The Dumb Waiter

by

Harold Pinter

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The Dumb Waiter Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The scene is a basement room with two beds positioned side by side against the back wall. Between the beds is a closed serving hatch. There’s a door that leads to the kitchen and bathroom to the left of the beds and a door that leads to a passage to their right. Ben lies on the left bed reading a newspaper. Gus is sitting on the right bed, struggling to tie his shoes. The men are dressed identically in shirts, pants, and braces (suspenders).
Gus and Ben’s matching uniforms suggest that they’re workers and perhaps are currently on the job, though the scantily furnished room offers little context as to what that job might be. Though the men are dressed identically, their actions in this opening scene imply that they’re not quite equal in status: that Ben reads a paper suggests that he is educated, competent, and refined. Gus, meanwhile, struggles to complete the basic task of tying his shoes.
Themes
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Ben silently watches as Gus finishes tying his shoelaces and then walks slowly to the left door. Then Gus stops, shakes his foot, unties his shoelace, and removes his shoe. He picks up the shoe, reaches inside, and removes a matchbox. Gus shakes the matchbox and locks eyes with Ben before continuing toward the door. But then he stops again, shakes his other foot, unties his shoelace, and removes his shoe. Inside, he finds a flattened cigarette packet. Again, he and Ben exchange a look. Then Gus puts his shoes back on and exits through the left door. Frustrated, Ben drops his paper on the bed. He stares at the door. There’s the sound of a lavatory chain being pulled, and then Gus returns to the room.
Pinter is known for the frequent pauses and silences he writes into his stage directions. There has been no dialogue between Gus and Ben thus far, and this should heighten the audience’s focus on their actions instead. Ben’s close watch over Gus presents additional evidence that Ben is Gus’s superior—it’s as though Ben is waiting for Gus to mess up so that he can reprimand him. The detail of Gus removing a matchbox from his shoe is odd, and it alerts the audience to the play’s absurdist features. That everyone—Ben, Gus, and the audience—is focused on Gus pulling the flattened (and presumably empty) matchbox from his shoe also alerts the audience to the matchbox’s potential symbolic relevance. The matchbox is thus something that’s worth paying attention to as the play progresses. 
Themes
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality  Theme Icon
Ben cries out, “Kaw!” Then he picks up his paper and tells Gus about a story he just read about an elderly man who couldn’t find a way to cross a traffic-congested street, so he crawled under a lorry. The lorry started moving and ran the man over. The story makes Ben want to puke, but Gus is disbelieving. They sit in silence for a beat, then Gus exits through the left door again. Someone pulls the lavatory chain, but the lavatory doesn’t flush.
The story of the man getting run over by a lorry (truck) injects a menacing undertone into the play’s atmosphere—it sends a message that the world of the play is one where danger and violence are common, ever-present threats. Also note that Ben’s comment about the story making him want to puke doesn’t specify which part of the story sickens him—the fact that the man was run over, or the fact that the man was foolish enough to think that his innovative, dangerous strategy of averting traffic would work. If the latter is true, it portrays Ben as a character who values conformity and believes that going against the grain—that is, rejecting existing social conventions and rules—only hurts people. Conforming to social norms and obeying authority, by contrast, protects people. Also note that this is the second time that pulling the lavatory chain hasn’t caused the lavatory to flush, implying that this seemingly innocuous detail is in fact quite important.
Themes
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality  Theme Icon
Quotes
Gus returns to the room. He says he has a question for Ben, but before he can ask it, Ben asks Gus what he was doing outside the room. Before Gus can answer, Ben tells Gus to make some tea, and Gus says he will. Gus sits in a chair and remarks thoughtfully on the nice crockery that “he” has set out. He plans to tell “him” that the crockery is nice. Ben reads his paper silently while Gus goes on about how nice the crockery is. Ben asks Gus why he’s so interested in plates when he's not going to eat. Gus says he has some biscuits. Then Gus, remembering the flattened cigarette packet, asks Ben if he has any cigarettes—Gus has run out. Ben says nothing.
Ben’s refusal to let Gus ask or answer questions further establishes Gus as Ben’s subordinate and the play’s more submissive character. Furthermore, Ben’s refusal to answer Gus about cigarettes shows he doesn’t care about Gus’s wants or needs. Already, the play has established a connection between a person’s power and a person’s ability—and perhaps even their incentive—to exploit people with less power. Finally, note Gus’s mysterious reference to an unknown “he” responsible for laying out fancy crockery (tableware). It’s yet unclear who this person is, but Gus’s focus on the high-quality crockery this person apparently has access to introduces themes of class and economic disparity. It’s not clear who this “he” is, but it seems that he, with his nice dishware, is wealthier than Ben and Gus, who have few possessions other than their work uniforms. Also note how Ben continues to order Gus around, interrupt him, and ignore his questions, suggesting that Ben feels his higher status entitles him to disrespect Gus—he even orders Gus to make him tea, as though Gus were his servant rather than (presumably) his partner.
Themes
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
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Gus tells Ben he hopes this job won’t take long. Then, he repeats that he has a question for Ben. Ben ignores Gus and slams his paper onto the bed. Then Ben describes another story. This one is about an eight-year-old girl who killed a cat. Gus doesn’t believe it. Ben says the girl’s brother was in the toolshed and watched his sister do it. Gus guesses that the brother actually killed the cat, and Ben agrees. With disgust, Ben remarks, “It’s enough to—” But Gus cuts Ben off to ask when “he” will contact them. Ben scolds Gus for asking so many questions. He says that “he” could contact them at “any time.”
Gus keeps talking about a job, but it’s still unclear what that job is. Ben’s second newspaper story is just as violent as the first—and perhaps even more disturbing, as it implicates a young child in a heinous act of violence. This further establishes that the world of the play is saturated with violence—or at least, the knowledge that danger may strike at any time. With Ben’s remark of “It’s enough to—,” he seems about to repeat his earlier comment about the story making him want to puke. Repetitive, circuitous language/dialogue is another feature of absurdist theater. This passage also includes another reference to a mysterious “he.” Ben’s remark that “he” will contact Ben and Gus “any time” sheds light on what Ben and Gus are doing in this basement room in the first place—they’re waiting for someone, possibly their boss, to contact them. This alerts the audience to the fact that Ben and Gus are under some unseen authority’s control and so must answer to him. With this, the play shows that while Ben might be marginally more powerful than Gus, ultimately, they’re in the same boat.
