The Dumb Waiter, written by Harold Pinter, is an extraordinary mix of wit, dread, silence, and violent aggression. Pinter’s play has often been interpreted as one that interacts with the familiar and the unfamiliar (Stokes, 2009). The presence of silence is a trope employed in numerous works by modern dramatists like Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot), Anton Chekov (The Three Sisters), Edward Albee (The Zoo Story) and Harold Pinter (The Caretaker, The Birthday Party, and The Dumb Waiter).
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Pinter is believed to be one of the most accomplished users of silence in his plays. He points out that “it is in the quiet places that characters are hidden and simultaneously exposed,” indicating a withdrawal from the “temporal, spatial, and social reality” (Kane, 1984). Silence has been employed in literature since the time of the Romantics, like Valery, Mallarme, and Baudelaire, in order to depict the mysterious being. However, the postmodern writers went ahead to demonstrate a profound distrust in life, thus, pointing at the absurdities of life where existence is in chaos. Albert Camus points out that the existence of the senile rests on man’s distrust of myths as he hears the silence that pervades the universe (Camus, 1961).
The belief of the existentialists is that the secret to man’s existence is indecipherable (Camus, 1961). Pinter employs seemingly aimless colloquial dialogue to present the details of the characters and the plot. The use of substances of daily and habitual routine is employed to dramatize the continuity of the play. The infusion of uneasiness is escalated through long silences in the drama or through bombardment of words that shows the presence of the unknown within the known space of the characters (Kane, 1984).
Silence becomes all-encompassing in demonstrating the void present in human interaction. Pinter exemplifies the existential view of the absurd and the non-existence in The Dumb Waiter in the same manner as that employed in Waiting for Godot by Beckett. In this paper, I posit that in the play The Dumb Waiter, Pinter creates an environment of terror and aggression through dominant use of silence, disjointed speech, and unreciprocated questions in a similar manner as that employed by Samuel Beckett in Godot.
The Dumb Waiter is a play about two assassins, Gus and Ben, awaiting orders in a room resembling a basement dungeon. They are taken aback by the demands made by the orders from a dumb waiter. Gus is the more insecure and timid of the two who keep questioning Ben about the job they have to do. When the dumb waiter puts forth the impossible tasks in front of the two characters, Gus’s insecurity escalates. Hence, the forceful intrusion of the dumb waiter as the superior creates a situation of doubt in the play as silence escalates with Gus’s unanswered questions. Ben, the more taciturn of the two characters, is also unnerved by the abrupt intrusion of the dumb waiter but expresses his anxiety through silence, unlike Gus, who showers torrents of speech to express his nervousness.
The influence of Samuel Beckett in the play is obvious as Pinter uses silence in the same way Beckett used it in his play Waiting for Godot. The silence in the communication between Ben and Gus is an effective tool for creating a theatrical effect that creates an association and involvement of the audience with the performance. Ben usually answered Gus’s incessant questions regarding their job with mere silence. Pinter has often described the speech as a camouflage for naked silence, which becomes overtly evident in the dialogue between Gus and Ben. While Gus vocally expresses his anxiety over the job, they are supposed to do, Ben, though anxious, remains silent, without responding satisfactorily to Gus’s entreats:
Gus: What did he want is to light the kettle for?
Ben: For tea. He wanted a cup of tea.
Gus: He wanted a cup of tea! What about me? I’ve wanted a cup of tea all night.
Ben (despairingly): What do we do now?
Gus: What are we supposed to drink?
Ben sits on his bed, staring.
What about us?
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I’m thirsty too. I’m starving. And he wants a cup of tea. That beats the band, that does.
Ben lets his head sink on to his chest.
I could do with a bit of sustenance myself. And what about you? You look as if you could do with something.
Gus sits on the bed.
We send him up all we’ve got, and he’s not satisfied. No, honest, it’s enough to make the cat laugh. Why did you send him up all that stuff? (Thoughtfully) Why did I send it up? (Pinter, 2013, p. 113).
