The Rear-View Mirror: The Dumb Waiter (1957)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

GUS: What do we do if it’s a girl?
BEN: We do the same.
GUS: Exactly the same?
BEN: Exactly.


GUS: We don’t do anything different?
BEN: We do exactly the same.
GUS: Oh.

GUS rises, and shivers.

Excuse me.

He exits through the door on the left. BEN remains sitting on the bed, still.
The lavatory chain is pulled once off left, but the lavatory does not flush.

What a scorcher: bearing the brunt of Harold Pinter’s temper was one of life’s central experiences

Most likely, The Dumb Waiter was my first exposure to the wonderfully menacing world of Harold Pinter. It wasn’t on stage or even in a course on English Literature, though; it was in Introduction to Linguistics, and the professor in question used a scene from Pinter’s play to illustrate… something. Probably the field of Pragmatics and how what is said and what is being talked about may be two entirely different things.

What stayed with me, though, was that most Pinteresque of features: the terse back-and-forth, the power games, and especially the menacing pause.

Critics call the plays that Harold Pinter wrote between 1957 and 1968 “comedies of menace”, but for me it’s always been the menace that shines through most. Like many of Pinter’s plays, The Dumb Waiter, which has two hitmen waiting for their next victim in a dingy basement room, resembles nothing so much as the slow-motion prelude to a desperate, brutal fight to the death. Bumbling bonhomie gives way to passive-aggressiveness as Pinter’s characters constantly circle each other, looking for an opening, for any kind of weakness. Dominance and submission are negotiated by means of seemingly innocuous conversations, about tea, cricket, semantics. About camaraderie, hierarchy and resentment. About everything and nothing. And then the food orders start coming.

I’ve since taught Pinter. I’ve directed a small student production of The Dumb Waiter, years ago. The rhythm of Pinter’s language is easy to imitate, to parody. It’s easy to laugh at the posturing of the characters. But the menace, the slowly mounting dread as the two men and the audience anticipate whatever waits at the end of the evening, they’ve never become domesticated for me. And Pinter’s silences? They speak volumes.

P.S.: There is a filmed version of the play from 1987, directed by Robert Altman and starring John Travolta and Tom Conti. I’ve not heard anything good about it, and I don’t think that Altman was a good fit for Pinter. Perhaps I’m missing something great, but I’ll take that chance.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s