Themes
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality  Theme Icon
Gus tries to ask Ben a question again. This time, Ben lets him. Gus asks if Ben has noticed that it takes a long time for the lavatory tank to fill with water. Ben hasn’t noticed. Gus wonders what’s wrong with the tank. Ben suspects the ballcock is broken. Gus is intrigued; this has never occurred to him.
It adds a layer of absurdity and meaninglessness to the play that Gus should be so fixated on the lavatory’s flushing mechanism. Still, the lavatory’s broken condition alerts the audience to the condition of the building that Ben and Gus are waiting in—it’s run-down, and nobody has bothered to fix any of its malfunctioning appliances.
Themes
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Gus lies down on his bed and explains that he didn’t sleep well last night because the bed and blanket were uncomfortable. Then Gus looks at a picture of cricketers hanging on the wall. “The First Eleven,” he reads. Gus doesn’t know what this means. Ben asks Gus about the tea again. Gus stands and walks around the room, calling it “a dump.” The room would be better if it had a window—then they’d have a view.
Gus’s complaint about the room being “a dump” further shows how lacking his and Ben’s present accommodations are, though it’s still unclear why they’re in this room in the first place. It’s also significant that the room is windowless: without a window, Gus and Ben are completely cut off from the happenings of the outside world; as such, they must rely on the mysterious “he” that Ben mentioned earlier for information about what’s going on and what they must do.
Themes
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Gus complains about his and Ben’s job: they arrive in darkness, enter an unfamiliar room, sleep all day, do the job, then leave in the night. Ben thinks Gus shouldn’t complain so much, since they typically only work once a week. But Gus doesn’t like that they must wait around for hours in case they’re called. Ben says that Gus needs to find some interests. Ben, for instance, likes woodworking and model boats and so is “never idle.” He knows how to use his time wisely, and he’s ready whenever they get a call. Gus asks if Ben gets sick of it. Ben asks what Gus is talking about, then he returns to reading his paper. They hear the lavatory flush.
Though Gus and Ben’s exact profession remains unclear, Gus’s complaints reveal what their working conditions are like. From Gus’s remarks, the audience can discern that Gus and Ben deal with a lot of uncertainty and unpredictability in their line of work: they never work in the same place, and their surroundings are always unfamiliar to them. And even though they only work once a week, they’re constantly on call, which suggests that their work consumes much of their life, and perhaps also that their boss doesn’t have a lot of respect for Gus and Ben or for their time. Ben’s suggestion that Gus would be less unhappy if he found a hobby and was thus “never idle,” like Ben, suggests Ben’s acceptance of their unideal working conditions. Finally, note that this time, Ben and Gus hear the lavatory flush. This implies that there’s a functioning lavatory somewhere in this building—but that Ben and Gus’s boss, who presumably sent them here to do their job, didn’t feel it necessary for them to have access to it. This further establishes that Ben and Gus are low on the food chain and that their superiors don’t respect them all that much.
Themes
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality  Theme Icon
Quotes
Gus continues to praise the nice crockery and complain about how awful the room is. Then he asks Ben, who is by now thoroughly annoyed, why Ben stopped their car in the middle of the road that morning. It was dark and misty and Gus couldn’t see anything, but he remembers that Ben was sitting up perfectly straight like he was “waiting for something.” Ben denies this. He says he only stopped because they would’ve gotten here too early.
Ben’s behavior in the car is odd—and maybe even suspicious, given Ben’s alarmed reaction when Gus asks him about it. Ben and Gus’s curious interaction in this section also introduces the idea that not only are Ben and Gus not equal, but also that they might not have equal access to information regarding whatever job they’re supposed to do tonight—that Ben, as Gus’s superior, is privy to more insider information than Gus. Gus’s observation that Ben seemed to be “waiting for something” in the car further supports this theory. It also alludes to the play’s title—The Dumb Waiter. A dumbwaiter is an elevator-like platform that uses a pulley system to move items between floors of a building (usually food between the kitchen and the dining room). But this section suggests that “dumb waiter” also may be a play on words in the sense that quiet, waiting Ben is a literal “dumb waiter” (with “dumb” meaning unable or unwilling to speak). 
Themes
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality  Theme Icon
Quotes
Gus pauses. Then he asks if Ben means that “someone had to get out before” they arrived here. Gus looks at his bed. Now it makes sense that his linens looked unwashed and slept in. Ben argues that Gus has no way of knowing if the sheets were clean when they arrived. Besides, he’s slept in them all day—it could be Gus who made the sheets smell. Gus smells the sheets. He doesn’t know what he smells like, but he supposes Ben could be right.  
Gus’s question to Ben about whether “someone had to get out before” adds to the play’s mysterious and menacing atmosphere—it shows the audience just how uninformed Gus is (and possibly Ben, too) regarding who is involved in their job and who was (and is) in the building they’re required to wait in to perform that job. That Ben and Gus may have been provided used, dirty linens is further evidence of their low rank and the lack of respect their superiors have for them. When Ben immediately rejects Gus’s claim that they were given dirty linens, it further shows that he is far less interested in complaining about their working conditions or criticizing their superiors than Gus is.    
Themes
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality  Theme Icon
Gus asks Ben where they are right now. Ben says they’re in Birmingham. Gus is suddenly interested—Birmingham is the largest city in Great Britain. Plus, it’s Saturday tomorrow: they can “go and watch the Villa.” But Ben says it’s an away game. Plus, they have to come back right away and don’t have time to watch a game. “Things have tightened up,” he tells Gus.
