The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter
Directed by Jamie Glover
Oct -Nov 2013
The Print Room
The Dumb Waiter was written in the summer 1957, when it was one of the first three plays that came in quick succession from Harold Pinter, the other two being The Room and The Birthday Party. The outraged reception that greeted The Birthday Party in 1958 did nothing to dissuade Pinter from writing and from getting what he had already written produced. The Dumb Waiter premiered in Frankfurt in 1959 and in London at Hampstead Theatre Club in January 1960, having already been turned down by the BBC’s Michael Barry because he deemed it “too obscure” for the television audience.
Perhaps Barry was right, as literary commentators continue to find more angles from which to discuss this one-act play about two hitmen waiting to kill in a basement flat somewhere in Birmingham on a Friday. When he saw it in 2007, Michael Billington said The Dumb Waiter reminded him of the scene between Clarence’s murderers in Richard III. Everyone seems to think of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953). And everyone agrees that Ben and Gus are very funny – Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy get mentioned — and pretty scared, though of exactly what is not quite clear, nor is supposed to be. In his biography of Pinter, Billington points out that the playwright was “radically different, even revolutionary” in wanting his audiences to complete his plays, to resolve in their own ways these irresolvable matters.
What no one can ignore are Pinter’s comments in a 1988 interview: “My earlier plays are much more political than they seem on the face of it. . . . I think that . . . The Birthday Party, The Dumb Waiter and The Hothouse are metaphors, really. . . . They’re much closer to an extremely critical look at authoritarian postures – state power, family power, religious power, power used to undermine, if not destroy, the individual, or the questioning voice, or the voice which simply went away from the mainstream and refused to become part of an easily recognisable set of standards and social values.”
Pinter was not admitting as much in 1962, when he made a speech that opened with a rejection: “I’m not an authoritative or reliable commentator on the dramatic scene, the social scene, any scene. I write plays, when I can manage it, and that’s all.” Perhaps it was the notion of being an authority figure that he was essentially rejecting. Then he was intent on emphasizing that another form of communication was going on beneath the words of his characters, most of which were coverings for their “nakedness”: “Between my lack of biographical data about them and the ambiguity of what they say lies a territory which is not only worth of exploration but which it is compulsory to explore.”