Places: The Dumb Waiter

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1960, in The Birthday Party

First produced: 1959 (in German translation), at the Frankfurt Municipal Theater, Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany; 1960 (in English), at the Hampstead Theater Club, London

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Absurdist

Time of work: Mid-twentieth century

Places DiscussedBasement room

Basement Dumb Waiter, Theroom. Located somewhere in Birmingham, England, this room is furnished only with two beds pushed against the back wall. A dumbwaiter (small serving elevator) comes down between the two beds. A door to the right exits to a hallway, and a door to the left exits to a kitchen and bathroom–rooms that cannot be seen. The basement room resembles a prison cell, suggesting that the play’s two main characters (petty killers or “hit men”) are already being punished for their crimes by the bleak, confining lives they lead. Waiting to carry out their next job, they represent each other’s hell. The two doors suggest the simple mazes in a rat’s cage: On the left side, food comes in and goes out; the exit on the right side represents birth and death.

Though not the kind of company many people would like to keep, the two hoodlums are curiously–almost comically–human. While they wait dumbly, they get bored, hungry, and nervous. Their “orders” finally come down from above via the dumbwaiter and a speaking tube, but at first only food orders for dishes they have no way of fixing. However, the person sending the orders is presumably the boss (named Wilson, recalling former British prime minister Harold Wilson), so they must do something.

Their predicament in the basement room suggests human existence generally–life lived mostly without understanding but under pressure, especially when the orders come down from above. These thoughts lead to speculation about the nature of human beings and of God–or perhaps only about the dubious nature of organizations and governments (which seem largely to have replaced religion in modern life).

BibliographyBurkman, Katherine H. The Dramatic World of Harold Pinter: Its Basis in Ritual. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971. A provocative study, with notes, bibliography, and index.Esslin, Martin. Pinter: A Study of His Plays. Expanded ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976. Originally published in 1970 under the title The Peopled Wound: The Work of Harold Pinter, a good book to use as a starting point. Bibliography, index.Hynes, Joseph. “Pinter and Morality.” The Virginia Quarterly Review 68 (Autumn, 1992): 740-752. Examines Pinter’s comedy and compares his work to that of Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw.Kennedy, Andrew. Six Dramatists in Search of a Language: Shaw, Eliot, Beckett, Pinter, Osborne, Arden. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975. Focuses on Pinter’s linguistic modes. Bibliography, index.Schroll, Herman T. Harold Pinter: A Study of His Reputation (1958-1969) and a Checklist. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1971. Argues that Pinter’s works have lasting significance. Bibliography, index.
Categories: Places