In Defense of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”

cursed child defenseThe Tony Awards aired this past weekend,  and the internet is abuzz about the winner of the Best New Play award: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. There’s been a bit of controversy as a result of its win, particularly from the Harry Potter fandom, so, I figured now is as good a time as any to mount a defense for the play. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a new play borne out of a collaboration between Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, playwright Jack Thorne, and director John Tiffany. It’s advertised as the official eighth chapter in the Harry Potter series and tells the story of Harry’s middle child, Albus Severus, and his experiences as he attends Hogwarts and fights to escape the shadows of his father’s past glories. The script for the show was initially published in July of 2016, and to say there was some controversy directly afterward would be an understatement. While the majority of critics in London adored the show and praised it for its script, acting, design elements, etc, fans were noticeably more divided, if not downright negative towards it. It’s been criticized as “bad fanfiction with a silly story”, “totally out of character”, “inconsistent with the books and the universe that Rowling wrote”, amongst others. I disagree with most of those points, and I’m gonna explain why. It’s worth noting that there will be total spoilers for the play throughout this. You’ve been warned. 

07-HarlanStory
If you boil it down to its basic elements, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has a silly story. It’s full of time travel (and the cliches that come with it), somewhat odd plot twists (namely that whole thing with Delphi, which we’ll touch on), and much more. But is that really all that surprising? I mean, it’s not as though the Potter books weren’t full of silly plots, at their base level, too. The entire plot of the third book is that this mass criminal, who can disguise himself as a dog, escapes Wizard Prison to seek his revenge and the big plot twist at the end of the book is that Ron’s rat is actually a wizard in disguise and he’s the one who committed the crimes said mass criminal was accused of. Also, Harry and Hermione have to do some time travel to save the day. That’s every bit as silly as anything that happens in Cursed Child, and that’s just the events of one of the books. In the context of the Potter books, and Cursed Child, those elements that sound really silly when taken out of context work beautifully in context. In Prisoner of Azkaban, none of that stuff reads as silly. It reads as dramatic and well-executed and totally natural. The same is true for Cursed Child. The time travel elements are used to explore the themes and the make sense in the context of the story and they’re taken seriously and not played for laughs. Additionally, many plays also have silly or simplified stories if you boil them down. Just look at Shakespeare’s plays; they’re silly. Macbeth is about a dude who’s told by a bunch of witches that he’s going to be king, goes out and tries to make that happen, and ultimately screws it up in the end. Much Ado About Nothing is, literally, much ado about nothing. And Shakespeare is considered one of the greatest English playwrights of all time. Shakespeare gets away with silly plots for the same reasons most other plays get away with silly plots: plays are rarely about their plots. In most plays, the plot is just an excuse for the characters to interact with each other and for the play (and the playwright) to explore the themes. In a novel/movie/TV series, the plots tend to be far more important than they are on stage. The same holds true for Cursed Child.

11-HarlanThe “point” of Cursed Child isn’t to be a new Harry Potter book. It’s to be an introspective look at these characters we know and love and how they’ve coped with their trauma from the Potter series. How does a man like Harry, who never experience what it was like to live with a truly loving family and came from a history of abuse, escape that cycle of abuse and be a good father to his children? How does a son who feels utterly inadequate at everything become his own person and escape the very long shadow of his father’s accomplishments? How do fathers and sons interact with each other? How does a character who spent his formative years always on the alert for some kind of attack live a happy life when things in the world are mostly calm? These are the questions that Cursed Child seeks to explore, and it uses its plot as an excuse to explore those questions. Throughout the play, we see Harry continually trying to make things out to be bigger deals than they are because he doesn’t know how to live in a world that’s at peace. We see him struggle to connect with Albus as Albus proves to be every bit as hardheaded as he was at Albus’ age. We see Albus find a kindred spirit in Scorpius Malfoy, the same way that Harry found Ron and Hermione. We see Albus and Scorpius go back in time solely because Albus thinks that if he fixes something in his father’s past that his father wasn’t able to fix, he’ll somehow escape his father’s shadow. That’s one hell of an interesting motivation. Sure, the time travel is silly and doesn’t quite gel with the way time travel was used in the Potter books, but it’s not trying to be a serious look at the use of time travel. Cursed Child‘s reason for using time travel is fundamentally different from Prisoner of Azkaban’s and it shows. At the end of the day, Cursed Child is a play about a father and son trying to connect and going about it in all the wrong ways, only to ultimately finally understand each other at the end. The ridiculousness of the plot is just the vehicle of exploring that, and I can forgive that silliness because the way it explores the themes really resonate with me. As a story of the same caliber as the Potter books, it’s pretty meh, but as its own thing that features characters and elements from the Wizarding World, I think it works really well. It’s everything I wanted from a Harry Potter play and I appreciate the way it went about exploring its themes.

