The second scene of Act Two opens on the following evening. Alison is at her dressing table, packing a suitcase. Her father, Colonel Redfern, sits in a chair on the other side of the room. The Colonel is a handsome man in his late sixties. He is slightly withdrawn. He was a dedicated and strict soldier for forty years but now he has an air of kindness and gentleness to him. He feels disturbed and bewildered by everything that is happening to his daughter.
The Colonel asks where Jimmy has gone and Alison tells him that he’s gone to visit Mrs. Tanner in London. She explains how Mrs. Tanner set Jimmy up with the sweet stall and how he has remained fond of her through the years. The Colonel asks why Jimmy, an educated young man, decided to work a sweet stall and Alison tells him that he tried many things, “journalism, advertising, even vacuum cleaners for a few weeks. He seems to have been as happy doing this as anything else.”
Alison and her father begin to discuss her life with Jimmy. She tells him of how Jimmy hates all of them and how he believes it is “high treason” for Alison to be in touch with her family. The Colonel admits to Alison that he believes her mother went too far in castigating Jimmy. He tells her about how her mother hated Jimmy and believed that he was a criminal. He admits that “All those inquiries, the private detectives -- the accusations. I hated every moment of it.” Alison says that she believes her mother was only trying to protect her and the Colonel says that he wishes they had never interfered with their daughter’s life.
The Colonel proffers the idea that perhaps he and Alison are to blame for everything that has happened. Alison is shocked at this, but the Colonel explains to her that she is like him. He tells her that she likes “to sit on the fence because it’s comfortable and more peaceful.” She reminds him that he had threatened her, but that she was the one that married him anyway.
Alison tells the Colonel what Jimmy said about him and her mother. She tells the Colonel that Jimmy called her mother an “overprivileged old bitch” and called the Colonel a plant left over “from the Edwardian Wilderness that can’t understand why the sun isn’t shining any more.” The Colonel asks her why he married her if he felt like this. Alison answers that this is “the famous American question -- you know, the sixty-four dollar one!” She says that he perhaps married her for revenge. Perhaps, she thinks, Jimmy thought that “he should have been another Shelley, and can’t understand now why I’m not another Mary, and you’re not William Godwin.” She says that when she met Jimmy he threw down a gauntlet for her; a challenge that she felt compelled to rise up and meet. The Colonel only answers that he doesn’t understand why young people cannot simply marry for love.
The Colonel concedes to Alison that, perhaps, Jimmy is right in calling him an old Edwardian. He tells her the story of how he left England in 1914 to command the Maharajah’s army in India. He loved India and did not return to Britain until 1947. He discovered that, by then, the England he had left was no longer there. He remembers how happy he was in India and remembers the “last day the sun shone was when that dirty little train steamed out of that crowded, suffocating Indian station...I knew in my heart it was all over then.” Alison hears the story and cannot help but compare the two men in her life: “You’re hurt because everything is changed. Jimmy is hurt because everything is the same. And neither of you can face it.”
Alison picks up the squirrel from the dresser and begins to put it in her suitcase, then she stops and puts it back. For a moment, “she seems to be standing on the edge of choice.” She makes a choice and goes to her father, leans against him and weeps. The Colonel tells her she’s taking a big step in deciding to leave with him. Alison finishes packing her bag. Helena enters and Alison and the Colonel prepare to leave. The Colonel asks if Helena is coming with them, and she tells him that she is not and that she has a job interview the next day in Birmingham and will stay one more night. Cliff enters and Alison introduces the two men. The Colonel takes Alison’s bag and exits.
Cliff asks Alison if she wants to stay and tell Jimmy about her departure. She hands Cliff a letter, an action that Cliff calls “conventional,” and she leaves. Cliff and Helena are alone in the apartment. Cliff tells Helena that the apartment is going to be “really cock-eyed” now. Helena wonders if Jimmy will look up one of his old girlfriends, Madeline, but Cliff doesn’t think so. Cliff loses his sense of good humor for the first time and he snaps at Helena. Helena tells him that “I’ve never seen so many souls stripped to the waist” because of Jimmy. Cliff decides to meet Jimmy at the train station and he says that he might have a few drinks or even pick up a prostitute and bring her back to the apartment. He throws Alison’s letter at Helena and tells her to give it to Jimmy.
