The Dumb Waiter


Harold Pinter

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Dumb Waiter can help.

Hitmen Ben and Gus wait in a dreary, windowless basement room in Birmingham for their target to arrive. The room contains two beds positioned against the back wall; between the beds, built into the wall, is a closed serving hatch. There’s a door leading to a lavatory and small kitchenette on the left side of the room and a door leading to a passage on the right side of the room.

Ben sits on the left-hand bed and reads a newspaper. He looks up from his paper to watch Gus, who is seated on the right-hand bed and struggling to tie his shoelaces. Gus gets up, walks to the door, and pulls a flattened matchbox and a flattened packet of his cigarettes out of his shoes. Then he leaves the room to use the lavatory, which won’t flush and seems to be broken. Ben glares at Gus as Gus leaves the room. When Gus returns, Ben describes the violent, upsetting stories he reads in the paper. Both men respond to the stories with disgust.

Ben orders Gus to make them some tea, but Gus says he can’t because he doesn’t have any matches. Not long after, someone slides an unmarked envelope containing 12 matches under the right door. Ben makes Gus open the door to see who left them, but when Gus opens the door, nobody is there. Then, Ben orders Gus to go “light the kettle” to make tea. Ben’s words confuse Gus, who insists that he wouldn’t be lighting the kettle—he’d be lighting the gas. Ben snaps that “light the kettle” is a common saying. They bicker about this and about other banal subjects, such as football. Gus eventually goes to the kitchenette to prepare tea, only to discover that they have no money to feed the stove’s gas meter.

Gus—Ben’s subordinate and the chattier of the two men—complains about how run-down the room is; he thinks that their boss, Wilson, mistreats and underpays them. Gus hounds Ben with questions about their present assignment, like who tonight’s hit will be, but Ben refuses to answer him; instead, he scolds Gus for asking so many questions and complaining about their job. Ben says that Gus has no right to complain, since they usually only work once per week. He accuses Gus of being a slacker, noting that Gus hasn’t even bothered to polish his revolver.

Gus and Ben sit silently on their respective beds for a time. Gus tries to talk to Ben about an earlier hit they carried out on a woman. He fixates on what a “mess” the attack was and wonders if anybody cleans up after them once they finish a job. Ben assures Gus that someone does—their organization has “departments for everything.”

Suddenly, they hear a loud noise coming from the wall behind their beds and discover a hidden dumb waiter behind the serving-hatch. There’s a box on top of the dumb waiter. Gus reaches inside and pulls out a piece of paper with a meal order written on it. Ben explains that the order was sent down from the café upstairs. Gus claims that there can’t be a café upstairs, since the basement kitchenette is too small and ill-equipped to fill café orders. Ben grows increasingly agitated at Gus for being disagreeable. As they argue, the dumb waiter carries the empty box back upstairs. The dumb waiter continues to send orders to Ben and Gus, each more complicated than the last, but they lack the ingredients and equipment necessary to fill the orders. Still, Ben insists that they have to send something up, so they put some snacks that Gus brought along in the box. Gus shouts into the hatch to announce the items they’re sending up. This angers Ben, who tells him that’s not how they’re supposed to do things.

Ben orders Gus to get dressed—they’ll be called to carry out the hit shortly. Gus asks Ben when Wilson will get in touch with them. Agitated, Ben orders Gus to be patient. After the dumb waiter delivers an order for a Chinese dish, Ben says they need to tell the people upstairs that they can’t fill any of the orders. They find a speaking-tube next to the dumb waiter. Gus whistles into it to alert the people upstairs that he wants to speak and then shouts into the tube that they don’t have anything; he gets no response. Ben picks up the tube and, in an apologetic tone, explains the situation. The people on the other end of the line respond to Ben, but Gus (and the audience) can’t hear what they’re saying. Ben explains to Gus that all the food they sent up was bad or stale.

Ben talks and listens some more, and then he hangs up the speaking-tube and excitedly tells Gus that it’s time to “light the kettle.” Gus is confused, since he’s already explained they have no gas. But Ben tells Gus that they need to prepare for their assignment. Ben lists off orders for how the hit will go down, and Gus dutifully recites the instructions back to Ben. Gus will wait behind the right door, where their target can’t see him. When their target arrives, Ben will take out his gun, and the target will freeze. Then he’ll turn around and see Gus. Gus points out that Ben forgot to mention Gus’s gun—and he’s never forgotten this step before. Ben frowns. After a beat, he corrects himself and says that Gus will have his gun, too. Gus asks if the plan will change if their target is a girl, but Ben says it won’t.

Gus leaves to use the lavatory. When he returns, he appears troubled. He asks Ben why Wilson would leave them matches but no gas. Then he asks who’s upstairs. This angers Ben, and he strikes Gus. But Gus thinks their higherups are playing games with them. The dumb waiter delivers an order for Scampi, and Gus angrily shouts into the speaking-tube that they don’t have any food. Ben grabs the tube from Gus and tells him he can’t do that. He calls Gus a “maniac.” Ben returns to his bed and picks up his newspaper, and he and Gus go through the same dialogue they delivered at the start of the play.

Gus gets up to grab a glass of water. While he’s gone, the speaking-tube’s whistle sounds. Ben picks up the tube, listens, and says that they’re “ready.” He calls out to Gus that it’s time. The right door opens, and Ben points his revolver toward the door—but it’s Gus who walks inside. His uniform and revolver have been taken from him. Ben and Gus stare at each other as Ben keeps his revolver aimed toward Gus.