HP_10Characterization
The biggest complaint I see, outside of the play’s silly plot, is that the characters act out of character a lot throughout the play. This particularly shows up in relation to Harry’s actions with Albus in Act 1, Scene 7. In that scene, Harry tries to give Albus the blanket he was wrapped in when left outside the Dursley’s house as a baby, and Albus pretty much rejects the gift out of hand. This comes after several scenes establishing the growing distance and animosity between father and son, and as the scene goes on and Harry gets madder and madder, he ends up exploding at Albus, suggesting there are times when he wishes Albus wasn’t his son. When fans read that scene, there was untold outrage. “Harry James Potter would never say something like that to his son after the childhood full of abuse he experienced from the Dursleys,” the fans howled. Except, Harry Potter totally would. Throughout the Potter books, Harry was known for being hotheaded to the nth degree. He’d explode anytime at anyone. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix could be retitled Harry Potter and the Year Harry Was Constantly Mad. He has a history of blurting things he doesn’t mean out at someone in the heat of the moment when he’s really angry and it’s exactly the same with this scene. I mean, the moment he realizes what he’s said, he immediately apologizes and tries to make it right, which is exactly what he did as a teenager. That outburst is so in character for Harry Potter, it’s not even funny. Additionally, it’s completely understandable in the context of the scene. He’s just come home from the Ministry of Magic after discovering a new kind of Time Turner and is worrying himself sick over whether the rumors he’s hearing about old supporters of Voldemort gathering together again means anything only to have a pretty nasty encounter with an old and dying Amos Diggory about Cedric’s death (which Albus overhears and leads to the rest of the play happening) and after all that, he’s trying to give gifts to his children that he thinks will mean something to him and he’s saved the most personal gift for Albus in the hopes that they’ll be able to use it to connect with each other, only to have it thrown in his face and be insulted by his son. Any parent, even one who didn’t suffer the amount of trauma that Harry suffered, would have the same reaction. Parents say things like that all the time and immediately regret it. It’s even more likely that a parent who suffered severe abuse as a child would accidentally say something like that. Breaking the cycle of abuse and trauma is such a major part of this play, and this scene is such a good way to really introduce that theme (which is then explored for the rest of the play through Harry’s actions in the present and his nightmares that are scattered throughout the play.

