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 duties and rituals of his office. William explains to James that he loved him as a boy and that when he found him dead he prayed to God, “Take away my faith, but let him live.” God answered the prayer, miraculously restoring James to life at the expense of William’s faith. Since that day William, now a hollow man, has busied himself with the empty routines of the priesthood, serving a God in whom he can no longer believe.
James’s self-knowledge is now complete. While he believed in nothing before, he now is totally committed to a belief in God and to a belief in the miracle of his own resurrection. The oppressive and godless humanism of his father, which drove him to commit suicide as a young boy, has now been overthrown by the power of love and rebirth.
The final irony of the play is Mrs. Callifer’s admission that her husband was a fraudulent rationalist. After he discovered what happened in the potting shed, he became convinced that God may, in fact, exist. By this time, however, Mr. Callifer’s reputation as a rationalist was well established. He realized that it was too late to recall all of his books and to begin rethinking the principles that shaped his life. His wife continued to protect his reputation by concealing her husband’s conversion and by repudiating James and William. The play concludes on a positive note, as Anne tells of her dream in which she discovered a lion sleeping in the potting shed. When the lion awoke, it licked her hand.
Graham Greene wrote two versions of the third act of The Potting Shed , one for the American...
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production in 1957 and another for the British production in 1958. In the American version, James explains his newly discovered faith to his divorced wife, Sara. He tells her that he can now love her because he loves God. He sees in his uncle’s life without faith an ironic parallel to his own sterile relationship with Sara. A room from which faith has gone, he observes, is like a marriage from which love has gone. His uncle’s self-sacrificing prayer to God has thus restored James to a life of feeling, love, and faith. In the British version, Greene has James describe his new faith to his mother instead of to Sara. His mother explains that the event in the potting shed brought a disturbing doubt into her and her husband’s rational view of the world. “You mustn’t mind our anger—you’ve spoilt our certainties,” she declares. In both versions, James’s relationship with Sara is left tentative. She expresses an apprehension about his new ardor even as she previously feared his belief in nothing.
A master of mystery and suspense, Graham Greene employs a detective-novel strategy to structure The Potting Shed. The first mystery the play introduces is why James and his uncle William are not invited to visit the dying Mr. Callifer. Why are these two members of the family treated as outcasts? This question is further complicated by the central mystery of the play, which centers upon the suppressed memory of what happened to James in the potting shed many years earlier. The element of mystery sustains the audience’s curiosity as Anne Callifer, detective-like, helps to find the pieces of the puzzle for James to put together.
Having established the mystery in act 1, Greene gradually unfolds the details of what happened in the potting shed in act 2, first through the revelations of Mrs. Potter, who simply reports the physical details of the suicide and Mr. Potter’s cutting the dead boy down, and then through Father William Callifer, who discloses his prayer to sacrifice his faith for the boy’s life.
Although the audience never actually sees the potting shed, it remains throughout the play as a potent symbol of rebirth. All the characters are obsessed with the mystery of that small, seemingly ordinary shed, a place of symbolic and actual death and life. The potting shed finally yields the mystery of James’s life and of his relationship to his parents and uncle at the conclusion of act 2.
In act 3, James’s newly acquired knowledge makes him a complete person for the first time. He is like a man who has suffered amnesia for years and who suddenly regains his lost childhood. The seeds of self-knowledge, which lay dormant for years, have all at once come into blossom, and James is reborn for the second time, a true believer in the power of God and of love.
Sources for Further Study
Adler, Jacob H. “Graham Greene’s Plays: Technique Versus Value.” In Graham Greene: Some Critical Considerations, edited by Robert O. Evans. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1963.
De Vitis, A. A. Graham Greene. New York: Twayne, 1986.
Duran, Leopoldo. Graham Greene: An Intimate Portrait by His Closest Friend and Confidant. San Francisco: Harper, 1994.
Greene, Graham, and A. F. Cassis. Graham Greene: Man of Paradox. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1994.
Kelly, Richard. Graham Greene. New York: F. Ungar, 1984.
Meyers, Jeffrey, ed. Graham Greene, a Revaluation: New Essays. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.
Pendleton, Robert. Graham Greene’s Conradian Masterplot: The Arabesques of Influence. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.