It’s nine months later. Dickie and Catherine are in the living room. Dickie’s gramophone, back downstairs again, is playing some early ragtime. Dickie asks his sister if she thinks Arthur can hear it upstairs, but she reckons not.
The gramophone has been taken back downstairs, perhaps hinting at a slight weakening of Arthur’s authority. That said, Dickie and Catherine are still worried he can hear it.
Dickie praises the dress Catherine is wearing; she’s about to go out on a date with John. Dickie asks Catherine whether in the “new feminist world” women will sometimes foot the bill instead of men. She says “certainly,” to which Dickie jokingly commits to joining the cause.
Violet comes in with a copy of The Star newspaper. She asks Dickie and Catherine not to throw it away when they’re done, so that she and the cook can read it.
Clearly there’s something in the paper that interests all three characters (and the cook). This is the first entry of the press into the play. Violet continues in her slightly unwitting role as provider of information.
Catherine flicks to the letters page of the paper, with Dickie watching attentively over her shoulder. She reads the first letter, which offers support for “the Osborne Cadet”—Ronnie—in light of his “high-handed treatment by the Admiralty.” The letter goes on to praise Arthur for his defense of Ronnie against the “soulless oligarchy.”
Ronnie’s case has evidently garnered significant public interest. This particular letter is a good example of how one part of the public views the case: as the defense of a powerless boy against the might and authority of the State/the Crown. Without getting too technical, the U.K. state has political power but is ultimately constitutionally ruled by the monarchy (the Crown). That’s why Ronnie’s case is presented as being against the government and the Crown; they’re essentially interchangeable for the purpose of the play.
Catherine reads aloud the next letter, signed by “Perplexed.” This letter-write “cannot understand what all the fuss is about in the case of the Osborne Cadet.” “Perplexed” thinks there are more important matters than a fourteen-year-old boy and a five-shilling postal order. Furthermore, it goes on, the case is a major distraction for the Navy when it should be concentrating on Germany’s rearmament—Ronnie’s case is a “storm in a teacup.”
“Perplexed” offers the opposite view to the previous letter. In essence, Ronnie’s case isn’t worth the hassle—the “truth” of the matter is unimportant. In particular, the navy should be focusing on more important issues like the activities of Germany. The play is set just before World War I, which looms darkly on the horizon.
Dickie says, a little guiltily, that he can kind of see the point of the second letter-writer. He thinks it does seem like a bit of an expensive fuss over such a small matter. He tells Catherine to dance with him to cheer them both up.
Dickie doesn’t operate with the same loyalty to a set of principles as Catherine does. He can see the last letter’s point—that the attention on the case is out of proportion with the triviality of the alleged crime.
As they dance, Dickie asks Catherine about her upcoming wedding. Catherine tells him that it’s been postponed again as John’s father is abroad for six months. She says that her and John have differences of opinion, but that she’ll marry him even if she has to drag him up the aisle.
This is the first hint that Catherine and John’s proposed marriage might not work out as planned. This also reinforces the degree of control John’s father has in his life.
Dickie tells Catherine that she should “suppress” her opinions: “Men don’t like ‘em in their lady friends, even if they agree with ‘em. And if they don’t—it’s fatal.” It’s best if she pretends to be “half-witted”; then John will “adore” her. Catherine reassures him that if there’s ever “a clash between what I believe and what I feel, there’s no doubt about which will win.” Dickie takes this to mean she will choose marriage.
Even though Dickie is trying to offer Catherine genuine advice, his comments demonstrate the entrenched patriarchal structure of early 20th century society. Women should dumb down their intelligence if they want men to adore them. Catherine’s comment is a little cryptic but implies that she would choose her potential marriage over her ideals.
Arthur enters, walking with difficulty. Dickie hastily switches off the gramophone. Dickie asks Arthur what the doctor said, who has evidently just been to visit. The doctor reportedly said that Arthur isn’t as well as he last saw him, which to Arthur seems like expensive information. Arthur notices the paper and asks Catherine to bring it to him.
Arthur’s health is starting to deteriorate, suggesting the toll the case has already begun taking on him. His comment about the doctor shows that he always has one eye on his finances.
