As hitmen Ben and Gus sit waiting in a windowless, sparsely decorated basement room for the arrival of their target, Ben passes the time by reading a newspaper. He describes the stories he reads to Gus. One story is about an old man who, unable to find a way to walk across a traffic-congested street, decides to take an unconventional risk: he crawls underneath a lorry (a truck) in an attempt to pass underneath the traffic rather than through it. The man’s innovative plan backfires, though, when traffic starts to move and the lorry runs him over. In this way, the man’s innovative thinking becomes the death of him, and the news story functions as a cautionary tale about the dangers of thinking outside the box. Ben and Gus’s actions throughout the play reinforce the dangers of individuality and the safety of conformity. Ben, Gus’s superior, is unrelentingly obedient to his and Gus’s higher-ups and single-mindedly committed to completing their mission, even if it doesn’t make sense to him. Though Gus tends to ask questions about their mission and express his discomfort with the atrocities his and Ben’s line of work forces them to commit, his attempts to rail against authority and act of his own volition are repeatedly beaten down by Ben, who physically strikes Gus whenever he challenges Ben’s authority or asks too many questions. And Gus nevertheless takes comfort in the ease of following instructions rather than having to make decisions for himself, something that’s made clear in a scene where Ben lists off instructions about how their hit will go down that night, and Gus dutifully repeats the instructions back to Ben verbatim—as though it’s second nature for him to do so. The Dumb Waiter examines the ways that Ben and Gus’s world—and in a broader sense, society at large—uses the threat of violence to encourage conformity, suppress individuality, and maintain the status quo.
Conformity vs. Individuality ThemeTracker
Conformity vs. Individuality Quotes in The Dumb Waiter
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. […] 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.
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 (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. […] 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? […]
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. […] 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? […]
GUS. What do we do if it’s a girl?
BEN. We do the same.
GUS. Exactly the same?
GUS. We don’t do anything different?
BEN. We do exactly the same.
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.