The seven books of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga occupy a prominent position on my bookshelf (the downstairs one in the living room!) I read them all and listened to the audio versions read by the marvelous Jim Dale, he of a thousand voices, many times! I own the movies (except for the last one . . . I just couldn’t.) I even stood in line at bookstores at midnight, a lifelong reader overwhelmed by the number of modern children acting as if they were the first people ever to discover the joy of books. Best of all, for a while at least, I chatted about Harry Potter with my students, bonding with them on another, more personal, level. In short, I was a happy Muggle in the Potter-verse.
So it’s of little consequence if I admit to the belief that Rowling hit her peak with Book Three, Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkhaban. There the pattern she had begun at the start – Harry is like you and me, only better, Harry learns ever more new things as the wizarding world around him expands, Harry places his trust in the wrong people, Harry is betrayed, Harry needs his friends, Harry, with his friends, saves the day – reached its most perfect plateau.
When Book Four, The Goblet of Fire, arrived -the size of a doorstop – I gather most people saw this as an improvement. More Harry must equal better Harry. But honestly, the pattern was exactly the same – well, no, now that Harry was older, two new elements were added: Harry witnesses a great sacrifice (i.e. someone dies), Harry has confusing feelings about a girl. Nevertheless, the most discerning reader might be willing to admit that the whole affair felt . . . . stretched out a bit?
Then came Book Five, Harry Potter and the Perils of Puberty, er, The Order of the Phoenix. This one was even longer! Everyone was cranky with the throes of adolescence, everyone was in love with the wrong person, and the forces of evil had become more bureaucratic (although Dolores Umbridge was and is the best thing that came out of this book!) The feeling that things were dragging was ramped up a few notches for me.
Seriously, I enjoyed the books, but I enjoyed the phenomenon more. By the final saga, which for much of its massive length feels like a Harry Potter video game, I felt half impatient and half nostalgic for things to wrap up. Still, in the end, when the smoke cleared and the forces of good had finally triumphed, at great cost, over the forces of evil, when children all over the world who wouldn’t listen to me finally learned that they had been misjudging Severus Snape for years, J.K. Rowling came up with the perfect finale, a tiny epilogue offering us the barest of hints as to what Harry Potter and his friends would be like as grown-ups. After I closed the book on that scene, I could forgive Rowling any excesses or repetitions, wipe a tear from my eye, and set the final chapter on the shelf for the day years from now when I gaze wistfully at my shelf and say, “Why not re-read the whole thing?”
And now, I fear that in the interests of financial gain, Rowling has put a damper on my plan. It must’ve been nearly a year ago when the pre-order page for the eighth book, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, popped up on my Amazon account. I remember feeling a vague surprise, mostly at how excited I wasn’t getting over this news. “Nineteen years after the Battle of Hogwarts . . . “ Did I want to know what happens next? Did Rowling have any new tricks up her sleeve? As a theatre director and teacher, I was intrigued to learn that this was actually the script for a new, two-part play. How would the Potter Pattern work in this format? Most importantly, what new stories did Rowling have to tell about her beloved characters that would warrant waking them up after such a fitting conclusion to their tale?
I can’t speak to the creative effectiveness of play’s production. I don’t live in London and haven’t seen it. I hear it’s getting raves. I would love to talk to someone who has been there. I’ll bet the special effects are pretty cool. But honestly, as a continuation of Harry’s story and as a piece of dramatic literature, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child embodies the dichotomy of so many sequels to classic artworks: it was a success before it was born, and it’s not very good.
Now, Rowling didn’t actually write this. A playwright named Jack Thorne wrote it based on an original new story by Rowling. But the Potter author gave the whole thing her blessing and dedicated the book to Thorne, so we must lay much of the credit or blame at her door. If I tell you that characters we followed for seven years now behave in ways they would never have behaved before, I don’t think it’s fair to blame Thorne for this. I can blame Thorne for a certain flaccid quality in the dramatic storytelling, the theatrical equivalent of a later Potter book lacking the editorial oomph that it needed to shave unnecessary sequences and tighten the story’s structure and content. I assume that, since the play is in two parts, ticket prices are higher and/or people have to pay two fees to see the entire work.
But let’s remember that I’m holding a book in my hands! This is a different pathway toward making moolah for Rowling and Company. I mean, who ever releases a play script in advance of a healthy theatrical run? And what was the last play script to hit “Number One Order” on Amazon before this one? No, Scholastic is hitting two markets here: the playgoers and the readers. Already the critics are warning the latter group to prepare themselves for the different experience of reading a script rather than prose. I venture to guess that readers appreciate how the many many scenes add heft to the size of the story, which, clocking in at a mere 308 pages, is the shortest chapter (by one page) in the Potter saga.