Gus thinks that being in Birmingham might afford them the chance to have some fun and see a football (soccer) game. When Ben shuts this down, explaining that “Things have tightened up,” though, it suggests that their work no longer affords them the luxury of free time—as Gus has previously established, they’re expected to be on call at virtually all hours of the day. This section reinforces the men’s poor, exploitative working conditions. 
Themes
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality  Theme Icon
Gus laughs and remembers a time he saw the Villa lose a tie-breaking game. He can’t remember which team they lost to, though. He tells Ben that Ben was there, too, but Ben doesn’t remember being there. He doesn’t remember the disputed penalty, either, but when Gus describes the dispute, Ben insists that Gus is getting the details wrong. They continue to argue. 
Gus and Ben’s argument over the football game doesn’t contribute to the play’s “plot” (in so much as the play has a plot), but the banality and circuitousness of the argument further establishes the play’s absurd tone. It makes whatever Ben and Gus’s job is (which so far has only involved waiting around in a dingy basement) seem totally pointless. 
Themes
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Suddenly, an envelope slides underneath the right-side door. Gus stares at the envelope as Ben continues to talk about football. Gus points to the envelope. Ben doesn’t know what it is. They both stare at the envelope. Ben orders Gus to pick it up. Gus does. The envelope is blank. Ben orders Gus to open it. Gus opens the envelope and finds 12 matches inside. Ben orders Gus to open the door and see if anyone’s outside. Gus stares at Ben a moment, then he goes to his bed and takes a revolver out from under his pillow. He walks to the door, opens it, and peeks outside—but nobody’s there. Gus shuts the door and places the revolver back underneath his pillow. They agree that the matches will be useful, anyway, since Gus is always running out of matches.
The envelope’s appearance is a major turning point in the play: it’s the first indication that there’s a person (or people) outside the room monitoring Ben and Gus. Whoever delivered these matches has somehow learned that Ben and Gus need matches to make tea, and this implies that somebody is listening to them. This, in turn, adds to the play’s threatening, dangerous tone. The revelation that Gus (and presumably Ben too) is armed is another key development; it presents another clue about their line of work while also contributing to the play’s threatening atmosphere. It seems more likely now that Gus and Ben are involved in some kind of illegal activity—perhaps they are hitmen. Also note how Ben makes Gus go to the door to investigate, a further instance in which Ben uses his authority over Gus to protect his own interests—at the expense of Gus’s safety. In other words, Ben’s relative power doesn’t make him merciful or kind—on the contrary, it makes him selfish and indifferent to the suffering of others.
Themes
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality  Theme Icon
Gus says he can make tea now that he has matches. Ben orders him to “light the kettle.” Gus asks if Ben means he should light the gas. “Who does?” Ben asks Gus. “You do,” Gus replies. Ben assesses Gus skeptically. Ben snaps that “light the kettle” is a common saying. But Gus hasn’t heard of it. They argue back and forth and then stare at each other silently. Gus says that the expression Ben meant to say was “put on the kettle.” But Ben claims he’s never heard of that saying. Gus insists that “put on the kettle” is a common saying—his mother probably used to say it. Ben asks Gus when’s the last time he saw his mother.
Ben and Gus’s failure to communicate lends another element of absurdity to the play—absurdist plays (and Pinter’s in particular) frequently portray the underlying meaninglessness and futility of the human condition through characters who use circuitous, nonsensical language. But Ben’s insistence on using “light the kettle,” a common saying, further suggests his conformist attitude—he believes that it’s important to speak the idiomatic language of the masses. Because of this, he resents Gus for questioning the correctness of an idiom’s meaning which everyone has accepted—even if the idiom’s literal meaning doesn’t make sense. Finally, Ben’s comment about Gus not having seen his mother in some time provides additional insight into Ben and Gus’s job—it’s apparently so time-consuming that they have little time even to see their families.
Themes
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality  Theme Icon
Quotes
Ben advises Gus to heed his advice. As “the senior partner,” Ben is only trying to look out for Gus. But Gus refuses to let the kettle issue go. In response, Ben grips Gus’s neck with both hands and shouts that the gas lights “THE KETTLE, YOU FOOL!” Ben removes his hands from Gus’s throat. Gus is silent, then he gives in and concedes that Ben is right. Ben asks why Gus hasn’t lit the kettle yet. Gus strikes a match against the flattened matchbox, but it doesn’t light. Ben stares silently as Gus strikes a match on his shoe; this time, the match lights. “Put on the bloody kettle,” Ben orders Gus. Then, realizing what he’s said, Ben slams his paper down on his bed and drops his head into his hands.
Ben explicitly confirms what the play has only hinted at thus far: he is “the senior partner,” and Gus is his subordinate. Ben’s suggestion that he’s only looking out for Gus doesn’t only apply to their ongoing kettle-semantics argument; it’s a broader suggestion (and maybe even warning) that bad things may happen to Gus if he continues to challenge authority and scrutinize the agreed-upon way of doing or saying things—a case he drives home when he physically assaults Gus. Finally, note that Ben slips up and accidentally asks Gus to “Put on the bloody kettle,” an expression he just finished telling Gus was incorrect. This suggests that Ben’s learned manner of speaking and behaving is artificial, possibly an effort to appear more refined or knowledgeable than he really is. 
Themes
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality  Theme Icon
Quotes
Gus exits through the left door and returns moments later, announcing that the stove is “going.” He wonders aloud “who it’ll be tonight,” then he announces that he’s been meaning to ask Ben something. “Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Ben groans as he swings his legs onto his bed. Gus walks over and sits down on Ben’s bed. Irritated, Ben asks Gus why he’s always asking so many questions. He orders Gus to be quiet and do his job. But Gus repeats his question about “who it’ll be tonight.” Ben stares at Gus in confusion and asks if Gus is feeling okay. Gus says he’s fine. Ben orders Gus to finish making the tea. Gus stands and exits silently through the left door.
