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Research on the theme of Uncertainty in “The Dumb Waiter”

Fatima Saleh

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M1 Research student of English Literature at Lebanese University

Prepared for

Dr. Sahar Mokbel

March 21, 2018
This paper aims at introducing the Theatre of the Absurd, identifying the approach of Existentialism and its relation with absurdity, and applying the features of absurdity to Harold Pinter’s play “The Dumb Waiter”. The dominant theme that circumscribes the play is the atmosphere of ambiguity and uncertainty. Hence, we are going to investigate the elements that exhibit uncertainty in the play.
Absurdity, Existentialism, uncertainty, ambiguity, menace, fragmentation.
The Theatre of the Absurd
The Theatre of the Absurd is a form of drama which portrays the world as an inconceivable space of a complex reality. It deals with depicting the reality of the modern man’s life that is built on routine, aimlessness, chaos, deception, and vacuum. Moreover, the Theatre of the Absurd corresponds to the irrationality of human nature. According to Aliakbari and Pourgiv, they state that: “In fact, the absurd is a gun aimed at a deeper target, namely, a deeper perception of human existence” (Aliakbari and Pourgiv 4).Though the acts of the absurd plays seem trivial, they touch the profound problems suffered by the modern man and reflect his cries. In this light, the Theatre of the Absurd is linked to real life. That is, playwrights, frame their work based on the spectators’ conflicts. The audience as well as the characters of the Theatre of the Absurd encounter alienation, lack of communication, pessimism, and solitude. The playwright pictures a chaotic world, a one which engages several possible truths. Also, unity among members fails as the characters intend to disconnect Language used for communication.
As long as absurdity is concerned, we connect it to the theory of Existentialism. Asking existential questions and doubting our presence pave the way to a wider scope of philosophical inquiry. As the characters’ personality is altered through the acts of the play, so does modern people who suddenly change their actions unreasonably. The modern man is controlled by a superior power leaving him as a passive, an unwilling, and a failure creature; he submits to his fate blindly. The ideology of rationality is never accepted in Existentialism. However, Existentialism is supported by unpredictability and uncertainty of life. Therefore, we are involved in deeper questions such as: Who are we? Where do we originally belong? What is the value of man’s existence? Worthlessness and hollowness come out to proceed existential questioning.
Analysis on the theme of uncertainty in the Dumb Waiter
Arbitrariness is a key theme that evokes the characters’ minds and applies to the human condition. Uncertainty, mystery, and ambiguity are features of absurdity. They create a sense of horror, suspense, thrill, enthusiasm, and suspicion. Analyzing the setting, the characters and their speech, the symbols, and the general atmosphere helps to illustrate the theme of mystery in the play “The Dumb Waiter”.
1) Setting: the basement. The place is mysterious from the beginning. It is inappropriate to live in. This indicates a hidden secret inside in and creates doubt upon readers, for the author uses such a space to portray his characters’ position. The room itself implies a deeper message. It acts as a refuge sought by the characters to avoid an unpredictable danger and is a symbol of confinement or imprisonment that is associated with modern man’s case. He is trapped, controlled, and dominated by a superior power. The room is a source of physical and spiritual confinement that triggers instability and anarchy among the characters. In addition, the place is portrayed as lonesome, barren, waste, null, and deserted.
2) Characters: We sense an air of uncertainty throughout the whole play in which we do not have any logical reasons that explain the irrelevant ideas. Ben and Gus are uncertain of an inevitable risk. Being passive and lackers of will, they are unaware of the menace’s nature though it surrounds them. For instance, we don’t know why the lavatory doesn’t flush. Also, when an incident about a girl killing a cat is mentioned, we are uncertain about Gus’ blaming her brother for the act of killing the cat. This is revealed when Ben reads in the newspaper: “A child of eight killed a cat”. And when Gus is told that the girl is the killer of the cat, he rejects by uttering: “I bet he did it.” Moreover, the term “bloody ridiculous” prepares the