Reading the letter page, Arthur wonders if he could sue “Perplexed.” Catherine asks him if Sir Robert Morton is coming to the house. Sir Robert is considered the best barrister in the business. Arthur says he could hardly go and see Sir Robert himself.
Arthur can’t go to see Sir Robert himself because of his ill health. His vague wish to sue the letter-writer shows that the case is to him partly a matter of pride as well as “truth.” It also shows his preoccupation with the perception of the case to the wider public.
Catherine leaves the room, and Arthur goes over to Dickie, staring at him intently. Arthur asks Dickie to answer a question for him truthfully: what odds would Dickie place on him successfully completing his Oxford degree? Dickie responds that it’s more or less “evens,” before reducing the likelihood to “seven to four against.”
Arthur, thinking about his financial situation, lays a trap for Dickie by asking a seemingly light-hearted question.
Arthur tells Dickie that he’s no longer able to pay for “such a gamble.” Dickie will have to quit university; Arthur says he will get him a job at the bank. Dickie, clearly disappointed, asks if it’s because of the case. Arthur , “it’s costing him a lot of money,” and then apologizes for the shock. Dickie had been kind of expecting it anyway—especially with the knowledge that Sir Robert Morton is to get involved in the case. He admits, though, that it’s “a bit of a slap in the face.”
Arthur is being a little disingenuous here: Ronnie’s case is as much of a gamble as Dickie’s education. In fact, Arthur is simply prioritizing his gambles. To him, the case represents something worthier than Dickie’s education. Dickie accepts his fate with characteristic understatement, putting on a brave face.
The doorbell rings, and Arthur knows that it is a journalist who has come to see him. He asks Dickie if they can continue their conversation another time. Arthur then asks how Dickie’s love interest, Edwina, is doing, before giving Dickie some money so he can take her to the theatre. Dickie thanks Arthur, and asks if he can pour himself an alcoholic drink. Arthur agrees, and Dickie leaves the room.
Arthur’s donation to Dickie demonstrates Dickie’s dependence on financial help from his father. It’s not meant to be patronizing, but it makes Dickie out to be a kid who gratefully receives his pocket money. Dickie, still taking in the news that he has to leave Oxford, wants a drink to calm his nerves.
Violet appears at the door and announces the arrival of Miss Barnes, a journalist from the Daily News. She says she wants to take a picture of Arthur and Ronnie; her paper specializes in “stories with a little heart … a father’s fight for his little boy’s honour.” Arthur is visibly offended, and says he thinks the case has “wider implications” than Miss Barnes implies.
Arthur believes in the wider importance of the case, but Miss Barnes isn’t that bothered. The case hasn’t yet reached the height of public awareness that it will later. This hints that the press is not interested in principle, but in selling papers.
Miss Barnes quizzes Arthur about the case but doesn’t seem especially interested. Arthur outlines the long process they’ve already been through: they had to fight to even see the evidence against Ronnie. Eventually there was an inquiry, but in Arthur’s opinion that wasn’t conducted fairly either—Ronnie had no representation and was judged by someone involved in the Navy. That’s why he is now hiring Sir Robert Morton. Miss Barnes seems more interested in the Winslows’ curtains.
The reader/viewer gets a sense of why Arthur has hired Sir Robert. Ronnie has already been through a protracted legal process to date, and now Sir Robert is the only with the expertise to fight against the powers that be. Miss Barnes’s interest in the curtains, meanwhile, further reflects her disinterest in the particulars of the case., much to Arthur’s frustration.
Ronnie and Grace enter, clearly in high spirits. Ronnie excitedly tells Arthur that he has grown an inch taller. He notices Miss Barnes and asks who she is. Miss Barnes calls in her photographer, Fred.
Ronnie doesn’t seem to be too weighed down by the case, and his comments reiterate that he just wants to be a kid. This further suggests Arthur’s pursuit of justice is also conducted in the name of his own, rather than his son’s, pride.
Posing with Ronnie, Arthur explains to Grace about Miss Barnes. Grace and Miss Barnes discuss the curtains. Ronnie is excited to be in the Daily News as it’s a paper they get at his new school’s library. Miss Barnes departs with her photographer, thanking Grace rather than Arthur.
Ronnie doesn’t see the case in the same way Arthur does. He thinks it’s quite cool that he’s in the papers and doesn’t see the whole thing with the same seriousness and strength of principles as his father.
