Matches symbolize Ben and Gus’s powerlessness to improve their lives under exploitative hierarchies and working conditions. Matches first appear at the very beginning of The Dumb Waiter when Gus absurdly pulls an empty, flattened matchbox from his shoe. This confounding, seemingly random first appearance of matches alerts the audience to the play’s absurdity, but it also shows how Ben and Gus’s low status leaves them ill-equipped to fulfill even the most basic of needs: Gus announces many times throughout the play that he wants to make tea, yet he lacks the matches he needs to light the stove. Later, an unseen person slips an unmarked envelope containing 12 matches under the door to Ben and Gus’s basement room. At first, this seems like a fortuitous and empowering development, and Gus and Ben seem to regard them as a sign that Wilson, their boss (and the person they assume left them the matches), is aware of and respectful of their needs: now, they’ll finally be able to make tea and, in so doing, exercise a marginally greater degree of power over their present situation. But when the stove’s gas shuts off, Gus realizes that Wilson hasn’t sent them the matches as a gesture of goodwill; to the contrary, Gus sees the matches as just another one of Wilson’s manipulative, exploitative games. Gus reasons that Wilson’s giving them the matches is proof that he is surveilling them in some way and so is well aware of their needs and concerns. With this, the matches become a threat—a reminder of the powerful, unseeable authority figure that rules over Ben and Gus and has the power to manipulate and control them in ways they can neither predict nor understand. What’s more, if Wilson is surveilling them, then he should also know that the gas has gone off, rendering the matches useless. Thus, it becomes clear to Gus that Wilson has sent them the matches not to help them out, but rather to taunt them with an object they desperately need but now have no way to use: it’s a way of putting them in their place and reinforcing their powerlessness. The matches also remind Ben and Gus of Wilson’s power: he sends them the matches to show them that he has the power to know what Ben and Gus need and the capacity to ensure that those needs are met—yet he actively chooses not to, apparently for no reason other than because he can.
The Matches Quotes in The Dumb Waiter
BEN. Go and light it.
GUS. Light what?
BEN. The kettle.
GUS. You mean the gas.
BEN. Who does?
GUS. You do.
BEN (his eyes narrowing). What do you mean, I mean the gas?
GUS. Well, that’s what you mean, don’t you? The gas?
BEN (powerfully). If I say go and light the kettle I mean go and light the kettle.
GUS. How can you light a kettle?
BEN. It’s a figure of speech! Light the kettle. It’s a figure of speech!
GUS. I’ve never heard it.
BEN. Light the kettle! It’s common usage!
BEN. […] Gus, I’m not trying to be unreasonable. I’m just trying to point out something to you.
GUS. Yes, but—
BEN. Who’s the senior partner here, me or you?
BEN. I’m only looking after your interests, Gus. You’ve got to learn, mate.