06-HarlanOther criticisms of the characters and characterizations include Ron being reduced to a bit of a bumbling idiot, the way he was in the films, which is a totally fair one. I’d counter, however, with the fact that Ron is really a minor character in the play. He and Hermione are pretty much only there because they’re Harry’s best friends. In the context of the story being told, they have very little to do so it’s not much of a surprise that both of them were reduced to their most base attributes. I’d say that Ron still shows lots of elements of his book persona throughout the play, just in more subtle ways. In one of the alternate universes created by Albus and Scorpius’ meddling with the past, Cedric ends up becoming a Death Eater after being heavily embarrassed during the second task. Fans say, “Cedric Diggory would never be a Death Eater.” And, sure, he wouldn’t be one. In the main universe. But the time travel in Cursed Child introduces the idea of a multiverse full of alternate universes where anything that can happen does happen, and the whole point of that alternate universe that’s created in the wake of Albus and Scorpius’ meddling with the Second Task of the Triwizard Tournament is that everything has been turned on its head. Harry is dead, Ron and Hermione never got together and, as a result, Hermione is super bitter, Umbridge is the Headmistress of Hogwarts, and Cedric became a Death Eater. That’s totally plausible when you’ve introduced the idea of a multiverse. Just because Cedric wouldn’t do something in one reality doesn’t mean he wouldn’t do that thing in a different one, and I don’t think it’s a particularly hard stretch to think his embarrassment could have led him to the dark side, especially since it’s suggested that he saw Hermione and Ron right around where the spell that caused him all that embarrassment was cast. And then, there’s the mother of all character-related-criticisms: Delphi being the daughter of Voldemort. Fans say all sorts of things: “Could Voldemort even have sex?” “He’d never have a child; he’d see it as a weakness.” “Why would he even be interested in sex?” “Why would he bang Bellatrix?” I don’t see why it’s so far-fetched for Voldemort to have had sex with Bellatrix and not have noticed she was pregnant. Someone like Voldemort could easily use sex as a way to exert power and control over someone, which would be the most likely reason for him to have done the deed. Nowhere in the books are we told that he isn’t capable of sex, nor are we told he isn’t interested in it. Just because he has no interest in romance doesn’t mean he’s not interested in sex. In that case, then, how was Bellatrix able to conceal her pregnancy from him? He was probably too concerned with killing Harry Potter to pay her much mind, to be honest. Then there’s the bigger question: why should we assume that Delphi is telling the truth? She was frequently in contact with former Death Eaters who very easily could’ve just fed her some lie about being Voldemort’s child and being destined to resurrect him again as a kind of long con in order to get their master back. The only person in the play that ever actually “confirms” that Delphi is Voldemort’s child is Delphi herself, and she’s spent the entirety of the play lying through her teeth at that point, so I really don’t see why anything she says should be taken at face value. She’s shown to be a bit of a psychopath and not quite sane, so why should we believe what she says? I’d argue that children trying to escape the shadows of their fathers would be slightly stronger if it did turn out that Delphi was Voldemort’s daughter, but it could be just as strong if she was just trying to escape the shadows of her Death Eater parents. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if she’s Voldemort’s daughter, though. Her importance to the play is only as the catalyst that makes the story happen so that the themes between Albus and Harry can be explored. It really doesn’t matter, in the context of what the play is trying to achieve, whether or not she’s Voldemort’s kid. It just matters that she thinks she is, and I can totally buy into that characterization. (NOTE: I have since found out that updates to the text, since the Special Rehearsal Edition – the version I used for this article, have clarified Delphi’s character a bit. These updates refer to her as the ultimate Horcrux. I still say that Delphi could easily be mistaken/could have been lied to, but it’s something that’s apparently been made clearer. It totally feels in character, to me, for Voldemort to think that way and have a child as the “ultimate Horcrux”, so even if Delphi is telling the truth, I’m still totally okay with it. Like I said, it doesn’t really matter.)