Thus, Gus tries to find comfort in his continuous rambling and increases Ben’s anxiety and uneasiness. Tension intensifies, as Gus and Ben tries to gauge the identity the man is who was sending demands in the dumb waiter. The Dumb Waiter hence compels the readers to focus on the creation of linguistic discourse that communication may create through inter-subjective dialogue.
The Dumb Waiter ends with Ben pointing a gun at the bewildered Gus. Silence prevails as the two men stare at each other for a long time, and the curtain falls. The deliberate refusal of narrative closure by Pinter at the end of the play accentuated by the prevalence of inaction keeps the audience wondering at the fate of the two killers. Thus, Pinter does not reveal to the audience who, between Ben and Gus, is the victim and/or the perpetrator.
The play by Pinter can definitely be described as an absurdist play as it deliberately leaves no explanation for the ending of the play. The realist plays provide a clear and logical solution, which is present in The Dumb Waiter, but Pinter avoids the scope for presenting the end to the audience on a platter. Hence, it creates a window for communication and symbolism. The play follows a deliberate attempt to become realistic with the employment of mundane aspects of modern life in it, shows how a realistic text can move away from closure, thus, stressing on importance of silent communication.
The presence of absurdist characters in the play The Dumb Waiter is evident. Ben and Gus engage in a conversational exposition of the news they read in the newspaper. The apparent shock that Ben shows towards the numerous acts of atrocities in the paper shows his evident lack of knowledge of his own brutality as a killer.
(He picks up the paper.)
What about this? Listen to this:
(He refers to the paper.)
A man of eighty-seven wanted to cross the road. But there was a lot of traffic, see? He couldn’t see how he was going to squeeze through. So he crawled under a lorry.
Gus: He what?
Ben: He crawled under a lorry. A stationary lorry.
Ben: The lorry started and ran over him.
Gus: Go on!
Ben: That’s what it says here.
Gus: Get away.
Ben: it’s enough to make you want to puke, isn’t it?
Gus: Who advised him to do a thing like that?
Ben: A man of eighty-seven crawling under a lorry!
Gus: it’s unbelievable.
Ben: It’s down here in black and white.
Gus: Incredible. (Pinter, 2013, p. 99)
Clearly, Ben shows no sense of awareness of his own brutality and actions. However, Gus does have some inkling of the nature and outcome of the work that he does. Ben becomes increasingly violent as Gus starts questioning more intently on the nature of the job they were about to do.
Ben: What are you sitting on my bed for?
What’s the matter with you? You’re always asking me questions. What’s the matter with you?
Ben: You never sued to ask me so many damn questions. What’s come over you?
Gus: No, I was just wondering.
Ben: Stop wondering. You’ve got a job to do. Why don’t you just do it and shut up. (Pinter, 2013, p. 99)
However, Gus’s questions do not stop as he pours more questions without receiving any answer from Ben. Gus’s questions are related to mundane matters such as the toilet flush not working because of the absence of wireless or because Ben halted somewhere in the street, and so on. The tea ceremony that was a ritual for the two men before they begun their job was abruptly disturbed as the gas went out. The two men argue about hilarious issues such as if one should light the kettle or put the kettle on the stove. Such silly issues would have been a source of endless comedy if the dumb waiter were not partial and favoured Ben, the man with fewer questions.
This provides a marginal look at the possible outcome of the play. However, the terror that raises the tension in the play is propelled by the namelessness and physical absence of the commander. As the identity of the man giving order to the two assassins remain hidden, the possibility of violence and anger lurks in the air of the play. The mysterious order for the food intensifies the tension in the play.
Gus’s questions relating to his job shows his discomfort about the work he does. He has not only questioned his job, but the whole system. “Wilson” the third, invisible, character is supposedly the boss of the two killers and Gus complains that he has been neglecting their needs. When Gus complains, the dumb waiter begins to ask for unreasonable orders that Ben and Gus are unable to apprehend. Gus’s ability to comprehend something more than Ben is apparent when he logically shows that the eleven-year-old boy had killed the cat and had shifted the blame to his eight-year-old sister. Ben simply says that “It’s enough to –” but does not elaborate on it.
