The Dumb Waiter tells the story of Ben and Gus, hired assassins who spend the entirety of the play awaiting word from their superior (Wilson) that it’s time to carry out that night’s hit. Throughout the play, the men receive coded, often incomprehensible instructions from their higher-ups about the hit. For instance, they receive an unmarked envelope from an unseen, unknown source containing 12 matches—and no accompanying note of explanation. Midway through the play, the men discover a dumb waiter (a small, elevator-like platform primarily used to carry items, usually food, between different floors of a building) in the wall of the room. The dumb waiter delivers notes to the men requesting increasingly specific, complex food orders for patrons of a café located in an upper floor of the building. It’s never made clear—to Gus and Ben, or to the audience—whether these orders are coded messages from the men’s superiors or merely unrelated food orders sent from the unsuspecting owners of the café.
The opaque, convoluted nature of these instructions makes it unclear what, exactly, is required of the men and why they’re being asked to carry out the hit. More importantly, it raises questions about why Gus and Ben continue to obey authority when they neither understand nor condone what’s asked of them. While Gus repeatedly attempts to ask Ben, the more experienced hitman and Gus’s superior, questions about their hit that night, Ben shoots down his questions, sternly advising Gus that it’s in his best interest to be quiet and just do as he’s told. Meanwhile, Ben remains quiet, professional, and singlehandedly focused on the task at hand for the entirety of the play, even though he shows scattered signs that he, like Gus, has reservations about the moral dubiousness of their job. (When Gus tries to discuss a previous night’s hit that required them to kill a woman, for instance, Ben squeezes his eyes shut, literally and figuratively illustrating how much discomfort he feels at confronting the atrocities his job requires him to commit.) All this comes to a head when Ben, following instructions conveyed to him through a speaking-tube that hangs from the room’s wall, points his revolver at Gus, who is revealed to be that night’s target. The play ends on an uncertain note, with the men staring at each other in shock and horror as Ben nevertheless prepares to shoot. The play’s ambiguous, troubling ending suggests that it’s often easier to obey authority than to think for oneself—and that the pressure to obey authority leads people to commit acts of violence and injustice, even when they have reservations about doing so.
Obedience to Authority ThemeTracker
Obedience to Authority 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. […] 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. […] What about us?
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.