The Dumb Waiter follows two hitmen, Ben and Gus, as they wait in a windowless basement room for their target to arrive. From the start, the play’s dismal setting makes it clear that Ben and Gus’s status as low-level criminals places them on a lower rung of the social hierarchy than the people they work for—and this low social position leaves them vulnerable to suffering, mistreatment, and exploitation. Their boss, an unseen man named Wilson, displays a blatant disregard for Ben and Gus’s comfort and wellbeing. For instance, he provides them matches and a stove to make tea with—but no money for the gas required to run the stove’s meter. Ben and Gus’s communication with their higher-ups is infrequent and convoluted, and they (or at least Gus, Ben’s subordinate) spend much of the play in the dark about what that night’s job will require them to do.
Meanwhile, Ben and Gus have vastly different approaches to dealing with class issues. Ben resents his lower-class status but accepts the concept of hierarchy. He tries to appear put-together, speaks deferentially to authority figures, and respects social norms. For instance, he scolds Gus for shouting up the dumb waiter hatch, explaining that “It isn’t done,” meaning the people upstairs—presumably people of a higher class—will consider Gus’s lack of decorum low-class and judge him (and Ben) for it. Gus, on the other hand, has none of Ben’s anxieties about his lower-class status. He rails against the more affluent, powerful people that exploit and mistreat him. Unlike Ben, Gus makes no effort to disguise his working-class background with a polished appearance or a working knowledge of decorum: he doesn’t polish his gun, and he speaks loudly, rudely, and colloquially. When Ben, through the speaking-tube, learns that Wilson wants them to make him a cup of tea, Gus angrily demands, “What about us?” In other words, why should Wilson’s higher status entitle him to the comfort and sustenance he repeatedly denies Ben and Gus? In the end, though, when it's revealed that Gus is in fact the target they've been waiting for, the play illustrates the troubling ways in which exploitative working conditions and hierarchies can pit workers against each other, incentivizing working-class people to betray their peers in the hopes of gaining power themselves—though it's unclear in the play whether Ben's unquestioning obedience will even improve his circumstances at all.
Class Anxiety and Power ThemeTracker
Class Anxiety and Power Quotes in The Dumb Waiter
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.
I like to get a look at the scenery. You never get a chance in this job.
BEN. You know what your trouble is?
BEN. You haven’t got any interests.
GUS. […] He doesn’t seem to bother much about our comfort these days.
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.
BEN. Stop wondering. You’ve got a job to do. Why don’t you just do it and shut up?
GUS. That’s what I was wondering about.
GUS. The job.
BEN. What job?
GUS (tentatively). I thought perhaps you might know something.
BEN looks at him.
I thought perhaps you—I mean—have you got any idea—who it’s going to be tonight?
BEN. Who what’s going to be?
They look at each other.
GUS (at length). Who it’s going to be.
GUS (thoughtfully). I find him hard to talk to, Wilson. Do you know that, Ben?
BEN. Scrub round it, will you?
GUS. There are a number of things I want to ask him. But I never get round to it, when I see him.
BEN. You’ll get a swipe round your earhole if you don’t watch your step.
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.
GUS (calling up the hatch). Three McVitie and Price! One Lyons Red Label! One Smith’s Crisps! One Eccles cake! One Fruit and Nut!
GUS (up the hatch). Cadbury’s!
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?
BEN. […] Do you know what it takes to make an Ormitha Macarounada?
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.
GUS. […] What about us?
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.