audience for a mysterious and a violent fate. Ambiguity, confusion, and dread are mixed to provide readers with a tone of absurdity. Besides, mentioning the term “He” for the first time without disclosing the name of that person or his true identity asserts the theme of vagueness: “What time is he getting in touch?” “He might not come. He might just send a message. He does not always come”. Here, the use of the word “might” points at something unclear. It shows skepticism and uncertainty of the coming of “He” who is supposed to be a man with a higher position than them. We examine their life based on a wider scope of human existence. The case applies to the life of the modern man; his life is aimless which is built on doubts.
Gus asks Ben about their situation. He seems critical and aware of their dull life as they are restricted to a mission assigned to them by a dominator to whom they should be faithful and devoted to. Dedicating their life to that job without questioning or getting rid of intensifies violence and draws the reader to the heart of darkness; that is, uncertainty. Gus’ questions are ambiguous; they do not have answers. Ben refuses to answer Gus by showing his superiority and shifting the subject. Gus lacks a sense of belonging and true identity: “What town are we in? I’ve forgotten.” He is doubtful of his presence. To fill his void and blankness, he keeps asking for the sake of finding answers that solve his questions about existence. His anguish and inquiry for knowledge prove to be futile as he fails to know where he is placed. Then he tells: “Well, we have done in the past, haven’t we? Stayed over and watched a game, haven’t we? For a bit of relaxation”. The past signifies mystery and puzzling. “Bloody liberty” drives us to suspect that the characters are engaged in a corrupted game. Their game is disclosed to be murderers. Yet, both do not know the reason for their killing, their position, and their victims’ names. They are machines who wait for the orders to execute. They too wait for their victims who are uncertain about their identity. “Gus puts his hand on Ben’s shoulder. Ben throws it off”, Pinter demonstrates. Hence, the characters are not linked but rather detached. Instead of helping each other to free themselves from their job’s imprisonment Ben and Gus distance from one another. They are living in trauma. They just get orders from their boss and perform them. Abiding by rules given by a person of high standing emphasizes the absurdity of life. Modern man is living in spiritual lethargy. Instead of holding hands together, Gus and Ben cannot escape from the dirt they have committed. Therefore, they would not be doomed if they cooperated. Insecurity and mistrust are revealed to assure their fragmented affinity. Also, communication between them seems to be impossible.
3) Atmosphere: Fragmentation, alienation, displacement, confinement. It seems that the characters are living in the diaspora. The characters wait for the boss’ instructions without having any other choice than submission to a blind fate. They are threatened. They too are displaced in which they are estranged in their place “room”. The true identity is their dream as they lack privacy “being watched” and individuality “obliged to settle in the same room”. Yet, Gus struggles to attain emancipation by attempting to get rid of his prison-like chain; however, it is in vain. Living in stratagem, Gus and Ben are unaware of their destiny, with Gus slightly alarmed of their gloomy situation; he is the victim at last though. Ben and Gus are alienated from the surroundings, and this raises the sense of mystery. They live in deception and a world of suspicion. Their relationship is flimsy or frail: Ben rejects to open continuous dialogues or at least meaningful ones. Thus, the bond is fragmented and shattered.
4) Wilson: “It is his place all right. Look at all the other places”. We suspect that Wilson is the name of their boss or somebody who belongs to a higher class; of an authority. But, we are not assured of that until they prove to be professional killers guided by the instructions of their boss. He (Wilson) acts as a symbol of menace that controls the characters’ acts and imprisons them physically “in the basement” and intellectually “subjugating them”. They are compelled to be subservient to a higher image since they belong to the low class. As John Pesta (cited in Gale 1971) reaffirms, “In Pinter’s drama there is typically a menacing “usurper”, a figure who undermines the existential security of those about him while his own existence is simultaneously being undermined” (67).