Gus’s question about “who it’ll be tonight” hints at the nature of his and Ben’s yet-undisclosed profession. They seem to be waiting for someone’s arrival, so maybe this is the “who” to whom Gus refers. It’s also apparent that Ben has no interest in answering Gus’s question—though whether this is because Ben doesn’t understand the question, doesn’t know the answer, or knows and doesn’t want to answer remains a mystery. Finally, the total lack of understanding that Ben and Gus achieve in this conversation adds to the play’s absurdity: absurdist theater frequently uses communication breakdowns and nonsensical, ineffective language to illustrate human connection’s—and by extension, life’s—ultimate meaninglessness.
Themes
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Quotes
Gus returns moments later and announces that the stove has gone out because they’re out of gas and have no money to feed the meter. Ben says they’ll have to wait for Wilson. Gus counters that sometimes Wilson doesn’t come by—sometimes he “just send[s] a message.” Ben says they’ll just have to have their tea later, then. He doesn’t understand why Gus is so upset. Gus explains that he likes tea “before.” Ben picks up his revolver, holds it up to the light, and begins to polish it. He tells Gus that Gus should “get ready anyway.” Gus doesn’t want to. He grumbles about not getting paid enough.
Wilson seems to be Gus and Ben’s boss and the unnamed “he” that Ben referenced earlier. Gus and Ben’s argument over Wilson’s poor communication further establishes Ben as the obedient partner who respects authority and Gus as the rebellious partner who refuses to respect an authority figure who doesn’t respect them back. This scene makes it clear that Gus is dissatisfied with the way Wilson runs things and thinks he deserves better working conditions. Ben, on the other hand, thinks that he and Gus have a responsibility to “get ready anyway” and do what Wilson asks of them, regardless of how he compensates them for their work. Finally, though Ben does end up polishing his revolver, his action of picking it up may also be read as a veiled threat against Gus—a warning that Ben has a revolver and has no qualms about using it on Gus if Gus continues to ask so many questions and criticize their boss.
Themes
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality  Theme Icon
Gus throws a tea packet into his bag. He thinks that Wilson should give them a shilling, at least, since “it’s his place,” and he should have made sure there would be enough gas to make tea. Ben guesses that Wilson only rents the place. Gus disagrees. It’s the same thing everywhere they go: “You go to this address, there’s a key there, there’s a teapot, there’s never a soul in sight.” Then Gus wonders aloud whether the walls are soundproofed, since they never hear anyone, and nobody ever complains about them being too loud.
Gus doesn’t seem to have an obvious reason to assume that the building he and Ben are in right now is Wilson’s, but he does suggest that Wilson is wealthy enough to own property—which places him in a class above Ben and Gus, who seem to be underpaid members of the working class. If Wilson is wealthy, the audience may interpret Gus’s criticisms against Wilson not only as a critique of authority but also of class. In light of this, when Gus complains that Wilson ought to at least provide them with enough gas to make tea, he’s suggesting that Wilson’s disregarding their comfort is even more egregious, given he has the means to provide them with adequate accommodations and simply chooses not to. 
Themes
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Gus grumbles about Wilson some more. He has lots of questions to ask Wilson but has a hard time knowing how. Changing the subject, Gus wonders aloud about “the last one[.]” Then he clarifies, explaining that he means “That girl.” Gus asks Ben how many times he’s read the paper. Ben accuses Gus of “criticising” him. He threatens to hit Gus if Gus doesn’t cut it out. “Now look here, Ben—” Gus begins, trying to reason with Ben. But Ben angrily announces that he doesn’t have to “look[] anywhere” he doesn’t want to.
Gus’s comments about “the last one” and a “girl” seem to allude to a previous job they performed. Given the seemingly illicit, secretive nature of their work and the fact that they’re both armed, the audience might guess that Ben and Gus are hitmen. (This guide will assume that Ben and Gus are hitmen, though the play never explicitly states that this is so.) Ben and Gus’s profession, then, adds to the play’s violent, threatening atmosphere. It also makes Ben’s apparent willingness to go along with whatever their bosses say all the more troubling, since it suggests that he's willing to obey authority even if an authority figure orders him to kill another person. Also note how Ben seems physically uncomfortable with Gus discussing what seems to be a previous hit, a detail that further suggests that, even though Ben follows orders to carry out hits, he’s not necessarily okay with the things he’s asked to do. Finally, Ben’s anger at Gus for asking him to “look here” and see things from Gus’s perspective shows just how determined Ben is to preserve the power imbalance between himself and Gus: he’s effectively stating that he doesn’t have to do or think anything Gus asks him to do because he’s in charge and Gus isn’t. 
Themes
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality  Theme Icon
Quotes
Ben and Gus are silent as they sit back down on their respective beds. Gus continues to discuss the girl. She wasn’t all that pretty, Gus admits, but he still hates how much of “a mess” things became. Gus thinks that women are “A looser texture” than men. “Didn’t she spread, eh?” he asks Ben. Ben sits up in his bed and squeezes his eyes shut tight. Then Gus wonders aloud who cleans up once they leave a job. Maybe, Gus speculates, nobody cleans up at all. Ben calls Gus a “mutt.” Of course somebody cleans up after them—“They got departments for everything.”
This scene adds further credence to the theory that Ben and Gus are hitmen—the “mess” that Gus describes here seems to refer to the gory aftermath of a hit. When he talks about how the woman “spread,” he seems to be referencing the way her blood spilled out after they shot her, presumably with the revolvers they’re armed with now. Why Gus remains fixated on the gory aftermath of this hit remains unclear, but it could be that he’s troubled by the acts of violence that Ben and Gus commit as hitmen and so can’t stop thinking and talking about past hits. Ben, by contrast, can only squeeze his eyes shut tight—perhaps symbolic of the way he must turn a blind eye to the brutal reality of their work in order to live with himself. Ben and Gus’s opposite ways of coping with their job further establishes Gus as someone who questions everything and thinks for himself. Meanwhile, Ben believes it’s important to always obey authority—and he refuses to think for himself and confront the brutal reality of their work because doing so would make it harder to obey authority. Finally, Ben’s remark that their organization has “departments for everything” suggests its size, power, and reach—and Ben and Gus’s relative lack thereof. Increasingly, the play asks the audience to see Ben and Gus as working-class everyman-type characters who are rendered powerless in the face of a much larger, nefarious institutional power.