Helena goes to the dresser and picks up the bear. She falls on the bed clutching it. Suddenly, Jimmy bursts in the room “almost giddy with anger....” He yells at her that the Colonel almost ran him down with his car and that Cliff walked away from him on the street without speaking. Helena throws the letter at him and he opens it. He reads the first few lines. Alison expresses that she desperately needs peace and that she needs time. She ends the letter by writing that “I shall always have a deep, loving need of you....”
Jimmy is incensed. He calls her a phony. He wants to know why Helena is still here at the apartment. She tells him that Alison is pregnant with his child. He is taken aback by this news but then he gets in Helena’s face and tells her he doesn’t care. He dares Helena to slap his face and recounts how for the past eleven hours he watched Hugh’s mother die. He tells her that when he goes to the funeral, he will be alone because “that bitch won’t even send her a bunch of flowers....” He believes that Alison did not take Hugh’s mother seriously and so he doesn’t care if she is going to have a baby. He tells Helena to leave and she slaps his face. He is surprised at first, but then he lets the painful emotions of the situation come over him. He lets out a “muffled cry of despair” and then Helena grabs him and they passionately kiss.
The second scene of Act II is written to provide a respite from the emotional intensity of previous scenes. Colonel Redfern is, perhaps, the play’s most sympathetic character. He is described as a former military man. This description suggests his strict rigidity in matters of emotion. It implies that the Colonel is unyielding in his attitude towards Jimmy and Alison’s relationship. His previous military life, therefore, is meant to be the antithesis to Jimmy’s radical emotional out bursts.
The audience realizes, however, when the Colonel’s character appears in this scene, that his strict rigidity and lack of emotion is a fictionalized caricature created in Jimmy’s mind. The Colonel’s physical characteristics are described as relaxed and softened. He is worried about his daughter and he shows a range of emotion towards her. The fact that he has come to her rescue with such short notice suggests that Jimmy does not quite understand the complexity of his motivations.
Jimmy is partly correct, however, in his assessment that the Colonel represents the past. Alison relays Jimmy’s insults towards him. She tells him that Jimmy believes he is a leftover from the “Edwardian Wilderness.” The Edwardian period in British culture was a period in the early twentieth century during the reign of King Edward VII in which elite British culture was influential in both fashion and ideas throughout Continental Europe. This period in British history represents both the high water mark of British culture but also the beginning of the end for the prominence of Great Britain. In a few decades, this prominence would wane when countries such as India and Egypt gained their freedom from British colonialism and when the British economy was devastated by World War II.
The Colonel symbolizes the softening of the British character. Just as the Colonel is resigned and withdrawn, Osborne is suggesting that British culture and character is resigned and withdrawn in this new American age. Jimmy expresses this resignation later in the play when he tells Cliff that there are no great causes to fight for anymore. The Colonel’s generation, he says, was the last generation to believe unquestionably in an absolute right. Now, the Colonel is confused by the world around him. He does not understand the new British generations. Osborne argues that this attitude mirrors the collective British conscience which cannot understand the angry young men populating its working classes.
This scene in the play is in some ways the least consequential. It’s function is largely symbolic. Critics have noted that the kiss that Jimmy and Helena share at the end of the scene is forced and rushed and ultimately unneeded. The point of the scene is to provide a complex understanding of Jimmy’s view of the past. The scene can be summed up in Alison’s observation that Jimmy and the Colonel are alike in many ways. The Colonel is upset because the present is not like the past. He sees his best days as behind him. Jimmy is upset because he views the present as the same as the past and sees no future for himself or anyone else. This is the same problem viewed from different angles. Osborne’s point here is that the past has definite consequences for the present. In the Colonel’s case, the past creates resignation and bewilderment in the present. For Jimmy, the past creates stagnation and anger.