Would that I had a ticket to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a two-part play currently showing at West End in London.
I’d probably have liked it more than I did the 300-page script released by Scholastic last month.
Written by playwright Jack Thorne and based on an original story by J. K. Rowling, The Cursed Child is the unlooked-for sequel to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007), the previous conclusion to Rowling’s mega-bestselling novels about the eponymous boy wizard. And it’s—fine, I guess. Entertaining but rarely great. Here and there we catch glimpses of that old, familiar magic, but for the most part, this latest story about Harry and the gang reads more like a tribute to Rowling’s work, rather than as a continuation of it.
Certainly the central conceit of The Cursed Child presages success. Set nineteen years after the events of Rowling’s final novel—the dust jacket bills the play as “The Eighth Story. Nineteen Years Later.”—The Cursed Child takes up the endlessly fascinating prospect of the after. What happens after Voldemort, after the most dangerous wizard in history has been defeated? What happens to our heroes, to Harry in particular?
Or, to put it a different way: What happens when old heroes settle in, when their legacies pass on, and when their children must reconcile themselves to a past that was never theirs?
Fittingly, the play sets about exploring these questions by oscillating between the experiences of its two main characters, Albus Potter and his father Harry. Representing the young guns, Albus is a first-year at Hogwarts when the play begins—a lonely and unremarkable young wizard whose lack of discernible talent, among other things, causes him to feel the burden of his family name, and to resent his father for it. Harry, meanwhile, has slipped into an uneasy middle-age, struggling both with the demands of his job at the Ministry of Magic and with a son who has grown troublingly distant.
And, to top it all off, a certain lighting-shaped scar has started to twinge again.
For most readers and theatergoers, the promise of that scar will be enough to command their attention. And indeed, The Cursed Child works hard to keep that attention, a fact I do not mean to dismiss. In classic Rowling fashion, the plot comes fast and hard and as twisted as a knot. Similarly, the cast—Dickensian in number, with fifty-two performers playing thirty-seven named characters and mess of unnamed ones—reunites the audience with plenty of familiar faces, fan-favorites and despised villains alike. It also introduces some promising new ones. Albus, in whom we find a whole complicated range of teenage emotion, stands out in this regard. So does Scorpius Malfoy, the improbably kind-hearted son of the former bully Draco Malfoy.
Yet for all its attempts to entertain, one has to wonder why The Cursed Child never reaches the heights of its predecessors. Part of the problem, I suspect, is its investment in Potterlore as such. The play trades upon its audience’s familiarity with Rowling’s novels, throwing at it a dizzying array of cameos and elaborating obscure corners of the Potter universe. Ever wonder what Moaning Myrtle’s middle and last names are? Or, in The Prisoner of Azkaban, why Hermione and Harry never travel back in time further than a couple of hours? The Cursed Child has your answers. And, meanwhile, as though in facile acknowledgment of the potential diversity of its audience, the play occasionally drops relevant background information, typically delivered in a clunky mélange of flashback sequences and exposition.
Bigger problems exist as well. Without going into detail, the villain here pales in comparison to Rowling’s monumentally evil but still astoundingly pitiable Voldemort. More crucially, the Time-Turner plot that comprises the latter two-thirds of the play codes almost as a kind of high-level fan-fiction, with Albus and Scorpius time-trotting their way back to crucial moments in Harry’s past and unintentionally producing futures where, say, Ron and Hermione did not end up together. The result is entertaining, yes, but also self-indulgent in a way that Rowling’s novels never were. And while, true, the time-traveling does take a darker turn than loves won and lost, darkness does not foreclose self-indulgence. The Cursed Child never really shakes this solipsistic pall, even as the tension between Albus and Harry pushes toward a resolution.
Now, it may be that self-indulgence is all that Potter fans are looking for at this point. After all, fans are used to living off head canons and the official scraps tossed to them by Pottermore. And certainly a market that’s grown fat on reboots and remakes knows how to pander to nostalgia. Still, I count it a small tragedy that it is The Cursed Child, and not the superior Deathly Hallows, that will have the final word on the Boy Who Lived.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.