Themes
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality  Theme Icon
Quotes
Suddenly, a loud noise issues forth from the wall behind the beds—something is being lowered down from upstairs. The noise stops. The room is silent. Ben and Gus look at each other. Ben motions for Gus to approach the wall, and Gus does. He taps the wall with his revolver and finds that the wall is hollow. Gus puts the revolver down on his bed. Then he lifts a panel on the wall to discover a hidden serving-hatch—a dumb waiter. He pulls out a piece of paper and reads it aloud: “Two braised steak and chips. Two sago puddings. Two teas without sugar.”
Finally, the titular “dumb waiter” appears. That the dumb waiter has started to deliver what seem to be restaurant orders to two hitmen adds another element of absurdity to the play. Additionally, it further solidifies Ben and Gus’s status as lowly, working-class people who have no choice but to obey the wealthier, more powerful upper-class people who order them around. As far as the audience knows, Ben and Gus have no food, and it’s already well established that they have no gas for the stove, either, making it impossible for them to fill the order the dumb waiter has sent them. This surely will create conflict for Ben, whose entire personality is rooted in upholding hierarchies and following orders. 
Themes
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality  Theme Icon
The box on which the paper arrives ascends back up through the wall. Gus thinks it’s funny that whoever is upstairs is in “such a hurry.” Ben disagrees—there’s nothing funny about any of this; cafés change ownership very quickly. Gus is surprised to learn that they’re in a café. He wonders if the café’s kitchen is downstairs, where they are. Ben says it is. He also says it’s totally normal for cafés to switch hands. It happens all the time and isn’t a big deal for the owners, who simply leave and move on with their lives. “WELL, WHO’S GOT IT NOW?” Gus asks. But before Ben can answer the question, the dumb waiter descends once more.
Gus acknowledges that his life and work are meaningless, and this allows him to see the absurd humor of his and Ben’s present situation. Ben, meanwhile, believes that people need to obey their authority figures at all times, even if they don’t understand or agree with what’s asked of them—and also that failure to obey orders should be met with violence and punishment. Because of this, Ben treats his present situation as a serious problem, and maybe even a threat to his life. Finally, Gus’s curiosity about who owns the café upstairs and inability to grasp the idea that cafés change hands all the time reflects his critical attitude toward social and class hierarchies. His lower-class status makes it difficult for him to grasp that anyone could be so wealthy that they could buy property and then leave it behind so casually. Ben’s remark about it being normal for cafés to switch hands, meanwhile, suggests that he respects hierarchies. Also note how often Ben uses words like “common” or “normal” (as he does here)—this habit further suggests his conformist sensibilities. Ben is a big believer that people should go along with reigning systems, hierarchies, and social conventions—even if those accepted systems and behaviors act against a person’s best interest.
Themes
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality  Theme Icon
Ben holds his revolver as Gus approaches the dumb waiter and draws out a piece of paper. He reads aloud, “Soup of the day. Liver and onions. Jam tart.” Gus and Ben are silent. Ben looks at the hatch but doesn’t look up. Gus places a hand on Ben’s shoulder, but Ben swats it away. Gus approaches the hatch and looks up. Ben returns the revolver to his bed and announces that they must send something up. Gus agrees. They’re happy to have agreed on a plan.
Again, this section demonstrates how Ben uses his relative power over Gus to protect himself at Gus’s expense. That Ben holds his revolver as Gus approaches the dumb waiter shows that he feels threatened and yet afraid—and more importantly, that he has no qualms about putting Gus’s life at risk to save his own. Next, the dumb waiter serves two main purposes. For starters, it adds another element of absurdity to the play, as it’s unclear who is using it to send Ben and Gus meal orders, why they’re sending them, and how they expect Ben and Gus—two hitmen who have neither food nor cooking supplies at their disposal—to make them. The dumb waiter also shows how relieved Ben (and even Gus) is to finally have explicit directions to follow. Though it seems implausible that they’ll be able to fill the orders the dumb waiter has sent down to them, they find comfort, purpose, and certainty in having such a straightforward task assigned to them after hours of waiting in a windowless room with no communication from their boss. On the subject of their boss, Wilson—is it possible that he is the one sending these messages? And if so, why?
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Ben asks Gus what Gus has in his bag. Gus approaches the hatch and shouts up it, “Wait a minute!” Ben yells at Gus to stop. Gus looks inside his bag and begins to remove its contents one item at a time, naming everything as he removes it: “Biscuits. A bar of chocolate. Half a pint of milk. […] Packet of tea.” Ben asks if Gus has anything else inside the bag. Gus admits that he has one Eccles cake—he didn’t bring a second cake for Ben because he figured Ben wouldn’t want one. Ben tells Gus to send up the Eccles cake, too. Gus gets up to exit the left door, but then he stops and asks Ben if he can keep his Eccles cake if “they” don’t know they have it. “That’s not the point,” Ben says.
Ben disapproves of Gus carelessly shouting up the hatch because he respects (and fears) authority and thinks that Gus’s yelling will insult and anger whoever is up there. Ben’s impulse to place Gus’s cheap snack food on the dumb waiter—even though it’s not what the order asks for—reinforces his need to adhere to accepted social convention. He feels it’s better that they send something up, since the authority figures upstairs clearly expect them to. Finally, Ben’s explanation that they still have to send up the Eccles cake (a type of pastry) even though the people upstairs don’t know that they have it reinforces his unwavering obedience to authority. Ben is suggesting that a person has to obey authority at all times—not just in situations where they’ll be caught if they don’t. Ben’s extreme obedience adds to the play’s threatening atmosphere: even in situations where there’s no obvious sign of danger, the mere threat of danger motivates Ben to act cautiously and obediently to avoid punishment.
