As with Godot, there are two characters, one dominant, one submissive, who share the amount of letters and syllables in their names (although Pinter's Gus and Ben are simpler names—and simpler characters—than Beckett's
Pinter's use of repetition and silence also harkens back to Beckett's work. Beckett's primary use of these is to suggest the ideas of alienation and the approach of death, but Pinter fashions them with a more sinister, violent touch. Pinter has said that silence is a form of nakedness, and that speech is an attempt to cover this nakedness. Gus keeps wanting to ask Ben something but is interrupted, an exchange that will repeat throughout the play. The dialogue in between is often Ben's attempt to delay answering Gus's question—here, a trivial matter about the toilet. Ben also uses silence to deflect the potential for more intimate probing from Gus. Not only are Ben's delays and interruptions a form of silence, but even they are interrupted—Ben's reports of the death of the elderly man and the cat, serious matters of mortality, are quickly aborted in favor of more mundane concerns. The men do not break the silence themselves usually. Rather, the sound of an inanimate object—the toilet—jolts them back into discussion.
The toilet serves as a base for Gus throughout the play. It represents repetition, and the futility of repetition. Like the choppy dialogue, the toilet works on a delay—the flush is preceded by a long pause—solidifying the notion that repetition effects little change. Just as Gus transfers the flattened matchbox and carton (both defective objects) from his shoes to his pocket—one receptacle to another—the receptacle of the defective toilet transfers human waste to the receptacle of the sewers. The waste, however, does not disappear; it will return in some form, and is part of the cyclical nature of life that bores Gus, the dull repetition of work and sleep.
The characters' complete separation from the upper class is also introduced and will be explored in further depth later. Their unfamiliarity with the sporting terms of posh cricket and their affection for the more working-class game of soccer immediately defines their social standing.
In ways, The Dumb Waiter is a precursor to a major conceit of modern gangster films, such as those of Quentin Tarantino, films that juxtapose, often to comic effect, the violence of the criminal's job with his banal, but revealing, small talk. The argument over "light the kettle" is seemingly trivial but divulges key information about the men: Gus no longer sees his mother, and Ben is the senior partner.
The debate also produces the men's first physical confrontation after much verbal build-up. It is no accident that Ben screams and chokes Gus at the same time. Pinter is known for the innate violence in his characters' language, violence that lurks beneath the clipped structure of the language, and Ben's dialogue is a part of, and nearly causes, the physical violence. The violence is offset by the comic effect, which occurs after the confrontation, when Ben unconsciously uses the same language as Gus. Moreover, his comical use of Gus's phrase after displaying intense hostility to it implies that repetition of language can dull its effect, and that it can mechanically flow between people as an unconscious transaction.
Pinter reinforces the mechanical feeling with his use of repetition. Gus twice says that he doesn't know what the envelope is, and twice that "no one" and "nothing" were outside. These last two statements both express an absence—both of knowledge and of the physical presence—that constitute a type of silence, and Ben's repetitive queries try to cover this naked, fearful mystery with extraneous speech. He later deflects Gus's question referring to who they will victimize, answering with silence and then ordering Gus to make tea. The other theme behind repetitiveness in the play is how it dulls life into a cyclical routine, and we can view Gus's running out of matches as a symbol of how life continually burns down and then refuels. Ben's scolding Gus over not wasting the matches is almost pointless. Sooner or later, they will be wasted, but their supply will be replenished.
it becomes clearer that Ben is perhaps not telling Gus the complete truth about their operation—they are certainly in the kitchen of a working café, not merely a basement, and something is odd about their interaction with the person or people upstairs. In Godot, the two men wait around for a man named Godot who never arrives, yet who exercises great power over them. In The Dumb Waiter, Ben and Gus are at the beck and call of
The characters' anxiety over their lower-class status hangs over the food sequence. It begins with their inability to pay for the meter, which inhibits their ability to make their own food, or at least to brew their own tea. Their anxiety amplifies when they feel they need to send more food back up the hatch, and then with the orders for increasingly fancy food with which they are not familiar. Much of this class tension is bound up in language. Gus tries to dress up their own standard food by announcing the brand names associated with the items, names that pale in comparison to the exotic names of the ordered dishes, such as "Ormitha Macarounada." Ben noticeably tries to cover up his lower-class status by pretending that he knows how to make the dish. The characters' dialect is also distinctly lower class, abrupt sentences peppered with idiomatic utterances like "Kaw!" Many productions of The Dumb Waiter emphasize Ben's and Gus's different relationships to class by giving Ben an accent of a slightly better-off Englishman, while Gus often speaks in a lower-class Cockney accent. American audiences may not be able to distinguish between the particular accents so readily.
Interruptions and abbreviations continue to play a significant role in this section, as Gus's continuing questions about the nature of their job and the café are twice broken by the sounds of the descending dumb waiter. As of now, Ben and Gus's communication with the upstairs via the dumb waiter has been based on written notes with abbreviated sentences at that. This limited communication will assume a more symbolic form in the next section.The dumb waiter, with its accompanying speaking tube, becomes an agent for murder as the play ends, but the device is also a metaphor for the type of communication that has already split apart Ben and Gus. Whenever Gus broaches an important topic—here, especially,
they speak to each other, not with one another. Fittingly, when he finds the speaking tube, Gus ironically says, "Funny I never noticed it before." He and Ben have had a block in their communication with each other that is highlighted by his reference to the tube used for communication.
This lack of communication heightens the sense that Ben has been withholding information from Gus and perhaps even betraying his partner. Whenever Gus strays too close to the truth—a truth Ben seems to be more aware of—Ben withholds and alters crucial information (such as his lie about the café's changing ownership), almost as if he were retracting the evidence on a dumb waiter and adjusting it for the return trip. His language throughout the play, then, stands on its own as a betrayal, a closely monitored transaction of information that takes pains not to give too much away. Betrayal is a constant theme in Pinter's work—he has a play titled Betrayal—and here we must take Ben's word that the job is about to commence, but we do not know if it will be carried out the way he originally indicated or whether he will end up actually shooting Gus.
But the repetitive, mechanical quality of language is the ultimate murderer here. The characters' repetition of their newspaper routine—an act that surely occurs every day—is part of the slow approach to death that Gus spoke of at the start of the play when he bemoaned his dull, cyclical life. Ben's instructions, which Gus repeats, similarly drain the life out of an act that itself seeks to end life. Gus's toneless echo is actually a form of silence that seeks to avoid having to perform the horrifying act.