02-HarlanAdvertising & Fan Expectations
I think, perhaps, the biggest obstacle that stood between Cursed Child and success was that of fan expectations. Frankly, the show shot itself in the foot when it advertised itself as the official eighth story in the Harry Potter series. The actual text of the play really doesn’t seem to have interest in being compared to the books in such a way. It’s not interested in really being an eighth Harry Potter story. It’s interested in taking the characters from those stories and examining them in a new light. Advertising the show as though it were the same thing as a new book, written solely by J.K. Rowling, immediately set the show up in a way that would ultimately disappoint fans. While Rowling approved the script for the play and, reportedly, helped break the story, she didn’t actually write it and, as a result, it was never going to feel like she did. The scripts of plays are typically pretty bad representations of what it’s like to actually see that play. Scripts are usually the skeletons of plays. They’re designed to give the director, designers, and actors a blueprint from which a full production can be created. They’re low on any kind of elegant descriptions of locations or clothing. It’s mostly just dialogue and the bare minimum of stage directions so that the actors and directors know what the playwright wants to happen in any given scene, even if they decide to interpret it a different way. The same is true for the Cursed Child script, and I think most Harry Potter fans aren’t really familiar with reading play scripts. They expected the script to read closer to a novel and were disappointed and let down when the script really didn’t represent the play all that well. I’ve read scripts from plenty of superb plays that were just kinda “meh” alone. (For example, A Raisin in the Sun is a great play, but I really didn’t care for the script.) A show with the kind of spectacle that Cursed Child has is never gonna shine through the script. The script was never gonna full be representative of what seeing the show would be like. Cursed Child was meant to be seen on a stage, not read on a page. At the end of the day, Cursed Child is a play written by a playwright and plays are fundamentally different than novels. The producers even made a point of trying to point that out to fans by saying that the particular story that Cursed Child was trying to tell could only be told in the medium of theatre. They were right; Cursed Child would absolutely not work as a book. And, a huge part of why I think the fanbase rejected Cursed Child is that they were expecting it to be of the same quality and density as one of the Potter novels. It was never going to be and the fact that the show advertised itself as the eighth Potter story sorta helped set the fans up for disappointment in that regard.

05-HarlanAlong these lines, most fandoms suffer from the inability of its fans being able to separate their headcanons, fanfiction, and expectations from the reality of the story the author wishes to tell. Cursed Child had no interest in trying to tell the story that fans wanted. Fans had been imagining what the Potter characters got up to in the years after the end of the last book pretty much since the book was published, and so they’ve collectively created an entire shared opinion of where the story should have gone. Turned out that Rowling, Thorne, and Tiffany didn’t agree with that direction, and so they took Cursed Child in a different direction. The fans lost their collective minds and couldn’t seem to come to grips with the fact that the author of the Harry Potter series had an opinion about where the story would go that didn’t align with theirs. They just couldn’t handle the fact that Cursed Child wasn’t exactly like the fanfiction they’d been writing for the past decade. (We saw similar reactions with The Last Jedi and other fandoms any time new entries don’t go in the direction that fans want it to or assume it will). And here’s the thing: just because a story didn’t hit every beat you wanted it to hit doesn’t make it a bad one. It can be a disappointing one, sure, but no author is required to tell you the exact story you want to hear. Every author tries to challenge you and give you something unexpected. If Cursed Child just tried to be the story that Potter fans were expecting, it would’ve been a boring mess. Too many fans can’t seem to understand the idea that just because you personally don’t like the way a story was told (or what happened in the story) doesn’t mean it’s a bad story; it just means you didn’t like it. And that’s fine. Express your opinion, offer your criticism, and then move on. The beauty of fandom is that you have the ability to disregard whatever you want to form your own headcanons. Unfortunately, too many people in the Potter fandom (and most other fandoms, too) have the opinion that the way they interpret the stories, and the headcanons they form, are inherently more “correct” than any other fan’s, or even the author’s. I tend not to subscribe to the idea of the Death of the Author; I think that an author should have final say over what they intended with their story. They should have final say over what is or isn’t canon. It’s their creation, after all. But even if you do subscribe to the idea of the Death of the Author, an important part of that concept is that nobody’s interpretation of a piece of art is any more or less correct than another’s. Art is an inherently singular experience. Everyone experiences art differently and no two people are gonna view any story, or its characters, the same way. That includes the author, too. People have to remember that just because an author writes a story or character that you don’t like doesn’t give you the right to deny that author the right to tell their story, even if you do subscribe to the Death of the Author. You have the ability to disregard whatever you want and ignore any additions any author makes to their story, but you don’t get to tell the author that they don’t have the right to make changes to their work or add new things or tell new stories. It’s their creation. You can take it or leave it, but you don’t get to deprive the author of their creation. Too many Potter fans get way too upset whenever Rowling does anything that doesn’t immediately align with their view of her world. You don’t get to say terrible things about her just because she wrote something that didn’t personally please you. Accept that you didn’t like it and move on.