Arthur tells Ronnie that his half term report was pretty fair, but Ronnie is more interested in talking about a train he has just been on. He knocks Arthur’s leg, which Arthur complains about. Ronnie exits, excited to find Violet.
Ronnie doesn’t realize that his father is in bodily pain. Ronnie clearly has things he wants to talk about with his father, but they are boyish, youthful things, and he’s not bothered about how he is doing at school.
The doctor left ointment for Arthur’s back, instructing him to have four massages a day. Grace says he should have one now, to which he grudgingly agrees. She says it’s stupid to spend so much money on a doctor and then not to follow his advice.
As the head of the family, Arthur hates having to admit any weakness. Here, Grace displays her sense of caring in a moment that suggests how Arthur, despite his authority, still relies on his family.
Grace goes upstairs to attend to Ronnie and prepare Arthur’s ointment. Arthur turns wearily to Catherine, saying he feels “suicidally inclined.” He asks her if they’re both mad for committing to the case.
The case draws Arthur and Catherine closer together; they’re by far the most committed of the family members to the case’s successful completion. Obviously, Arthur is exaggerating about suicide—but he is genuinely concerned whether he and Catherine are wasting time and money. It’s also a first glimpse of mental vulnerability from Arthur (mirroring his increasing physical difficulties).
Arthur asks Catherine if he should drop the case, which she steadfastly refuses. He admits that the great expense will prevent him from keeping his dowry agreement for Catherine’s marriage, but she says she’s already given up on that.
The financial implications of the case now bear down not just on Dickie but on Catherine too. She, however, is wedded to her principles and has already decided that she is willing to sacrifice future financial security for the sake of the case—contradicting what she said earlier to Dickie about feelings winning out over beliefs (or at least Dickie’s impression of that statement).
Relieved at Catherine’s attitude, Arthur says that they have to “pin all their faith” on Sir Robert Morton. After an awkward silence, Catherine complains about Sir Robert. She thinks he’s untrustworthy and self-serving, and she disagrees with his political leaning. Arthur sympathizes but asks Catherine, as his “only ally,” to have faith in his decision to hire Sir Robert as their barrister.
Catherine and Sir Robert come from very different sides of the political spectrum. Sir Robert is more conservative whereas Catherine wants to see tangible progress. Of course, as the head of the family and the one with the funds, the decision is Arthur’s to make.
Arthur leaves the room as Dickie comes in. Dickie vents his frustration to Catherine at having to leave Oxford. He says he could “just murder” Ronnie for stealing that postal order—and even more so for getting caught. He leaves the room gloomily.
Dickie didn’t feel he could complain about the case to Arthur, but he has a little more leeway with Catherine. He is frustrated at Ronnie and thinks that he probably did steal the postal order.
The doorbell rings. Catherine goes to get the door, thinking it will be John; instead, it’s Desmond Curry with Sir Robert Morton. Sir Robert is elegantly dressed and has a refined, formal manner. He bows to Catherine, who offers him a seat; he refuses.
Sir Robert is a busy man and can’t stay for long. He also wouldn’t sit down until the head of the household, Arthur, is present, further suggesting his conservative attitude.
Desmond stresses how short Sir Robert is on time, so Catherine instructs Desmond to go upstairs and get Arthur. She offers Sir Robert a drink or a smoke, but he declines both.
Sir Robert doesn’t really have time for Catherine. He’s strictly here to speak to Arthur—again reflecting his more traditional nature.
Catherine and Sir Robert strike up awkward conversation. She expresses surprise that he’s even interested in the case. She saw his rigorous cross-examination of Len Rogers, and asks if Sir Robert knew that Rogers committed suicide soon after. Sir Robert says he had heard, but that Rogers was still guilty.
It turns out that Catherine is so familiar with Sir Robert because he prosecuted the author of the book she was reading earlier (the trade unionist Len Rogers). Evidently, he won the case against Rogers. Sir Robert presents himself as unemotional, at a distance from the people involved in the cases because of a greater commitment to “truth.” He’s not really interested in the consequences of that “truth.”
Arthur and Grace come down. Arthur introduces himself to Sir Robert and tells him that Ronnie will be down soon. Sir Robert just wants to ask him a few questions; he needs to rush off to an important dinner. Arthur expected Sir Robert to stay longer.
