The aim of this blog is to serve as a meeting point to those who study or have studied English philology and, more broadly, to all those who love literature and language.

27 Dec 2008


Harold Pinter died last Wednesday at the age of 78. His work was part of the syllabus of Literatura Inglesa III together with that of other playwrights which renewed the British stage in the 60’s and 70’s by introducing working class characters and plots as well as avant-garde elements influenced by other European authors.

Among other things, we learnt about his use of speech and silences to expose the nature of his characters: “Pinter’s dialogue – or lack of it – echoes Becket’s strategic use of repetition and pauses () However, while Becket’s silences suggest the alienation of his characters who are victims of the tedium and meaningless of modern life, Pinter’s are ominous and threatening”. This use of language found a place in the English lexicon with the coinage of the adjective ‘pinteresque’ to refer to apparently trivial utterances and silences that disguise a menacing situation.

We were requested to read The Dumb Waiter, a play which provides clear examples of power exertion reflected in language. The story presents two contract killers, Ben and Gus, waiting in a room for instructions. An absent character, Wilson, apparently communicates through a dumbwaiter. Ben continuously manifests his power over Gus by delaying or not giving an answer to Gus’ questions, by changing the conversation topic or by shouting at his mate over unimportant issues.

This an extract from the play:

BEN. Go and light it.
GUS. Light what?
BEN. The kettle.
GUS. You mean the gas.
BEN. Who does?
GUS. You do.
BEN (his eyes narrowing). What do you mean, I mean the gas?
GUS. Well, that's what you mean, don't you? The gas.
BEN (powerfully). If I say go and light the kettle I mean go and light the kettle.
GUS. How can you light the kettle?
BEN. It's a figure of speech! Light the kettle. It's a figure of speech!
GUS. I've never heard it.
BEN. Light the kettle! It's common usage!
GUS. I think you've got it wrong.
BEN (menacing). What do you mean?
GUS.They say put on the kettle.
BEN (taut). Who says?

They stare at each other, breathing hard.

(Deliberately.) I have never in all my life heard anyone say put on the kettle.
GUS. I bet my mother used to say it.
BEN. Your mother? When did you last see your mother?
GUS. I don't know, about--
BEN. Well, what are you talking about your mother for?
They stare.
GUS, I'm not trying to be unreasonable. I'm just trying to point out something to you.
GUS. Yes, but--
BEN. Who's the senior partner here, me or you?
GUS. You.
BEN. I'm only looking after your interests, Gus. You've got to learn, mate.
GUS. Yes, but I've never heard--
BEN (vehemently). Nobody says light the gas! What does the gas light?.
GUS. What does the gas--?
BEN (grabbing him with two hands by the throat, at arm's length). THE KETTLE, YOU FOOL!
GUS takes the hands from his throat.

GUS. All right, all right.

BEN. Well, what are you waiting for?
GUS. I want to see if they light.
BEN. What?
GUS. The matches.


  1. Harold Pinter will always be a symbol to me. A symbol that represents that part of literature that I don’t understand. Plays such as The Dumb Waiter or Waiting for Godot don´t mean anything to me. I don’t understand the Theater of the Absurd. I can´t get the point in the plays of Pinter, Beckett or Ionesco… To me they are just absurd. This makes me to be ashamed, but I can help it. I tried to appreciate its merits but I can´t. They said that “in his plays he uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms”. Well, I can´t see it. I acknowledge that Pinter has been an accomplished playwright. He´s been acclaimed all over the world. He´s been awarded with a Nobel Price. So it´s me; it´s me and my literary dysfunction. So, wherever you are, Harold Pinter, I salute you, although your plays are uncomprehensible to me.
    Juan F.

  2. Harold Pinter's Nobel Lecture speech was left untranslated by the major media in Spain: it was perhaps too uncompromising politically speaking, against Bush and Blair. I translated it in collab with my wife; here it is (i put the link on my name above).
    Happy 2009 to all readers ¡and writers! of POE.

  3. Thank you for the link. I see that Pinter did not miss the opportunity of exposing to a wide audience the discourse manipulation and interested silences of American and British political leaders regarding their part in the world savagery.
    And thank you for the New Year wishes. It is encouraging to feel read.

  4. I don´t like The Theater of the Absurd either. At least on my first reading. I am taking my exams on Literature III next week and Pinter´s "The Dumb Waiter" is one of them. I really need to read the Uned Addenda first and to google the play to see what other people see on it because if I have to trust my first reading I would say “what a lot of rubbish!”

    Then, I re-read it again and I let my mind go and I even enjoy it looking for hidden meanings in silences and body language.

    I post one of my study questions:

    3. Compare the silences of Ben with those of Gus, especially with respect to Pinter’s belief that speech covers the nakedness of silence.

    Pinter´s characters tell us more with their silences and body language than with their speech. Pinter considers speech a constant stratagem to cover the nakedness of silence.

    Ben´s silences are ominous and violent creating a menacing atmosphere and the feeling of imminent death.

    Gus´s silences are less violent, more inquiring and submissive. Silence makes him feel uncomfortable so he pesters Ben with questions. He needs reassuring.

    In response to Gus´s constant questions Ben mostly answers with silence. When he speaks, he bosses Gus or changes the conversation reading aloud news from the paper, mostly about death. He often answers back with another question “What is the matter with you?”.
    Ben´s chilling silences give him an aura of intimidation and violence. He frequently checks his gun to show off his potential for violence.

    Ben´s unfriendly body language reflects a contained violence “Ben lowers his paper and watches him” [Gus]. This line is repeated twice in the paragraph.

    Gus´s body language shows insecurity “he ties his lace, with difficulty”. He moves mechanically. His continuous visits to the bathroom or the kitchen give the place an air of imprisonment. Gus repeats mechanically Ben´s instructions to kill.

    Pinter makes use of repetitive, mechanised language to hide their characters´s vulnerability. When they are silent they show their true nature. Ben´s violent impatience or Gus´s insecurity.