Moving to the place, decay and fragility are its aspects. It is devoid of inhabitants: “You never see a soul, do you? I wonder if the walls are sound proof”, Pinter states. The characters are neglected, displaced, and outsiders. When Gus demonstrates, “You got to this address”, we can depict the image of uncertainty and meaningless life. The modern man also is living a life of illusion and delirium.
5) Symbols: a-Newspaper: it symbolizes the detachment of Ben and Gus .Ben holds the newspaper to pretend that he is intellectual and educated. Yet, what he is actually doing is watching Gus: “He lowers down his papers and watches Gus”. This helps us infer that the newspaper stands as an excuse of Ben to evade himself from Gus. This is the case of the modern man who is marginalized, alienated, and secluded. It also suggests aspects of violence when for example the term bloody: “bloody ridiculous and bloody liberty” are brought into the play.
b- envelope: is another symbol of absurdity, mystery, and irony. Ben and Gus wait for a message from the envelope. Ironically, they have received 12 matchboxes. A more interesting point is asking how the sender of the envelope is in knowledge about the characters’ need of matches to make the tea. So, the theme of uncertainty keeps on through the play.
c- Matches and cigarette packets: it is mysterious to find matches and cigarettes in Gus’ shoes. The matches are their source of tea making. Whenever matches are not there, the characters feel paralyzed, powerless and even failure. This scene reveals irony in which trivial and silly matters turn to be unattainable of achievement.
d-The dumb waiter: at first, he is unknown. Additionally, though Ben and Gus send the waiter food and are offered food from him, they are never able to identify his name, his identity or his relation with the boss Wilson. But, they expect that he is connected to him.
e- Speaking tube: We are uncertain of the presence of the speaking tube. Besides, we do not know who has put it. It acts as a means of communication which is hindered at first when the characters aim to contact the waiter to serve them. Finding it is like achieving salvation. However, it proves to be fatal when Ben receives an order of killing his friend Gus.
6)Speech: it is interrupted, disconnected, aimless, repetitive. The word “silence” that is repeated too many times exhibit an intended message which is the loss of communication and the impossibility of connection. The readers are left puzzling, and they miss information. This points out at the uncertainty of life, existence, and the presence of the modern man. Discontinuous speeches are countless in the play. For example, “Gus: Well I was just_, Ben: She_, Gus: I do not know about _, Ben: Well_…”as if the readers are left with hints and should be able to analyze and guess the incomplete parts of the speech. Ben silences Gus while the latter keeps asking and complaining in vain. The segmented dialogues between them suggest that communication is meaningless or useless.Therefore, the modern man is a hollow spirit. When moving to the end of the play, Gus is unpredictable of his fate. We do not know why Gus is stripped of his clothes. Moreover, we are uncertain whether Ben shot Gus or not. We are informed that we had: “A long silence. They stare at each other”. May be at this point Ben hesitates to shoot Gus after receiving the order in which Gus is his present target to be killed.

Harold Pinter has been one of the efficient playwrights of the Theatre of the Absurd. He is regarded as one of the most important reflections of the absurd plays according to many critics. Critics have diverged into two classes while evaluating Pinter: “Some have tried to prove that Pinter is a mere absurdist dramatist, and some others have provided clues to nail home the idea that he differs in many respects from the practitioners of the Absurd drama”, to use Aliakbari and Pourgiv’s phrase ( Aliakbari and Pourgiv 1). Pinter is capable to strike the real deep sorrows of the modern man permitting the existential philosophy to be questioned and evoking doubts upon his audience.

Aliakbari, H, and F. Pourgiv. “Harold Pinter: The Absurdist-Existentialist Playwright”. English Language and Linguistics, special issue of Journal of Social Sciences ; Humanities of Shiraz University, vol.23, no.1, 2006.
Binyan, Pi. “Absurdity underneath realistic elements in Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter”. Canadian Social Science, vol.3, no.4, 2007, pp.37-41.
Esslin, Martin. “The Theatre of the Absurd”. The Tulane Drama Review, vol. 4, no. 4, 1960, pp. 3-15 from

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