The Dumb Waiter

by

Harold Pinter

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Absurdism and Meaninglessness Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Class Anxiety and Power  Theme Icon
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon
Obedience to Authority  Theme Icon
Conformity vs. Individuality  Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Dumb Waiter, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Absurdism and Meaninglessness  Theme Icon

The Dumb Waiter, first performed in 1960, contains elements of absurdist theater. Absurdism is a genre of fiction in which characters experience situations that call into question the fundamental meaning of life and point to the ultimate futility of the human condition. Works of absurdist fiction typically focus on the existential anxiety characters experience as a result of these experiences. Characters often must perform purposeless, repetitive tasks that demonstrate their lives’ meaninglessness. The Dumb Waiter, for instance, tells the story of two hitmen, Ben and Gus. Yet the audience never sees the men carry out their hit. Instead, the men spend the entirety of the play staring into space or bickering with each other as they wait for a call from their boss telling them it’s time to perform that night’s hit. Absurdist works frequently lack a conventional plot and a clear, decisive moral. The Dumb Waiter, for instance, concludes with the revelation that Gus is in fact the target of his and Ben’s hit, and the play ends with Ben pointing his revolver at Gus as the men stare silently at each other. Yet it remains unclear how and why Ben arrives at the decision to betray his partner—or even if he carries out the hit on Gus at all. Ben’s motivations and behavior remain vague, mysterious, and frustratingly open to interpretation—and all this makes it practically impossible for the audience to pass judgment on him. 

In addition, The Dumb Waiter, like many works of absurdist theater, employs nonsensical language to show how life’s meaninglessness is rooted in and perpetuated by breakdowns in human communication. For instance, Ben and Gus spar over their different takes on a common idiomatic expression. When Ben orders Gus to “light the kettle” so they can make tea, Gus claims not to understand Ben before insisting that what Ben really meant to say was “put on the kettle.” Gus also repeatedly asks his superior, Ben, questions about that night’s job that Ben can’t (or refuses to) understand. Often, Ben ignores Gus’s questions—and when he does answer them, his vague, convoluted answers only heighten Gus’s confusion and add to the tension and anxiety that gradually develops between the two men over the course of the play. In short, The Dumb Waiter draws on numerous elements of absurdist fiction to suggest the fundamental meaninglessness of life and the futility of the human condition.

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Absurdism and Meaninglessness ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Absurdism and Meaninglessness appears in each chapter of The Dumb Waiter. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Absurdism and Meaninglessness Quotes in The Dumb Waiter

Below you will find the important quotes in The Dumb Waiter related to the theme of Absurdism and Meaninglessness .
The Dumb Waiter Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Ben (speaker), Gus (speaker)
Related Symbols: Ben’s Newspaper
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:

GUS. […] I mean, you come into a place when it’s still dark, you come into a room you’ve never seen before, you sleep all day, you do your job, and then you go away in the night again.

Pause.

I like to get a look at the scenery. You never get a chance in this job.

Related Characters: Gus (speaker), Ben, Wilson
Page Number: 90
Explanation and Analysis:

BEN. You know what your trouble is?

GUS. What?

BEN. You haven’t got any interests.

Related Characters: Ben (speaker), Gus (speaker)
Page Number: 90
Explanation and Analysis:

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!

Related Characters: Ben (speaker), Gus (speaker), Wilson
Related Symbols: The Matches
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

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?

GUS. You.

BEN. I’m only looking after your interests, Gus. You’ve got to learn, mate.

Related Characters: Ben (speaker), Gus (speaker), Wilson
Related Symbols: The Matches
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

BEN. Stop wondering. You’ve got a job to do. Why don’t you just do it and shut up?

Related Characters: Ben (speaker), Gus, Wilson
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

GUS (thoughtfully). I find him hard to talk to, Wilson. Do you know that, Ben?

BEN. Scrub round it, will you?

Pause.

GUS. There are a number of things I want to ask him. But I never get round to it, when I see him.

Related Characters: Gus (speaker), Ben (speaker), Wilson
Related Symbols: The Dumb Waiter
Page Number: 101-102
Explanation and Analysis:

GUS. […] She wasn’t much to look at, I know, but still. It was a mess though, wasn’t it? It was a mess. Honest, I can’t remember a mess like that one. They don’t seem to hold together like men, women. A looser texture, like. Didn’t she spread, eh? She didn’t half spread. Kaw! I’ve been meaning to ask you.

BEN sits up and clenches his eyes.

Who cleans up after we’ve gone? I’m curious about that. Who does the clearing up? […]

Related Characters: Ben (speaker), Gus (speaker)
Page Number: 102-103
Explanation and Analysis:

GUS. […] Do you mean I can keep the Eccles cake then?

BEN. Keep it?

GUS. Well, they don’t know we’ve got it, do they?

BEN. That’s not the point.

Related Characters: Ben (speaker), Gus (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Dumb Waiter
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

GUS (calling up the hatch). Three McVitie and Price! One Lyons Red Label! One Smith’s Crisps! One Eccles cake! One Fruit and Nut!

BEN. Cadbury’s.

GUS (up the hatch). Cadbury’s!

Related Characters: Ben (speaker), Gus (speaker), Wilson
Related Symbols: The Dumb Waiter
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

GUS. This is some place. No tea and biscuits.

BEN. Eating makes you lazy, mate. You’re getting lazy, you know that? You don’t want to get slack on your job.

GUS. Who me?

BEN. Slack, mate, slack.

GUS. Who me? Slack?

BEN. Have you checked your gun? You haven’t even checked your gun. It looks disgraceful, anyway. Why don’t you ever polish it?

Related Characters: Ben (speaker), Gus (speaker), Wilson
Related Symbols: Revolvers
Page Number: 108-109
Explanation and Analysis:

BEN. […] Do you know what it takes to make an Ormitha Macarounada?

Related Characters: Ben (speaker), Gus, Wilson
Related Symbols: The Dumb Waiter
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

BEN. Do you know what he said? Light the kettle! Not put on the kettle! Not light the gas! But light the kettle!

GUS. How can we light the kettle?

BEN. What do you mean?

GUS. There’s no gas.

Related Characters: Ben (speaker), Gus (speaker), Wilson
Related Symbols: The Dumb Waiter
Page Number: 112-113
Explanation and Analysis:

GUS. […] 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? […]

Related Characters: Gus (speaker), Ben, Wilson
Related Symbols: The Dumb Waiter
Page Number: 113
Explanation and Analysis:

GUS. What do we do if it’s a girl?

BEN. We do the same.

GUS. Exactly the same?

BEN. Exactly.

Pause.

GUS. We don’t do anything different?

BEN. We do exactly the same.

GUS. Oh.

Related Characters: Gus (speaker), Ben, Wilson
Related Symbols: The Dumb Waiter
Page Number: 116
Explanation and Analysis:

The door right opens sharply. BEN turns, his revolver levelled at the door.
GUS stumbles in.
He is stripped of his jacket, waistcoat, tie, holster and revolver.
He stops, body stooping, his arms at his sides.
He raises his head and looks at BEN.
A long silence.
They stare at each other.

Related Characters: Ben, Gus, Wilson
Related Symbols: Revolvers
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis: