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Absurd Global Trepidation and Alienation

A Critical Study of Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter


My aim through this article is to propagate that Harold Pinter has shown alienation of the human being from the self and the others. Disaffection is somewhat caused by lack of communication, and as a result, the isolated self is tricked in his own condition. So, Pinter's characters tend to be inert agents in life, which is in fact another option. Pinter extends Beckett’s absurdist ideas and adopts the Absurd Drama to emphasize his social concerns as he is also a social critic. The targets of his criticism are covetousness, loss of values and broken human relationships. The playwright challenges the audience for a reform on these exacting points.  Pinter’s characters also suffer from the uncertainty of existence. In fact, this concern is closely related to the strange identity of the individual.
The point that this paper is to explore is that although Pinter has taken on many qualities of the Absurdist Theatre, he has made much pioneering attempts in his creative work. As an absurdist, he adopted many absurdist elements in his plays. Absurdist drama was somewhat coined by Pinter.  Theatre of the Absurd refers to particular plays written by European and American playwrights of the post-Second World War period. They shared the view of many existential theorists that life is worthless, communication impossible, society mechanical and ruthless. These playwrights needed new forms of expression, new sites, new dramatic arrangements and new stage imagery, and thus Theatre of the Absurd was born.

The assessment of the absurdist tradition will be made from three specific perspectives: absurdist theme, deflation and wide use of symbolism. Loneliness, lack of communication and infertility are almost universal themes in contemporary literature and the Absurdist Theatre. Pinter was influenced by Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. Pinter’s plays generally take place in a single and prison-like room which symbolizes the world of its inhabitants. Pinter absorbs himself into all the three themes in almost all his important plays.  In many compliments, Pinter's plays explore the depths of the human psyche. The absurdist playwrights purpose to normal usage of language for its uselessness in expressing the spirit of human experience. Thus language in the absurdist plays seems to be jumbled, vague, and full of formulas.
In this type of drama, everything eventually becomes unreliable, even the language. Language, as a means of communication, becomes a medium of conventionalized, labelled meaningless exchange. Words fail to express the essence of character's experiences, not being able to penetrate beyond its outside. The Theatre of the Absurd shows language as a very untrustworthy and deficient tool of communication. Pinter’s plays can be seen as structures of an unverifiable and, therefore, dream-like world between fantasy and nightmare. Harold Pinter educates a close vision of the traumas and the problems of  middle-class man. And he has caught the slight thread of psychological disturbance of human beings, especially Harold Pinter lies in the exploration of the inner world of human psyche and sensibility. Pinter's inspection of linguistic peculiarity is extremely sharp and his dialogue must be considered to be one of the most sensible representatives of the authentic language of the modern time. Pinter’s plays expose our state of loneliness, nothingness, meaninglessness and isolation. His work is heavily influenced by Samuel Beckett, who used silence-filled pauses for revolutionary theatrical effect.

Pinter’s play The Dumb Waiter has a special position. It is more an extension of than a disappearance from early plays of menace. The Dumb Waiter is an One Act play cantering around two characters Ben and Gus whose purpose is slowly revealed throughout the play.  There is a lot of dark area, so the audience has an experience of being involved with the two men. Ben and Gus are waiting for their victim to come and this is all they can do. They are probably forbidden from leaving the room, nobody seems to be willing to give them further instructions, and nobody cares about them. They are alone and isolated. And this isolation is the first element of absurdity and, at the same time, the basic presumption for menace. Josephson accounts them as:
The loss of self... anomie... depersonalization, ruthlessness', apathy... loneliness, atomization, powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation... and loss of beliefs or values... (Josephson, 12-13).  
The play is of the failure in human communication and the efforts to convert the situation through conversation, confrontation, and even surrender. To Pinter, everyone has a private world belonging to no one else but himself, which is the core of one's experience. Harold Pinter said that: 
I have a particular relationship with the words I put down on paper and the characters which emerge from them which no one else can share with me. And perhaps that's why I remain bewildered by praise and really quite indifferent to insult. Praise and insult refer to someone called Pinter. I don't know the man they're talking about. I know the plays, but in a totally different way, in a quite private way. (Peacock, Keith, 110)  
Each character repeats what the other says and asks quite silly questions or makes needless explanations about the things in this basement. Ben watches as Gus takes a trampled matchbox out of his shoe. After sometimes they exchange a glance, Gus puts it in his pocket. They exchange another look, and Gus puts the box in his pocket before he leaves for the bathroom.  Peace is infused in the room. Their eyes meet twice but that doesn’t lead to communications breaking the state of silence. Silence is the way they protect themselves.
Pinter believes that the human being is alienated and that it is a main constituent of the human situation. He follows Sartre’s ideas in this matter. According to Sartre, man is deserted to himself to form his life and to appreciate his choices.
Man can find no relief from his desertion for each and every human being is in the same condition. Sartre messages:
I am abandoned in the world, not in the sense that I might remain abandoned and passive in a hostile universe like a board floating on the water, but rather, in the sense that I find myself suddenly alone and without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from the responsibility for an instant. (Jean-Paul, 710)  
So man is fated to be alone throughout his life, and there is no declaration in this stalemate. Isolation has been used or explained in a variety of and sometimes differing ways. Dramatist Beckett depicts these personal and social elements in an absurdist view within his plays. Pinter pursues Beckett’s footsteps while dramatizing the alienation of his characters. He also attaches social aspects of this state. According to Josephson man is:
Confused to his place in the schema of a world growing each day closer, getting more impersonal more densely populated yet in face-to-face relations more dehumanized; a world appealing ever more widely for his concern and sympathy with unknown masses of men, yet fundamentally alienating him even from his next neighbour, today Western man has become mechanized, reutilized, made comfortable as an object. (Josephson, 10) 

In Pinter’s plays, the characters also experience this kind of isolation. He approves of the fact that despite the technical developments and perfections in the life standards of the modern man, disaffection saturates the life of the human being in personal and social aspects. Albert Camus examines man’s absurd situation in the universe in his The Myth of Sisyphus:
A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This diversity between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity. (13) 
In Pinter' plays the picture of the room is closely linked to the idea of menace. Esslin states that for Pinter the outside world is frightening, and, therefore, menacing for the person:
Pinter’s people are in a room, and they are frightened, scared. What are they scared of? ‘Obviously, they are scared of what is outside the room. Outside the room is a world bearing upon them, which is frightening … [and] which is inexplicable and frightening, curious and alarming’. (Pinter, 35)  

Pinter presents an element of suspense in order to create a threatening atmosphere in The Dumb Waitor. Therefore, in Pinter’s world, ambiguity is the most threatening source of menace. In the play The Dumb Waiter, the sense of anxiety is aroused with the unwanted arrival of an envelope that contains about a dozen of matches as it seems to come out of nowhere:

BEN: What’s that?
GUS: I don’t know.
BEN: Where did it come from?
GUS: Under the door.29
BEN: Well, what is it?
GUS: I don’t know. (Dumb, 123) 

The icon of a door giving a sense of danger is often employed by Pinter. The aspect of mystery contributes to this sense as the matches are pushed into the room under the door with no one being outside. The unexpected appearance of the dumb waiter is strange in the dejected and deserted house:

There is a loud clatter and racket in the bulge of wall between the beds, of something descending. They grab their revolvers, jump up and face the wall. The noise comes to a stop. Silence.. They look at each other. BEN gestures sharply towards the wall. GUS approaches the wall slowly. He bangs it with his revolver. It is hollow. … He finds a rim. He lifts the panel. Disclosed is a serving-hatch, a ‘dumb waiter’. A wide box is held by pulleys. GUS peers into the box. He brings out a piece of paper. (Dumb, 131) 

The use of names for indistinguishable off-stage characters in this play has the threatening effect in the play. The unseen Wilson is in authority in The Dumb Waiter:

BEN: You’ll have to wait.
GUS: What for?
BEN: For Wilson.
GUS: He might not come. He might just send a message. He doesn’t always come. (Dumb, 128) 

Even when he occurs to talk, it happens through the speaking tube which is not audible by Gus; only Ben can hear him as the superior member in the organization. Pinter utilizes simple language, and his idea is not only to display the paralysis of language but also to demonstrate the absurdity of life.  Language in his plays is incoherent, uncertain and different to the actors’ genuine aims. In Mountain Language, the obliteration of language is equally a means of domineering people mentally. Armstrong also draws a parallel between Kafka’s view of language and that of Pinter in Mountain Language:

The destruction of language is of course the central theme of Mountain Language, and indeed Pinter’s portrayal of the linguistic vandals in that play may perhaps owe something to these comments by Kafka. The use of foul and abusive language on the part of those who seek to suppress the mountain dialect is certainly a very powerful and effective metaphor for the barbarity of their activities. (128) 

Their characters are inevitably involved in a power struggle so as to protect their identity and probability of living. Prentice says:

In Pinter’s work asserting dominance over another remains the primary means characters not only establish identity but survive in a world where to allow oneself to assume a subservient position, for even a moment, can result in annihilation – physical, psychological, or both. (Ethic, 28). 

Pinter’s characters not only resist against the menacing outside forces but also cash a fight within their deeper selves. The theme of menace is closely related to the themes of isolation, penury and insensitiveness in his plays. Pinter is also concerned with the psychological menace that originates from a failure of relationships. Pinter’s characters desire for love and regard, which has become the basis for power struggles among them. Pinter’s work is the peril in the problems of individuality. His characters practice a menace based on a dilemma of identity as they often fail to protect their sense of self, which is gradually defined by outside powers. Consequently, in Pinter’s world, ambiguity is the most threatening source of menace:

The real menace which lies behind the struggles for expression and communication, behind the closed doors which might swing open to reveal a frightening intruder, behind the sinister gunmen and terrorists, behind the violence, the menace behind all these menacing images is the opaqueness, the uncertainty and precariousness of the human condition itself. (Esslin Pinter, 51-2) 

In The Dumb Waiter, the grossly sensed terror concludes with an implication of the murder of the questioning character, Gus. Stack Language presents the death of oral communication which also brings the obvious end of mountain people who are finally provided astonished, just like being dead. The characters of Pinter’s works make use of some protection devices to deal with menace. The individual suffers profoundly in the hands of the threatening system. In Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter Gus and Ben are responsibility bound to kill a number of people in the guidance of the organization Gus’s need for an nearby is obvious at the very start of the play when he keeps asking questions continually, which disturbs Ben:

GUS: What time is he getting in touch?
BEN: reads. What time is he getting in touch?
BEN: What’s the matter with you? It could be any time. Any time. (Dumb,112) 

Although Gus is always complaining about their situation, Ben remains satisfied. The partners differ in their sense of satisfaction with their occupation:

BEN: How often do we do a job? Once a week? What are you complaining about?
GUS: Yes, but we’ve got to be on tap though, haven’t we? You can’t move out of the house in case a call comes.
GUS: Don’t you ever get a bit fed up?
BEN: Fed up? What with? Silence. (Dumb, 118) 

Ben is always prepared to complete the task given by a submissive agent whereas Gus gets unwell of it most of the time. Gus’s searching never ceases, mainly when he realizes that the organization begins to care less and less for them. He is not happy about the place:

It’s worse than the last one. Remember that last place we were in? Last time, where was it? At least there was a wireless there. No, honest. He doesn’t seem to bother much about our comfort these days. (Dumb, 119).  

And this difference between them negatively influences their relationship which is, as it has been mentioned, another element of danger in The Dumb Waiter. Gus is always asking questions. This would be, on the one hand, natural because he is learning from his senior partner. On the other hand, Gus does not ask in order to learn to do his job better. There is a loud clattering sound in the wall. Ben and Gus grab their revolvers and are going to face the threat from outside. Ben decides to ignore his companion’s quarries, or pretends not to understand his meaning in the questions:

GUS: That’s what I was wondering about.
BEN: What?
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 are not hypothetical to know a little about their job and their victims; yet, Gus wonders who is going to be the next sufferer, perhaps sensing his own end. In his attempt to clutch everything around him, Gus also tries to make sense of his partner’s actions, which makes Ben irritated. The danger to Ben and Gus is represented by almost everything situated outside their room. Several minutes after, suddenly and swiftly an envelope is slipped under the door.  And it is this simple unexpected situation that starts the menace feeling which accompanies Ben and Gus until the end of the play. One little envelope slipped under the door becomes greatly frightening for the two killers: 

GUS: Ben, look here.
BEN: What?
GUS: Look.
(Ben turns his head and sees an envelope. He stands.)
BEN: What’s that?
GUS: I don’t know.
BEN: Where did it come from?
GUS: Under the door.
BEN: Well, what is it?
GUS: I don’t know.
(They stare at it.)
BEN: Pick it up.
GUS: What do you mean?
BEN: Pick it up! (Dumb, 139)

Gus’s quarries become more and more irritating for Ben. These questions in fact indication at Gus’s mistrust of the organization. He tries to pry deeper into the mysterious system:

Who clears up after we’ve gone? I’m curious about that. Who does the clearing up? Maybe they don’t clear up. Maybe they just leave them there, eh? What do you think? How many jobs have we done? Blimey, I can’t count them. What if they never clear anything up after we’ve gone? (Dumb, 131) 

