The Dumb Waiter


Harold Pinter

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The Dumb Waiter Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter was born in 1930 to British Jewish parents and raised in London’s East End, a working-class neighborhood. He attended the Hackney Downs School as a child and later studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art until 1948, ending his studies after only two terms to tour with various repertory companies throughout the 1950s. Pinter’s first play, The Room, was first produced in 1957. This was followed by The Dumb Waiter, which premiered in 1960. The Birthday Party, his first full-length play, was first produced in 1958; however, the play’s absurd characteristics were not well received by audiences, and so its run lasted just one week. Pinter’s breakthrough came with his second full-length play, The Caretaker, which was first produced in 1960 and earned him his association with the Theatre of the Absurd, a designation that refers to the then-popular absurdist plays written mainly by European and American playwrights in the late 1950s. Taking inspiration from the ideas of Existentialist philosopher Albert Camus, absurdist theater uses ambiguous plot, sparce dramatic action, and repetitive, nonsensical dialogue to portray the world as absurd and purposeless, and the human condition as characterized by futility, hopelessness, and anxiety—elements that figure prominently in Pinter’s plays. Other notable characteristics of Pinter’s plays are a menacing atmosphere, long pauses, and nonsensical, repetitive dialogue. In addition to his works for the stage, he wrote screenplays, radio plays, and TV dramas, though he remains best known for his early plays. Pinter received many awards throughout his career, including the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005. He died of cancer on December 24, 2008.
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Historical Context of The Dumb Waiter

By the year of The Dumb Waiter’s first performance (1960), the Cold War had been underway for over a decade. The Cold War refers to a period of tension between the United States, the Soviet Union, and their allies, as the two superpowers struggled to achieve global influence. Between 1947 and 1991, when the dissolution of the Soviet Union marked the effective end of the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union battled for global influence not through live combat but through indirect means like espionage, the nuclear arms race, psychological warfare, propaganda, and the Space Race. The nuclear arms race, in particular, made the looming threat of nuclear annihilation a perpetual fear. Though not a main player in the Cold War, Great Britain (which was allied with the U.S.) contributed to anti-Soviet espionage efforts and was involved in early stages of the arms race. But the threat of violence and annihilation that dominated this period ultimately remained invisible and unrealized—the arms race did not lead to nuclear annihilation. In this way, the menacing atmosphere that characterized life during the Cold War resembles the ominous tone of The Dumb Waiter, in which the threat of danger becomes more fearsome and powerful than danger itself.

Other Books Related to The Dumb Waiter

Pinter’s plays are associated with the Theatre of the Absurd, a designation for the then-popular absurdist plays written primarily by European and American playwrights in the 1950s. Eugène Ionesco was a Romanian-French playwright associated with the Theatre of the Absurd. Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros is about citizens of a small French town who turn into rhinoceroses. Only the central character, Bérenger, stays human—and he is then ridiculed for his fixation with the rhinoceroses. Much like The Dumb Waiter, which uses absurdist elements to examine more serious issues like class anxiety, critics have interpreted Rhinoceros as a critical response to the rise of Fascism and Nazism in the years preceding World War II. The Dumb Waiter takes obvious inspiration from Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Like The Dumb Waiter, Waiting for Godot tells the stories of two characters (Vladimir and Estragon) who spend the entirety of the play waiting for a man named Godot, though neither is certain that they’ve met Godot or if Godot will show up at all. As with many of Pinter’s plays, the plot of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is sparse, ambiguous and open to interpretation. Other plays of Pinter’s similar to The Dumb Waiter include The Caretaker, which tells the story of two brothers, Mick and Aston, whose lives are upended when a rude, opportunistic drifter named Davies overstays his welcome at their flat and tries to turn the brothers against each other. Like The Dumb Waiter, The Caretaker centers around themes of failed communication and power imbalances.
Key Facts about The Dumb Waiter
  • Full Title: The Dumb Waiter 
  • When Written: 1957
  • Where Written: London
  • When Published: 1960 (first performance)
  • Literary Period: Post-War
  • Genre: Absurdist Theater, Comedic Drama
  • Setting: A basement room in Birmingham
  • Climax: Gus enters the room through the right door, revealing himself to be the target, and Ben pulls his revolver on Gus.
  • Antagonist: Wilson; authority in general 

Extra Credit for The Dumb Waiter

Absurd is the Word. The adjective “Pinteresque” has been coined to describe elements characteristic of Pinter’s plays, such as a threatening atmosphere, minimalist plot, colloquial and repetitive language, and long pauses. Still, when asked in an interview to define what it means to be Pinteresque, Pinter claimed not to know what the term meant.

Passé Pauses. Pinter’s works are known for their use of silence and long pauses, yet in the 2007 documentary Working With Pinter, Pinter suggests that people read too far into his play’s silences and pauses—that he intended them to be simple stage directions, not the deeply symbolic gestures people have made them out to be. He even admits to cutting half the pauses when he acts in his own plays—and he encourages actors and directors to do the same, if they see it fit to do so.