The nominal hero of this story isn’t actually Harry but his second child, Albus Severus Potter. The older son James takes after his Weasley uncles, and the youngest child Lily is a girl. Albus suffers, in true Rowling fashion, with SUPER Middle Child Syndrome, as his entry into Hogwarts goes spectacularly wrong from the start. Sorted into Slytherin, bad at Quidditch, bad at magic in general, he makes his dad Harry – who, in my observation, was a terribly average student – look like a genius.
It’s just as well that Harry, despite his name at the head of the title, isn’t the hero, because the person called Harry Potter doesn’t resemble the book Harry in the slightest. Here he’s a careworn middle-aged bureaucrat for the Ministry of Magic, who seems to have forgotten how awful it is to grow up without an ever-present loving parent. This Harry wants things to be easy (as they seem to be in regards to his wife Ginny and his two other children). The Harry we knew hated it when things were easy. He chafed at the bit for a challenge, and it seems to me that the book Harry would have a million tricks up his sleeve for dealing tirelessly with a cranky son. But the plot dictates not only that Harry pay almost no attention to how unhappy Albus is growing during the first four years of his residency at Hogwarts but that he would ultimately, in a fit of temper, actually reject his son in the worst way. It has to happen – it’s the only way this plot can move forward – but it shouldn’t happen.
The actual hero of this story to my mind – at least he’s the most likable and interesting new character – is Albus’ best friend, Scorpius Malfoy, the son of Harry’s former rival Draco. Everything about this is wrong, too. Draco shouldn’t be the person we meet here (I’ll try not to spoil it), and it’s so unlikely that he would have created such a joyful person as Scorpius. But there you are: the play’s plot dictates that all of this must be so.
Grant you, the idea that somehow the great Harry Potter’s son would become an outcast is an interesting one. The theme of living up to a heroic parent is one we recognize. It’s just that playwright Thorne does nothing very imaginative with it. Instead, he relies basically on the old pattern, or, at least, Albus’ version of it: Albus is like you and me, only worse, Albus learns very little about the wizarding world because he’s angry, Albus places his trust in the wrong people, Albus is betrayed, Albus needs his friend, Albus, – well, I’ll leave you to discover what happens. Dare I say, it won’t surprise you!
Clearly, Thorne is trading on our apparent need for a nostalgic Potter fix. There are loads of cameos, some from characters who might surprise you if I didn’t spill the beans here and say that, thanks to an all-improved rogue Time Turner, this story is a combination of It’s a Wonderful Life, Groundhog Day, and The Butterfly Effect. That means that any character, living or dead, is fair game. I would caution real fans not to put too much emphasis on this aspect of the game since all of us will be disappointed by the non-appearance of a fan favorite. (Sorry, Dobby fans!)
Being a five and a half hour long drama containing two hours worth of plot, there is plenty of time to split amongst our favorite major characters and introduce the new guys on the block. We get lots of scenes of Harry and Ginny worrying about their son. Ginny is now a loving mother and almost as colorless a character as she was in the books. Hermione is the Minister of Magic (was that a surprise to anyone), and she is still married to Ron, who gets almost all the laugh lines but not a single significant thing to do in this play.
Mostly, though, this is all about Albus and Scorpius, the fix they get into, and how it threatens to bring about the destruction of the wizarding world. The threat of darkness coming is ever-present, thanks mostly to an act by Lord Voldemort that is so ludicrously out of character that remembering it makes me shake my head in wonder and ask, “Jo and Jack . . . what were you thinking?”
Albus’ and Scorpius’ love for each other is the best thing about them and the play. It is their bravest act, transcending the scorn of their peers and the history between their parents, and some of the most interesting conversations occur between them, like when Scorpius calls Albus out on acting like he’s the center of the friendship and Scorpius is his satellite. (Something that Hermione and Ron must have felt about Harry nearly every day of their lives.) Their friendship really blossoms over the course of four acts. It also, to be honest, seems very . . . well, gay to me.
Oh, I know, seeking it out everywhere I go! But honestly, according to Rowling, Dumbledore was gay, and he never came close to acting as passionately fond of another male as these two lads do with each other. At one point, they actually make a vow to stop hugging. And then, they can’t help but break that vow. I think it’s great, but it’s also a little bit weird in this context. And, of course, since it’s not ever explicitly stated, it just hangs there for all to notice and say nothing about just like every other homoerotic reference gay people have been accused of imagining for centuries.
There is a lot of adventure in this drama, and it must be exciting to see that play out onstage. About every thirty pages or so, from beginning to end, there is a scene that threatens to become a tear-jerker. I confess to getting a little ferklempt myself once in a while, but I imagine so many of these scenes might put a downer on a five and a half hour evening of dramatic entertainment.
Rowling has promised that this is definitely the last full-length story about Harry Potter. Meanwhile, she embarks on a new film franchise this fall with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Frankly, this is what she should have concentrated on all along: an entirely new story of the Wizarding World, where she could have made sly allusions to parallel events we have seen before while she introduces us to a whole new array of experiences. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that this will be the beginning of a grand new epic . . . and that Rowling will know this time when it’s time to say, “Enough.”