition, 2007, p89 et seq.
- Cohn, Ruby. “The World of Harold Pinter”, Tulaine Drama Review, 6 (March 1962), pp55-7.
- Lawford, Cindy. “The Dumb Waiter (programme notes)” (Web). Retrieved 2 December 2013.
- Brewer, Mary F. (Ed) “Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter”. Rodopi, 2009
- Coppa, Francesca. “The Sacred Joke: Comedy and Politics in Pinter’s Early Plays”, The Cambridge Companion to Harold Pinter. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
- “Der Stumme Diener (The Dumb Waiter)” (Web). HaroldPinter.org. (Official site of Harold Pinter). Retrieved 1 December 2013.
- “The Dumb Waiter – Premiere” (Web). HaroldPinter.org. (Official site of Harold Pinter). Retrieved 27 June 2008.
- The Dumb Waiter on IMDb .
- Basements (1987) (TV) on IMDb . One of two-part series, including a film of Pinter’s first play, The Room. Accessed 27 June 2008. [In the United States, this 60-min. film was televised on ABC-TV with Pinter’s original title, The Dumb Waiter, as the second of two parts of Altman’s two-film series entitled Basements.]
- Andrea LeVasseur. “Review Summary and Movie Details: The Dumb Waiter”. The New York Times. movies.nytimes.com. Retrieved 27 June 2008. [Rpt. from Allmovie.]
- Andrea LeVasseur. “Plot Synopsis: The Dumb Waiter”. Allmovie. All Media Guide: allmovie.com. Retrieved 27 June 2008.
Harold Pinter at TheatreGold
The Dumb Waiter – Harold Pinter
Other Pinter Plays