The Potting Shed opens with the Callifer family gathering at the news that old Mr. Callifer, a once-prominent author of rationalist tracts, is about to die. The family, however, has been careful to exclude two of its members from the group, old Callifer’s younger son James and James’s uncle, William, who defected from the rationalist tradition by converting to Roman Catholicism and becoming a priest.
Callifer’s granddaughter Anne, however, telegraphs James and invites him to the gathering. She also later brings in Mrs. Potter, the wife of the family’s gardener, who explains the mystery lying at the heart of the play. An impish and outspoken thirteen-year-old, Anne functions as a puckish figure, arranging the necessary dramatic confrontations.
The central mystery of the play centers on the potting shed, a place filled with seeds and bulbs. Something happened there years ago that caused both James and his Uncle William to become family outcasts. James responds to Anne’s telegram in the hope that he will discover from his dying father what took place in the potting shed that caused him, at age fourteen, to lose his ability to experience any deeply felt emotions. His only recollection is that of waking up in a sickbed and wondering why his parents have rejected him. James’s mother, however, will not allow him to see his father before he dies, nor will she discuss the potting shed. When Anne invites Mrs. Potter to the house, however, the latter reveals to James that when he was a young boy he hanged himself in the potting shed. Mr. Potter cut him down and saw that he was dead. Then James’s uncle arrived and through an apparent miracle brought him back to life.
Hearing this story, James finds his uncle to ask what happened that day in the shed. He discovers that William has become an alcoholic, ineffectual priest who has lost his faith but who nevertheless carries out the...
(The entire section is 788 words.)