BACK ON THE first Sunday of Advent a line in a reading from Isaiah brought to mind a whole set of memories. The line is: “…O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you are the potter; we are the work of your hands” (Isaiah 64: 7-8).
As soon as I heard God described as a Potter, my mind raced to a play, which is, with the exception of some of Shakespeare’s plays, my favorite. It is Graham Greene’s “The Potting Shed.” I have been influential in having the play performed at a seminary and also by an amateur theatrical group. I am now trying to persuade another group to revive it.
A potting shed is a hot house for flowers. In the play, Greene plays on the notion of God as a Potter and we as clay being shaped by God. The family at the center of the dramatic action is named Callifer, a name taken from two Latin words for pot and bearer. The name of the gardener is Potter. A dog’s name is Spot. When the play opened on Broadway in 1957, one of the New York critics described it as a theological detective story. That’s a fairly good description. I think the play is about people trying to find God, who has already found them!
As the play opens, H.C. Callifer, a professional atheist, who has written books attacking religion, is dying in an upstairs bedroom. His wife; one of his sons, John; Sara, the former wife of his other son, James; and Anne, John’s 13-year old daughter, are present in the house waiting for Callifer to die.
For some reason, James’ mother has made a point of not informing James of his father’s imminent death. As the plot develops, we discover that when James was 14 years old something happened in the potting shed that caused his parents to distance themselves from him. We also learn that James has no memory of what happened, nor of the first 14 years of his life. Adding to the mystery is the fact that James’ parents grew closer to Sara after she and James divorced.
Determined to find out what happened, James discovers that his father had a brother, who became a Catholic priest, and that as a teenager, James had a close relationship with the priest. Following every clue he can uncover, James discovers where his uncle, Father Callifer, is stationed and goes to visit him, hoping to find out what happened in the potting shed.
The scene in which James visits his uncle is the most dramatic scene in the play. On Broadway, the part of Father Callifer was played by the wonderful character actor, Frank Conroy. James discovers that his uncle has become an alcoholic and seems to have lost his faith. Through a series of questions, James discovers that when he was 14 he was instructed by his uncle and was about to become a Catholic. His father mocked everything that Father Callifer had taught the young man. In a fit of despair, James “committed suicide” by hanging himself in the potting shed. When the priest saw the apparently dead James, he prayed. Describing what happened to James, the priest says the following:
“I’d have given my life for you – but what could I do? I could only pray. I suppose I offered something in return. Something I valued – not spirits. I really think I loved God in those days. I said – I said, ‘Let him live, God. I love him. I will give you anything if you will let him live.’ But what had I got to give him? I was a poor man I said, ‘Take away what I love most. Take – take –”
Father Callifer can’t remember the rest of his prayer, but apparently James recalls hearing the prayer and says, “Take away my faith but let him live.”
After leaving Father Callifer, whose faith has been renewed, James experiences new life. The last lines of the play are spoken by Anne. All through the play the Callifer family has run from God, symbolized by the potting shed. Anne says she dreamt that she walked toward the potting shed and there was an enormous lion asleep at the door. James asks her if, when she woke the lion, whether it bit her. Anne answers with what must be one of the greatest lines to end any play, “No, it only licked my hand.”
“The Potting Shed” raises all sorts of questions. That’s probably what a great drama is supposed to do.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, and author of “Pope Francis’ Profound Personalism and Poverty” (Resurrection Press).