08-HarlanIn conclusion: I think the issue of whether Cursed Child is good, and the general fan reaction surrounding it, is more complex than whether or not it’s actually a good script or play. With Harry Potter, so many people bring so many emotions to the table and want something different out of it and there were so many expectations and so many years of headcanons and fanfictions built up that it was always gonna be a disappointment. It could’ve been an amazingly crafted story and script with a much less silly plot that was totally consistent with everything that had come before it, and I think the fandom still would’ve been split right down the middle about it. I totally understand why a lot of Potter fans didn’t care for it and I don’t wanna dismiss their feelings towards it. I suspect a lot of it has to do with the advertising of the play. If the play was presented in a different way (instead of harping on about it being the official canonical next chapter in the story and all that stuff about spoilers), I suspect it wouldn’t be such a big deal for the people who didn’t like it to just kinda write it off as a fun romp instead of an actual part of the story that could never live up to the hype. Personally, I don’t really view it as Harry Potter 8, so the inconsistencies within the story don’t bother me all that much and I can appreciate it for what it is. It’s a beautiful play examining the relationship between a father and son, the impact years of trauma can have on a person, the difficulty of escaping the shadow of your parents and becoming your own person, and much more. It’s a script I truly loved that brought me back into a world I grew up in in a new and exciting way. It was everything I could’ve asked for in a Harry Potter play set so many years after the series, and I couldn’t be happier with it. Would I have liked it to have a stronger plot? Sure, but at the end of the day, the plot doesn’t bother me. I will always appreciate it when a Broadway play isn’t just another contemporary realism drama, and Cursed Child will introduce so many new people to the theatre community, and that’s worth everything.

2 comments

  1. I read the play last year, and I was SO SKEPTICAL. I didn’t like the story, I couldn’t root for the main character… But I saw the play two weeks ago. I was blown away. My jaw literally DROPPED. I think releasing the play itself does a disservice to the material. It’s really a story meant to be put onstage, because the way it was staged and acted was extraordinary and beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t actually been able to see the play (mainly cause I live nowhere near NYC or London and don’t have the money to go visit), so I don’t actually have any experience in seeing this particular play, but as someone who’s read a lot of play scripts, I often find that the script doesn’t fully work on the page alone. Scripts are the skeletons of a play, and the same is true for Cursed Child. Much of what makes a play actually work comes together in the rehearsal room with the collaboration of the director, playwright, designers, and actors.

      The producers of Cursed Child were in a bit of a bind because it wouldn’t really be practical to release a recording of the play at this point (no play releases a filmed version of the play prior to it going on tour, at bare minimum), so they had to do SOMETHING to appease the Potter fans who wouldn’t be able to see the show, and try and stop people from devouring spoilers given to them out of context, ya know? I do think that the script probably doesn’t do an amazing job of representing what you actually see on stage. With the script, you get none of the beautiful costumes, sets, lighting and sound design, choreography, etc. You don’t get to hear the words of the script come alive through the actors. And that sucks. I think they were right in releasing the script, however, because it would be a disservice to not let people experience the play in ANY way for YEARS. That being said, they need to release a recording of the play, at some point. Broadcast a performance live from the theatre to movie theaters across the world Fathom Events style. That would work. At some point, they need to make seeing the play easier than coughing up hundreds of dollars for a play ticket (plus airfare/hotel costs/etc). The producers have to make some money off the Broadway run, first, sure, but I think not being able to actually visually see this play really does hurt it. I’m thankful for the script, but it can’t be the only thing they widely make available.

      Like

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