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Gus exits and returns with the plate. Ben looks inside Gus’s bag and removes a packet of crisps. When Gus returns with the plate, Ben asks him about the crisps. He accuses Gus of “playing a dirty game.” Gus says he only eats crisps with beer and was saving the crisps until he could find some beer. Ben orders Gus to put everything on the plate. They do so, but the dumb waiter goes up before they can put the plate on it.
Ben sees Gus’s withholding the crisps (chips) from him as an affront to his power: he thinks that Gus is “playing a dirty game” in thinking that he can keep things from Ben, his superior. 
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Ben blames Gus for missing the dumb waiter. Gus asks what they’re supposed to do now. Ben says they’ll have to wait until the box returns. In the meantime, Gus should get ready. Gus puts on his tie and adjusts his holster. Then he pauses and asks Ben what’s happening. He points out that this place can’t be a café, since the stove only has three rings, and you can’t cook with so few rings. Agitated, Ben explains that this is why the service is so slow here.
Ben blames Gus for missing the box—yet if Ben hadn’t wasted so much time reprimanding Gus over the crisps, they may have had enough time to place everything in the box before it returned upstairs. Though both (or neither, really) are to blame for missing the box, Ben uses his power over Gus as an excuse to scapegoat Gus for his own mistakes. Also, if anyone is to blame in this situation, it’s the people upstairs—Gus and Ben’s higher-ups—for taking the box upstairs before Ben and Gus were ready. Ben’s misplaced anger toward Gus thus metaphorically illustrates how exploitative hierarchies and working conditions pit working-class people against each other.  
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Just then, the dumb waiter descends. Gus approaches it and retrieves a piece of paper. He reads the paper aloud: “Macaroni Pastitsio. Ormitha Macarounada.” Ben recognizes these as Greek dishes. Gus remarks that this is “pretty high class.” Ben tells Gus to hurry and put the plate in the box before the box can ascend without it. Gus does so, shouting up the hatch: “Three McVitie and Price! One Lyons Red Label! One Smith’s Crisps! One Eccles cake! One Fruit and Nut!” Ben hands Gus the milk, which Gus then places inside the hatch. “One bottle of milk!” Gus shouts up the hatch.
Ben claims to be familiar with this supposedly “Greek” dish that Gus has deemed “pretty high class” in order to seem more refined and more knowledgeable about fine dining than he really is—it’s an attempt to distance himself from the working-class status of which he’s so ashamed and to make Gus feel comparatively foolish, ignorant, and classless. But the only person Ben has made a fool of is himself, since Ormitha Macarounada is in fact a nonsense dish—it doesn’t exist. The fact that the people upstairs have sent Ben and Gus an order for a nonexistent dish adds another element of absurdity to the play—absurdist theater frequently features characters faced with impossible, pointless tasks to emphasize the absurdity and futility of the human condition. The Ormitha Macarounada order also underscores the power imbalance between Ben and Gus and the authority figures upstairs—it suggests that they’re messing with Ben and Gus and perhaps laughing at the thought of Ben and Gus struggling in vain. 
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Ben tells Gus he shouldn’t shout this way, but at least they’re done—for now, anyway. Ben tells Gus to get dressed, since they’re bound to be called soon. Gus puts on his waistcoat, and Ben lies down in his bed. Gus complains about the place not having any tea or biscuits. Ben accuses Gus of “getting lazy” and “slack[ing] on [the] job.” He gestures toward Gus’s gun and points out that Gus hasn’t even polished it. Gus tries to polish his revolver on his bedsheet.
When Ben urges Gus not to shout, it reinforces both his characteristic need to conform to social norms and his class anxiety—he doesn’t want Gus to shout because Gus’s shouting will alert the people upstairs to the fact that Ben and Gus are classless commoners ignorant of the refined etiquette of the civilized upper class. The same logic applies to Ben’s order for Gus to polish his gun—Ben thinks an unpolished gun will make them appear slovenly and undeserving of their higher-ups’ respect. Finally, Ben’s insistence that they’ll be called soon also reinforces his respect for authority—and also the way this respect makes him appear foolish. All their superiors have done thus far is tease and taunt them with matches they can’t use and food orders they can’t fill—yet Ben continues to have faith in them and wait dutifully for them to call him to act. At the beginning of the play, it seemed that Gus was the fool, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that Ben’s unwavering obedience to authority clouds his judgment and makes him behave foolishly, too. Meanwhile, Gus’s constant scrutiny of their superiors seems increasingly prudent.
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Gus wonders aloud where the cook could be. He also wonders if there are additional stoves and cooks somewhere else in the building. Ben replies that of course there are other stoves and cooks—it takes a lot of effort to make an Ormitha Macarounada. Gus places his gun in his holster. Then he anxiously wonders when they’ll get out of here—isn’t it about time that Wilson gets in touch with them? After all, they’ve “never let [Wilson] down.”
Ben continues to be made the fool as he insinuates that Ormitha Macarounada—a dish that doesn’t exist—is exceedingly difficult to make. Meanwhile, Gus’s skepticism seems increasingly warranted. His observation that it makes no sense to have a café upstairs—but no real kitchen downstairs—reaffirms that something fishy is going on here. When Gus places his gun in his holster, it suggests that he believes he and Gus may even be in danger.
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Gus grumbles about having a headache. Just then, the dumb waiter descends. The sound makes Ben jump up from his bed. Gus gets up, picks up the note, and reads it aloud: “One Bamboo Shoots, Water Chestnuts, and Chicken. One Char Siu and Beansprouts.” Neither Ben nor Gus knows what to do with this latest list of demands. Gus looks at the box again and observes that they’ve sent back the tea packet, too. The returned tea bag alarms Ben. Gus suggests that it might not be tea-time. The box ascends.
In addition to highlighting the absurdity of Ben and Gus’s situation, this section also reinforces their powerlessness: Ben and Gus lack the supplies and equipment necessary to send up even a simple meal—and they certainly can’t send up the order of “One Bamboo Shoots, Water Chestnuts, and Chicken. One Char Siu and Beansprouts” the people are now asking them to make. Ben is alarmed because he simultaneously understands the grave importance of obeying authority—and also that his present circumstances leave him powerlessness to do so. Meanwhile, the fact that Ben is interpreting the returned teabag as a threatening coded message suggests not only his deference to authority but also that he is privy to information that Gus is not.
