Midnight releases, broken sales records, cosplaying wizards: the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was a flashback to the summer of 2007, when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows concluded the seven-part book series. However, nine years later, this eighth addition is not simply a cause for massive speculation and years-long anticipation. This year, Harry Potter is not entirely free from controversy, and not just because the work released was a play text rather than a novel.
Shortly before the release and premiere of Cursed Child, Rowling published History of Magic in North America online, a four-part history of the North American wizarding school Ilvermorny. Quickly slammed down as “downright offensive”, “appropriating”, and “demonstrating Eurocentric superiority”, the history describes how the North American version of Hogwarts was founded by settlers in Boston. Ilvermorny and its houses appropriate names and ideas from several Native American traditions; Rowling sums them all up as “the Native American community”, and makes not Native Americans but four white colonialists the founders of the magical boarding school in North America — the latter being doubly painful for those who are familiar with the real boarding schools for Native children. Rowling, who made the UK and its traditions come to life for millions of readers around the world, attempted to globalise a uniquely British franchise and failed badly at doing so. Fortunately, Cursed Child is still set in the British context that has become familiar through the previous seven books.
When the work was released, astonishingly, some fans became angry upon realizing that this was not a novel, but a play text co-authored by Jack Thorne, John Tiffany, and J.K. Rowling. It is easy to laugh off this concern as ignorance coming from fans who have not bothered to look at the cover (which clearly has the words ‘script’ and ‘play’ on it), but it also brings up long-standing debates about the appropriateness of publishing a play script as a text to be read.
First of all, the people who complained so heavily about having to read a script — mostly members of a generation to which I, too, belong — seem to be unfamiliar with the idea of reading a play. The A-level English Literature curriculum demands that students read at least one Shakespeare play. In international schools, reading your first Shakespeare play is a rite of passage: it is a sign that you are now fluent enough in English to understand that ‘wherefore art thou Romeo’ is another way of saying ‘why is your name Romeo’. But many, it seems, are unfamiliar with the fact that plays are published in print, and can be bought in bookshops. Are authors such as Thorne, Tiffany and Rowling making assumptions about the kinds of texts their readers engage with, without realizing that this may be class- and education level-based, and that they are giving the majority of their readers a text form they have never encountered before?
Secondly, this brings a very modern play text into the long-standing discussion of whether a play should be read as a text at all. Are we right to make students encounter these plays with such a heavy emphasis on reading, rather than on watching them being performed?
In the case of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, there are several reasons why I regard the publication of the play texts so soon after the premiere of the two-part play as a very welcome move. It is an equalizer: the play is staged in London, will be staged there until 2017 at least, and is completely sold out until then. There is absolutely no chance that every Potter fan in the UK will have the opportunity or the funds to go and see it, let alone every Potter fan in the world. But the story had to be shared worldwide in order to prevent those fans unable to obtain tickets from being forced to face that demon of serialization, spoilers…
This review will contain spoilers from this point onwards.
The opening scenes much improve on the final chapter of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which many fans found disappointing both in its depiction of utter domesticity, and because the names Harry and Ginny have given to their children — James Sirius, Albus Severus, and Lily Luna — were a rehashing of names of people who died for Harry. Albus Severus is about to head to Hogwarts, and soon finds that he absolutely loathes this world which welcomed Harry so warmly. Albus is a Slytherin, makes friends with a Malfoy (Scorpius), has no friends otherwise, hates Hogwarts and Hogsmeade and being a Potter, and is terrible at Quidditch. To make it even worse, Harry tells him he wishes Albus wasn’t his son. Then Albus is suddenly faced with the opportunity to change history: while dozens died for Harry Potter, Albus and Scorpius have the chance to save a single one of them.
Consequently, the plot of Cursed Child hinges on time travel. It is a difficult trope to weave into a narrative, often attempted but rarely done well. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was one of those rare examples: the hours in which Harry, Ron and Hermione travel back in time in order to save Buckbeak and Sirius were well constructed and carefully thought through, however silly the idea was in the first place to give a thirteen-year-old a time-travelling device just so she can take on more electives. The Time-Turner comes back in this story, in a much more extreme fashion: wizards are now able to traverse entire decades, which is why they have become illegal and have all been destroyed. Naturally, in true Potter fashion, a barely pubescent child manages to lay his hands on one, wanting to use it to change the course of history. This makes Part One in particular a ‘what if’ story similar to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, the film The Butterfly Effect, or Stephen King’s less accomplished 22-11-63.
All this time travel allows the authors to present Rowling’s most famous scenes from a different perspective, scenes for which the fans will not need a stage to bring them to life. However, for all the rest, the play text itself is not enough. It will require excellent actors to fire up the dialogue, which at times sounds bland; at the same time, Rowling’s detailed descriptions and scene-setting are what made Harry Potter’s world magical in the first place. These are lacking in the play, making this a much more head-over-heels read than any of the novels.
Amidst the relentless pace, one painful moment appears where the course of Rowling’s history could, and should, have been changed. Famously, Rowling ‘outed’ Dumbledore as homosexual only after the series had ended, a disappointingly after-the-fact revelation, thus missing out on a unique chance to have a strong, powerful, and most importantly, flawed role model come out as homosexual. Dumbledore is given a voice again in Cursed Child — and shockingly enough, tells Harry, “Where I loved, I would cause irreparable damage… I am no fit person to love… I have never loved without causing harm…” It is a devastating pronouncement, coming from the only confirmed non-heterosexual character in the series.
But those who have been able to conjure up Hogwarts in their minds long before Warner Bros. will have no need of a stage when they read Act Four, Scene Twelve. This heart-wrenching scene will once again chill its audience to their core, as Rowling has done to her readers time and again, with Cedric, Sirius, and Dumbledore; with Dobby, Lupin, Tonks, Moody, Hedwig, Snape and Fred. Tiffany, Thorne and Rowling are not the first to show that the past must not be tampered with, but their power lies in showing that the past can be revisited — and capture once again the hearts even of those who have been there a hundred times.
‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Parts One and Two’ is published by Little, Brown; RRP £20