Everything happening is beyond his understanding, and makes him painful with his situation. That is why he asks so many questions to ease himself of this sense of trepidation. Gus’s sense of menacing increases when Ben’s final commands deviate from the earlier ones:

GUS: You’ve missed something out.
BEN: I know. What?
GUS: I haven’t taken my gun out, according to you.
BEN: You take your gun out –
GUS: You’ve never missed that out before, you know that? (Dumb, 14)

His last question predicts the final scene where Ben shoots him. Penetrating the system, their relationship, his own situation, the task itself all through the plan does not save Gus from becoming a wounded of menace. His language usually consists of silences and pauses in the dialogs in which his characters aim to avoid the fear of facing outsider or a danger:

The Pinterian hero, especially in the early plays, is often as inarticulate as a pig, stumbling pathetically over every second word, covering a pitifully narrow area of meaning with his utterances, blathering through his life. Yet he does not seem to whine and grunt or giggle or grumble to give an outlet to his instincts, desires, passions or fears. He grunts in order to hide something else. Even when he grunts […], his grunt is a strategic move, or a lie. (Almansi, 19-20)

The threat is already in the room. Gus in The Dumb Waiter does not know who he is hypothetical to kill as a hired gunman; but it turns out that he is the victim, and his partner, who is already in the room, is his killer. In The Dumb Waiter, Gus is the victim of the menacing world which is full of questions. On the one hand, it is never said Gus is killed. On the other hand, Ben follows orders precisely. He does not doubt. Although Pinter’s characters have social groups, they are still lonely beings like Beckett’s characters. They are alienated from themselves and from the society as well. While some of them are derelict characters who have no home, some others are alienated despite having a family. Pinter uses Absurd drama to reflect his social concerns. He believes that his plays should mirror the society with all of its follies and shake the minds of his audience. In his works, these themes are used to depict the universal concerns of the human kind. Pinter adds his social concerns to these universal problems.

1. Josephson, Eric and Mary Josephson. Man Alone: Alienation in Modern Society.USA: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1963.
2. Peacock, Keith (1997). Harold Pinter and the New British Theatre.  Westport:   Greenwood Press.
3. Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. New York: Washington Square Press, 1984.
4. Josephson, Eric and Mary Josephson. Man Alone: Alienation in Modern Society.USA: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1963.
5. Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. Great Britain: Penguin Books, 1979.
6. Esslin, Martin. Pinter: A study of his plays. London: Eyre Methuen, 1977.
7. Pinter, Harold. The Dumb Waiter.” Plays One. London: Faber and Faber, 1996
8. -----------. The Dumb Waiter.” Plays One. London: Faber and Faber, 1996
9. -----------. The Dumb Waiter.” Plays One. London: Faber and Faber, 1996
10. Armstrong, Raymond. Kafka and Pinter: Shadow-Boxing: The Struggle between Father and Son. London: Macmillan Press, 1999.
11. Prentice, Penelope. The Pinter Ethic: The Erotic Aesthetic. New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1994.
12. Esslin, Martin. Pinter: A study of his plays. London: Eyre Methuen, 1977
13. Pinter, Harold. The Dumb Waiter.” Plays One. London: Faber and Faber, 1996
14. ----------. The Dumb Waiter.” Plays One. London: Faber and Faber, 1996
15. ----------. The Dumb Waiter.” Plays One. London: Faber and Faber, 1996
16. -----------. The Dumb Waiter.” Plays One. London: Faber and Faber, 1996
17. -----------. The Dumb Waiter.” Plays One. London: Faber and Faber, 1996
18. -----------. The Dumb Waiter.” Plays One. London: Faber and Faber, 1996
19. -----------. The Dumb Waiter.” Plays One. London: Faber and Faber, 1996
20. Almansi, Guido and Simon Henderson. Harold Pinter. London and  NewYork: Methuen, 1983.   


More by :  Dr. Anshu Pandey

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Views: 3431      Comments: 3

Comment Very nice observation..

Reena Pandey
07-Oct-2012 09:04 AM

Comment Keep the good work going,Anshu ji.Regards.

T.S.Chandra Mouli
07-Oct-2012 07:22 AM

Comment Wonderful write up Anshu... you have brilliantly discussed the Absurd Drama and its alienation effects. The lack of communication is really the problem of the world now. Isolation and depression prevail. We live in an absurd world

Dr.Ratan Bhattacharjee
12-Sep-2012 01:58 AM

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