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Ben returns to his bed. Urgently, he tells Gus that they had “better tell them” that they can’t fill these orders because they don’t have any food or equipment. He asks to borrow Gus’s pencil so that they can send up a note. Gus turns to look for a pencil, but then he notices a speaking-tube hanging from the wall, beside the dumb waiter. Ben says they should have used the speaking-tube instead of shouting up the hatch. Ben points out the whistle next to the tube. He tells Gus to pull out the whistle and blow into it; the noise will let the people upstairs know that they want to talk.  
This section marks a turning point in the play. Up until now, Ben and Gus haven’t had the means to communicate directly with their superiors, but their discovery of the speaking-tube seems to offer a solution to this problem. Even so, the speaking-tube isn’t an ideal form of communication: only one of them can use the speaking-tube at once. This means that one person must rely on the other to relay information to him, placing him in a position of relative ignorance—and powerlessness.
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Gus blows into the whistle, but there’s no sound. He shouts into the tube that they don’t have anything. Ben grabs the tube from Gus, places it to his own mouth, and speaks into it with an apologetic tone, explaining to the people upstairs that they don’t have any food left downstairs. Then he brings the tube to his ear and listens, alternatively placing the tube to his ear to listen and bringing it to his mouth to ask questions. In between speaking into the tube and listening, he explains to Gus that all the food they sent up was apparently stale or spoiled. Ben apologizes into the tube once more. Then he listens, promises to do something immediately, and places the tube back on the wall.
It's curious that only Ben gets a response from his and Gus’s authorities when he uses the speaking-tube, and it suggests that Ben, as Gus’s superior, is privy to info that Gus is not. It’s also possible that something more nefarious is going on: are Ben and Gus working together to fulfill orders of their unseen higher-ups—or are the higher-ups and Ben scheming against Gus? Indeed, the higher-ups’ dissatisfaction with Gus’s food seems to suggest that Gus is the odd one out. This section also places the audience and Gus in the same boat, as neither can hear the voice on the other end of the speaking-tube, and so both must rely on Ben to tell them what the voice is saying—and must trust that Ben will be truthful about what he hears. 
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Suddenly excited, Ben says that the voice upstairs told him to light the kettle. Gus reminds Ben that they can’t do this because they don’t have any gas. Anxious once more, Ben wonders what they’re supposed to do. “He wanted a cup of tea!” Ben explains. Gus scoffs. He (Gus) has been wanting tea all night; what about what he and Ben want? Ben sits on the bed and stares silently ahead. Meanwhile, Gus continues to complain that his and Ben’s “sustenance” seems not to matter to anybody. Gus bets that “he” has plenty of food upstairs—that the people upstairs are doing just fine and probably aren’t waiting around to see what he and Ben send upstairs. They’re just messing with them.
The order from upstairs to “light the kettle” recalls the earlier scene in which he and Gus fought over which expression was correct: “light the kettle,” “put on the kettle,” or “light the gas.” Ben is excited because the superiors have used his phrase and so confirmed its correctness. He also interprets this as proof of his relative acceptance among the upper classes. Gus sees through the charade, though: the people upstairs don’t respect or accept Ben, and the fact that they’ve denied Ben and Gus basic “sustenance” and played games with them this entire time is evidence of their disrespect.
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Ben interrupts Gus’s grumbling. “Time’s getting on,” he notes in a quiet, wary voice. Gus says he can’t work on an empty stomach. Exhausted, Ben tells Gus to just listen to him already. Gus relents and sits down beside Ben on Bed’s bed. Then Ben gives Gus orders, and Gus repeats the orders back to Ben. If they receive a call, Gus is to stand behind the door. If someone knocks, Gus shouldn’t answer the door. But nobody will knock on the door—they’ll just come in. When this happens, Gus will shut the door behind the man without making his presence known to the man. The man will see Ben and walk toward him. Then Ben will take out his gun. The man will freeze. Then he’ll turn around and see Gus.
Ben’s comment that “Time’s getting on” builds tension and adds to the play’s menacing atmosphere—he’s suggesting that it’s nearly time to carry out the night’s hit. Meanwhile, though Gus has repeatedly exhibited his preference to think for himself instead of blindly following orders, the ease with which he repeats instructions back to Ben suggests that he, too, finds it easier—and perhaps even comforting—to sit back and do what someone else tells him to do rather than act of his own volition.
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Ben frowns just then. Gus observes that Ben has left out the step where Gus takes out his gun—and he’s never left out this part before. Ben backtracks. Gus will take out his gun, Ben amends. The three of them will stare at one another, and the man won’t know what to do. Gus asks what they should do if the person who opens the door is a girl. Ben says this wouldn’t change anything.
Has Ben really “forgotten” the step where Gus draws his gun—or does he know that it’s not part of the plan and accidentally alerted Gus to something Gus isn’t supposed to know? Ben has warned Gus multiple times that it’s in Gus’s best interests to obey orders and not complain about their job or ask too many questions. If Ben didn’t slip up, and Gus’s being unarmed is really part of the plan for tonight’s hit, it’s possible that Ben hasn’t been making empty threats—that Gus will actually pay for his disobedience and curiosity.
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Gus stands up, shivering, and excuses himself. He exits through the left door. Ben stays sitting upright on his bed. There’s the sound of the lavatory chain being pulled, but, once more, the lavatory fails to flush. Gus returns, looking deep in thought. He turns to Ben and asks, with fear in his voice, why “he” sent Gus and Ben matches if he knew they didn’t have any gas. Ben stares back at Gus. Then he looks up.