Arthur assumed that Sir Robert would drop everything to prioritize and that accordingly he would stay longer than “a few questions.”
Sir Robert explains that he thinks they need to apply for a “Petition of Right.” This gives an individual express permission to sue part of the Crown, in this case the Admiralty of the Navy. Customarily, the King’s representative has to agree using the words “let Right be done.” Both Sir Robert and Arthur agree that they like the phrase.
Sir Robert shows his supreme legal expertise by explaining that he has found a way for the case to potentially proceed. This also establishes Sir Robert’s key phrase: let Right be done. “Right,” for Sir Robert, is a kind of objective value of “truth” and “fairness.” Arthur and Sir Robert both demonstrate that they are also interested in the presentational power of the phrase—it has a ring to it that sounds important and profound.
Ronnie comes in. Arthur explains that Sir Robert will ask Ronnie a few questions, and Sir Robert insists that nobody interrupt him. Sir Robert makes Ronnie stand at the table, facing him.
The two men direct proceedings. Sir Robert recreates interrogation conditions, again underscoring his unemotional and direct manner.
Sir Robert quickly begins interrogating Ronnie. Ronnie explains that he did go to the Post Office on the day of the alleged incident, but that he didn’t steal anyone’s postal order. Arthur interjects a couple of times, annoying Sir Robert greatly.
Ronnie maintains his innocence. Arthur isn’t used to not having control, which is why he tries to interrupt. But Sir Robert is another man used to having power over proceedings.
Sir Robert’s questions intensify. He gets Ronnie to admit that he had practiced the signature of his roommate, Elliot, whose postal order he is supposed to have stolen. Ronnie says they used to practice each other’s signatures, but just for fun. Sir Robert tells Ronnie that the Admiralty had the handwriting on the postal order analyzed and confirmed that the signature came from Ronnie, not Elliot.
Sir Robert’s technique is to question Ronnie aggressively, rather than calmly ask for his side of the story. Ronnie’s admittance that he used to practice his roommates signature is obviously the kind of incriminating evidence that the opposition could use against him.
Ronnie is increasingly tearful, asking Sir Robert whose side he is on. Sir Robert keeps pressing him on the details of that day, which Ronnie seems unsure of. There are inconsistencies in his story that clearly make him feel stressed. Finally, Sir Robert accuses Ronnie of committing the crime, telling him that the Admiralty’s account of the event is patently true.
Sir Robert seems to be doing the very opposite of what Arthur and the family expected him to do—he is proving Ronnie’s guilt, not innocence. This is his way of finding the truth.
Sir Robert says that by continuing to lie, Ronnie is bringing great strain upon his family. Catherine stands up, objecting strongly. Sir Robert says that Ronnie should “undo some of the misery you have caused by confessing to us all now that you are a forger, a liar, and a thief!” Ronnie, crying, insists that he’s not.
This is the climax of Sir Robert’s dramatic interrogation of Ronnie. His questioning has reduced Ronnie to tears. Catherine clearly feels that Sir Robert is being far too harsh on Ronnie, but it will soon be revealed that his has been in a way testing the boy’s commitment to his innocence.
Arthur tells Sir Robert that he is being “outrageous.” John enters, clearly taken aback by the scene he walks into. Suddenly, Sir Robert turns to Desmond and calmly asks him if he can drop him off anywhere as he drives to dinner.
Even Arthur now objects to Sir Robert’s methods. But Sir Robert has suddenly completely changed his attitude, dropping the fierce emotion and returning to his atmosphere of calm and control. He has clearly finished his questioning.
With an air of indifference, Sir Robert asks Desmond to drop off the materials relevant to Ronnie’s case at his office in the morning. Desmond is surprised—but Sir Robert says, “the boy is plainly innocent,” before bowing to Arthur and Catherine and leaving the house. Ronnie sobs hysterically.
Contrary to the family’s assumption, Sir Robert has actually concluded that Ronnie is innocent. The fact that he has come to this decision using such harsh methods shows that he feels he knows best how to get to the “truth.” Like Arthur earlier in Act 1, he feels that he has the analytical skills to detect whether someone is being truthful just by asking the right questions. But it comes at a high emotional cost for Ronnie.