Max, Teddy, Lenny, and Sam smoke cigars. Joey enters the room with a tray of coffee and Ruth follows. She compliments Max on the lunch and he is pleased. Max wonders what Jessie would say if she was alive. He guesses she would wish her grandchildren were there. She taught the sons everything they knew about morality and he went out in the world and left his woman at home “with a will of iron, a heart of gold and a mind” (46). He continues, musing that he was good to her. Once he was going to enter a group of butchers and make a lot of money so he treated his family to nice things. Ruth asks what happened to the butchers and Max replies that they turned out to be criminals like everyone else.
Max tells Sam he shouldn’t be late to his job because it will humiliate him. He whines about how he worked as a butcher all his life and kept his family in luxury. His mother was bedridden and his brothers invalids and his wife a slutty bitch. He still feels the weight of that burden, and meanwhile his brother is lazy.
Sam retorts that his customers ask for him. They argue for a few more minutes until Max turns to Teddy and tells him it is nice he is back. He asks about the wedding and says he would have given him a nice one because Teddy is his firstborn. He’s always wanted his sons to have a nice feminine girl. He gives Ruth and Teddy his blessing.
Ruth thanks Max and says she assumes Teddy is very happy that Max is pleased with her. She had wondered if he would be. Max is a little perplexed and comments that she is charming. Ruth replies that she was, and was different when she met Teddy.
Max shrugs this off and counsels them to live in the present. Teddy says Ruth is great over at the University and they have a good life; it is a stimulating and fun environment. He mentions he has three boys. Max laughs that Joey does too.
Joey tells Ruth he is a boxer. Max tells Lenny that Joey speaks so well to his sister-in-law because she is a smart and sympathetic woman. He then asks Ruth if the children miss her. Teddy volunteers that of course they do. Lenny and Teddy’s cigars go out.
Lenny asks Teddy about his doctorate in philosophy, and says he has a question: does Teddy see any logical incoherence in the central beliefs of Christian theism? Teddy replies that is not his area. Lenny persists, asking how one can revere the unknown. How can one revere something they are ignorant of? On the other hand the things we know do not merit reverence. So, Lenny asks, beyond the known and unknown what is there?
Teddy replies simply he is the wrong person to ask. Lenny changes tack, asking what, philosophically, is a table. Teddy replies it is a table. Lenny laughs that sometimes he and his friends ask about a table and do not know for sure.
Ruth interjects. She says they cannot be too sure and maybe forgot something. She tells them to look at her leg and she moves it but her underwear moves too and captures their attention. Maybe they misinterpret the simple action. They should just look at the action of her lips moving. Maybe them moving is more important than the words coming through them.
It is silent and Teddy stands, haltingly announcing that he went to America six years ago and there is a lot of sand and insects there.
Max tells Joey it is time to go to the gym. Lenny decides to go with him. The three leave. Teddy holds Ruth’s hands and she smiles at him.
Teddy ventures that they ought to go home. She replies that maybe he does not like his family. He says he does but wants to get home because it is so clean there. She’s met the family and now they ought to go. He continues while she looks at him, explaining that he will pack and she can rest and when they get home she can help with his lectures and they can bathe; it is too dirty to bathe here. Teddy goes upstairs.
Lenny enters and sits by Ruth. He states that it is winter now and she must renew her wardrobe. He asks if she likes clothes and she nods. She says there are shoes she cannot get in America. She tells Lenny she was a model and he asks if it was for hats. She replies that it was the body but it was before she had children. She remembers a place by the lake where the girls did their modeling.
When Teddy returns he asks Lenny what he was saying to Ruth. Lenny puts a record on and asks Ruth for a dance before she goes. She agrees and they dance. He kisses her and she kisses back.
Joey and Max enter and Joey marvels that Ruth is wide open and is a tart. He walks over to her, takes her arm, and the two fall to the couch and embrace. She lies under him. He smiles that this is better than a rubdown.
Max asks Teddy if he is leaving now. He tells his son he will always be glad to meet a wife. He believes Teddy was ashamed to tell his family about his wife because he married a woman beneath him. Yet Max looks at her and he admits she is lovely and is a woman of quality and feeling.
Joey and Ruth roll to the floor. She pushes him away and says she wants a drink of whiskey. Lenny procures it while she tells Joey to turn the record off. When she says she wants something to eat, Joey says Max is the cook. Ruth also tells Lenny she wants her drink in a tumbler.
Ruth looks at Teddy and asks if his family has read his critical works. Teddy responds that they would not understand them. He tells them frankly they would be lost, they are behind, and the way they look at the world prevents them from understanding. He is the one that can see, and it might do them good to look at how people view things and maintain intellectual equilibrium. They are objects that simply move about, and so they are lost; but he refuses to be.
Act Two gives the audience insight into Teddy, and while he initially seemed sympathetic, albeit a tad controlling, he is now clearly objectionable. As a philosophy professor and intellectual, Teddy believes he is above his working-class family. America is “cleaner” and university life is light and amusing. Perhaps his family should have at least looked at his published works, but Teddy proclaims that they are way too difficult for his family to understand. He chides them on not having the proper worldview, which for him is utilitarian and emotionless: “It’s a question of how far you can operate on things and not in things…I’m the one who can see…Might do you good…have a look at them…see how certain people can maintain…intellectual equilibrium. You’re just objects. You just…move about. I can observe it. I can see what you do” (62-63).
Understanding Teddy’s philosophy allows us to answer the question of why he does nothing to intervene when Lenny and Joey make physical advances on his wife. Teddy maintains that he does not get involved “in” things but rather “operates on” them. It’s a subtle difference in words that matters greatly. Teddy is concerned almost solely with himself and his career and his (arguably deplorable) life’s philosophy. He is all science, objectivity, and defensiveness. He prefers the “clean” America even though it is depicted as a barren wasteland.
Teddy came to London because wanted his father’s blessing, but he doesn't meet him or his brothers halfway; instead, it looks like he is just showing off. He did not defend Ruth when his father first called her a tart and a diseased whore, and later in this act he even weakly goes along with the plan for her to become the family’s prostitute. The fact that he does not fight for his wife and meekly leaves is his relinquishing of any moral claim to supremacy over his family. While Pinter himself merely suggested his character did not want a messy fight with his brothers and father, critic Bert States references a New York psychoanalyst who believed Teddy both hated women and was a repressed homosexual, while the actor Michael Craig who played Teddy in the play’s earliest stagings saw him as a veritable Eichmann who “rationalized his aggressions.” Critic Normand Berlin adds that Teddy is “the most despicable character in a house full of despicable people” and Michael Hinden calls Teddy’s philosophy “utterly bankrupt.”
What about Ruth, whom we get to know a little bit more about? Ruth’s comments about being different before she met Teddy and her modeling career before children and marriage are sometimes taken by critics to be ambiguous and perhaps indicative of a guilty secret, but her halting words may just be her regret or her difficulty remembering things from a long time ago.
As for her actions with Lenny and Joey, Pinter, characteristically, does not provide any easy answers. Is she a tart? Is she cruel to Teddy? Or is she legitimately oppressed by her emotionless and indifferent husband and is here finding a way to exercising power? Critic Penelope Prentice references Pinter’s own words that suggest Ruth’s actions “originate in despair” and her freedom found in that despair “derives from having nothing more to lose.” She also states succinctly that “No Pinter character can ever be defined by a single quality.”