When Gus questions why “he” (presumably Wilson) left them matches when he knows they have no gas to use them with, he’s acknowledging that something fishy is going on— that perhaps his and Ben’s fates are in the hands of powerful forces who do not have their best interests in mind and take pleasure in messing with them. That Ben and Gus should receive matches right after expressing a need for matches suggests two things: that Wilson is somehow surveilling them and listening in on their conversations, and that he is perfectly capable of giving them the supplies they need. Gus takes issue with Wilson’s providing them with matches but no gas because it reaffirms his suspicion that Wilson is only messing with them: he never intended for Ben and Gus to use the matches and only provided them to remind Ben and Gus of their low status and powerlessness. The matches put Ben and Gus in their place, showing them that Wilson controls everything they do, even down to the banal act of making tea. 
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Gus asks Ben who’s upstairs. Ben doesn’t answer. Instead, he urgently grabs for his paper on his bed. Gus prods Ben to answer him, but Ben shouts, “Enough!” Ben orders Gus to be quiet, but Gus, irritated now, continues to ask about the place’s owners. Ben gets up and strikes Gus on the shoulder. Gus remains unfazed. He says to Ben, “I told you who ran this place, didn’t I?” Ben strikes Gus again.
Ben’s irritation suggests that he does know something Gus doesn’t know—and that Gus may be very close to finding out what this something is. It could also simply be Ben’s effort to remind Gus of his place. Throughout the play, Ben’s paper has symbolized his intelligence and refinement, particularly relative to Gus—and how Ben uses this superiority to exert power over Gus. When Ben grabs his paper here, he’s reminding Gus that he (Ben) “r[u]n[s] this place,” and Gus would be wise not to cross him. This section is also significant because it features one of the play’s few moments of physical violence. Normally, the characters or stage directions merely hint at violence—as in the newspaper stories that Ben reads aloud or the veiled threats Ben makes against Gus. That Ben makes good on his threats here builds tension and reveals that Ben’s obedience to authority isn’t totally unfounded—that there are indeed real consequences for people who don’t do as they’re told.  
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There’s a violent tone to Gus’s voice as he asks why “he” is playing games with them when they’ve been put through so many “tests” and passed them all. Surely, they’ve shown that they’re reliable and will always get the job done.
The “he” to whom Gus refers is presumably Wilson. That Gus can’t even say Wilson’s name out loud points metaphorically toward Gus’s awareness of the distance that his and Wilson’s power imbalance creates between them.
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Gus’s rant is interrupted by the dumb waiter, which comes down the shaft behind them. Gus goes to the dumb waiter and retrieves a note. “Scampi!” he reads aloud. Then he grabs the tube, blows into the whistle, and shouts into the tube, “WE’VE GOT NOTHING LEFT! NOTHING! DO YOU UNDERSTAND?” Alarmed, Ben calls Gus a “maniac” and grabs the tube from him. He warns Gus to stop and then hangs the tube back on the wall.
Where Ben and Gus direct their anger reveals a lot about their attitudes toward authority. Ben’s alarmed, angry response to Gus’s shouting reaffirms his obedience to—and fear of—authority; he’s terrified that Gus will upset their superiors and get both of them in trouble. Meanwhile, Gus grows increasingly angry at their authorities, suggesting his unwillingness to show deference toward people who have done nothing but manipulate and exploit himself and his partner. 
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Ben lies down on his bed. He and Gus sit in silence. Then the dumb waiter ascends once more. After a pause, they hear the dumb waiter come down again. They look at each other. Then Ben picks up his paper. “Kaw!” he cries, then he describes the news stories like he did before. Gus lethargically tells Ben to continue, and they cycle through the same comments they made earlier. “It’s unbelievable,” Gus says. With disgust, Ben notes that the story is “enough to make you want to puke[.]”
The audience and Gus are in the same boat: neither can hear what the voice on the other end of the speaking-tube is saying and must rely on Ben for information. Gus’s ignorance reinforces his relative powerlessness: his inability to speak directly with his superiors limits his ability to make informed decisions and possibly even puts his life in danger. This section also adds to the play’s absurdity. Ben and Gus’s present conversation is nearly identical to their conversation at the start of the play, and this reinforces the absurd futility of their situation: they’ve spent the entire play trying to meet their superiors’ increasingly unreasonable demands, yet in the end, they’re right back where they started, and all their work was for nothing.
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Ben gets up and adjusts the revolver in his holster. Gus gets up and announces that he’s going to grab a glass of water. He leaves through the left door. Then the whistle in the speaking-tube sounds. Ben gets up, takes the speaking-tube down from the wall, and places it to his ear. He listens and tells the voice that they’re “ready.” Ben places the speaking-tube back on the wall. Then, his voice urgent, he cries out for Gus. The right door opens. Ben turns, his revolver pointed at the door. Gus walks inside. His clothes have been taken from him, and his holster and revolver are gone, too. He stops, his arms at his sides, and stares at Ben. Ben stares back. 
When Gus enters the room through the right-hand door—the door the target is supposed to walk through—he reveals himself to be the target. It’s left ambiguous whether Ben has known this to be the case the entire time, or whether he’s only learning about it now. Either way, that Ben must now betray his partner illustrates how exploitative working conditions and hierarchies pit workers against each other. The play’s closing scene also sheds new light on the play’s title, revealing that Ben and Gus have both been “dumb waiters” all along. Gus has dumbly waited around for hours, utterly ignorant of the fact that he has a target on his back. Meanwhile, Ben has been a “dumb” (as in mute) waiter too: he has spent the entirety of the play waiting for his boss to tell him what to do, unwilling to speak out against his higher-ups and question his exploitative working conditions. Up to this point, Ben has blindly obeyed authority, seeming to believe that doing so will present him with the opportunity to improve his social standing and quality of life. This final scene shows the grave consequences of Ben’s unquestioning obedience—it has incentivized him to betray his partner. Not only this, but it's not even clear if killing Gus will improve Ben’s standing at all, or if he’ll continue to be exploited and undermined by more powerful forces who know that his lower-class status leaves him with no choice but to do as they say, even if that means harming himself and others. Finally, that both Gus, the rebel nonconformist, and Ben, the obedient follower, should meet such grim fates reinforces the play’s underlying position that life is absurd and meaningless. People are doomed to fail, regardless of whether they think for themselves or seek reassurance in upholding the status quo.
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