Ben takes this incident as a joke but Gus is unable to and continues questioning. Gus’s questions also quiver Ben’s diligence and belief. However, Pinter skilfully points to the reader/audience that the exchanges between Ben and Gus are meaningless. The more important part of the paly is its structure and the antagonisms it discloses (Coppa, 2009, p. 47).
Silence to Gus’s queries is predominant in the play. Nevertheless, what lurks underneath the surface is the aggregating violence. The threat of violence and the anticipation of the aggression that may erupt any moment impregnate the stage in the end scene when Gus and Ben point a revolver at each other in silence (Buck, 1997). The absence of dialogue in the play is an intentional ploy adopted by many modernist absurdist playwrights essentially to demonstrate that silence can communicate more emotion and tension that word itself.
Ben is the dominating of the two partners, as he is senior to Gus. Gus is the one who laments and questions while Ben remains reticent. However, Gus’s constant questioning is seldom answered and often interrupted by Ben. Ben shows a definite lack of emotion in his interactions with Gus, tries to avoid uncomfortable questions, and frequently changes topic of conversation (Brewer, 2009). Wilson is physically absent in the play, but his dominating silence in the avid conversations of the play lurks with the promise of imminent danger (Brewer, 2009). The awareness of being watched by Wilson makes Gus and Ben uncomfortable. If it is assumed, that Wilson sends messages through the dumb waiter, the audience never actually hear him, but his dangerous presence always keeps them vigilant (Brewer, 2009).
The ubiquitous absence of Wilson adds to the mystery of the play. Wilson therefore resembles Godot in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. In Beckett’s play, Godot never actually arrives in the stage but becomes the central being within all the actions that take place on the stage (Brewer, 2009). The absurdities that are enacted on stage, are centred on Godot, as in case of Pinter’s play, Wilson replaces Godot. The only difference is Godot is the possible saviour of the downtrodden for whom the characters wait while in Pinter’s play, Wilson is the boss of the gang of killers and exudes of violence.
Pinter in his play, like Beckett, refuses to fill the gaps of silences with an answer. The characters take a side but Pinter deliberately does not specify the reason behind their choices. The black comedy that he device deliberately avoid providing explanation thus, creating an antithesis to the violence that lurks within the text. The threat is in the unknown; the seemingly unexplained presence of violence shows the vagueness and therefore the menacing outcome on the reader/audience. The readers remain unaware as to what is happening and why is it happening. The apparent lack of answer leads the readers/audiences to fear the worst.
Pinter poses the threat that is beyond articulation. This therefore, creates the space for silence to dominate the violence present in the play. The world created by Pinter questions the conventional ethics and social order. However, the text refuses to provide an alternative norm for the readers/audiences. His refusal shows the importance of the relativity of ethical ideals. The presence of silence therefore creates a different point of view for all. They are not constrained by specific rules or norms. Instead, they follow a lucid space where the ethical dilemma is solved by each reader/audience in a different manner.
This is the importance of the presence of silence in The Dumb Waiter. Language and communication is infused with the conventional morals and order but silence on the other hand is devoid of any barriers or rules. Thus, Pinter refutes the conventional mode of conveying ethical modes through language and embraces silence that gives freedom to all to build their own ethical standards.
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Buck, R. A. (1997). Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter. The Explicator , 56 (1), 45-48.
Camus, A. (1961). Myth of Sisyphus. (J. O’Brien, Trans.) New York: Knopf Press.
Coppa, F. (2009). The sacred joke: comedy and politics in Pinter’s early plays. In P. Raby, The Cambridge Companion to Harold Pinter (pp. 43-55). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Kane, L. (1984). The Language of Silence: On the Unspoken and the Unspeakable in Modern Drama. Cranbery, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
Pinter, H. (2013). The Dumb Waiter. London: Faber & Faber.
Stokes, J. (2009). Pinter and the 1950s. In P. Raby, The Cambridge Companion to Harold Pinter (pp. 27-42). New York: Cambridge University Press.