Of the two million copies of the playscript Harry Potter and the Cursed Child that sold in the first two days, one landed on my desk. Since the typical first print run of a new play by a prominent author is 5,000, I felt duty-bound to see what all the fuss was about.
I would be bringing a fresh pair of eyes to Harry Potter-land because I have not read any of the seven Potter novels. That despite 250 million of them having been sold. I had only seen a couple of the movies that were based on the novels, having driven the Potter-enthusiasts in my family to the cinema. As I reported last week, J.K. Rowling, author of those seven novels, is the very wealthy owner of a powerful brand built around the most famous graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Obviously the other-worldly sales of the script and the success of the play which recently opened in London owe a lot to Harry’s fame.
However I am pleased to report that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a ripping good yarn. This opinion is regardless of how popular a cultural phenomenon Potter is and of Rowling’s surprising choice to deliver it as a play. To be precise, I should say plays plural. The story proved too big for one play to contain, and so has been written as two plays, continuous in action. The scripts total 308 pages. (Full running time is 5:15 hours. The plays can be seen in one day, divided by a meal break, or over two consecutive nights.)
The sine qua non of fiction writing is keeping the reader or audience eager to know what’s going to happen next. Rowling is renowned for the propulsive force of her writing. Her novels’ pages just seem to turn faster and faster as if, oh I don’t know, by magic. That failing-brakes characteristic is also present in Cursed Child. In the plays Rowling plants all sorts of clues that pay off big later. That only happens when a story is well-crafted, deeply thought-out. As for the big reveal about the cursed child, I never saw it coming. Fun, fun.
Actually Rowling didn’t write these plays. Jack Thorne, a young British playwright, did. What Rowling did do was create the story, which Thorne then transformed into play form. And therein lies a truth that has been a major discovery in my own playwriting career. Most people, when they imagine a script being written for film or stage, picture a scribe writing down words people say to each other – dialog. And indeed dialog does get written. But far more critical to the quality of any script is the story. By story I mean the causal sequence of events that takes a protagonist on a journey that the audience cares about. X happens and because of that Y happens and because of that Z happens etc. etc. Rowling is something of a genius at this story business. As exhibit B for my case that story trumps dialog I offer successful plays we read or see in translation, such as by Henrik Ibsen or Anton Chekhov. We never hear the original dialog those authors wrote. Exhibit C could well be the American playwright Eugene O’Neill, whose dialog is often clunky. Yet in the hands of a skilled director and actors, O’Neill’s stories are powerfully moving.
I don’t mean here to disparage Thorne’s contribution to Cursed Child. His dialog is well-rendered, character-specific and economical. Wit and humor are scattered about to good effect.
The core theme of Cursed Child is the father-son relationship. Harry Potter, raised as an orphan, is now middle-age, married to Ginny – a fellow Hogwarts adventurer from their youth – and they have three children. His son Albus, age 12 when the plays begin, is the hero of our tale. Harry, determined to be a good father, the likes of which he himself never had, finds that determination is not the same as succeeding.
The first scene in the plays replicates the last scene of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh novel (Rowling insists it was the last). Harry is at the train station seeing Albus off for a school year at Hogwarts. While waiting to board the Hogwarts Express train, Harry and Albus have an exchange that any parent of teenagers will recognize. Albus says, “I’m just asking you, Dad, if you’ll – if you’ll just stand a little away from me.” Rest assured, the gulf between them will become oceanic before any possible rapprochement. A nadir is reached when Harry yells at Albus: “There are times I wish you weren’t my son.”
Dumbledore, a sage mentor to Harry throughout the entire Potter series, offers this wisdom to the struggling father: “We cannot protect the young from harm. Pain must and will come. . . You’re supposed to teach him how to meet life.”
The overflowing and, it must be said, delightful plot, centers upon time travel, here made possible by a Time-Turner, one of the many clever devices stored in the cupboards of wizards and witches. Time travel is no simple dash to the corner grocer. It entails a slew of paradoxes and unforeseen, often dire, consequences. Albus and buddy Scorpius travel to the past and upon returning to the present, realize they’ve screwed things up royally, so they keep returning to the past to try to fix what they had caused to go wrong. When he realizes they’re in over their heads, Scorpius tells Albus, “We can’t fix time only to create more problems – if our adventures have taught us anything, they’ve taught us that. The dangers of infecting time are too great.” Elsewhere Scorpius realizes that “The smallest change [we make to the past], it creates ripples. And we’ve created really bad ripples.”
Albus had convinced himself that the reason he had to go back in time was to correct an injustice whereby an innocent boy was killed long ago. By the end of the plays Albus comes to realize that his motives were not so pure. His truer reason was to one-up his famous father in the hero-business. That fraught father-son relationship again.
One of the first thing any reader from the theatre world will notice about these scripts is the brevity of the scenes. Many are only two or three pages long. This concision and rapidity of changes in setting, characters and time, contribute to the propulsive force of Rowling’s storytelling. In this respect Cursed Child is more akin to a movie screenplay than a conventional playscript. While there can be wide variation, most plays have between ten and 20 scenes, whereas somewhere between 40 and 60 scenes make up a typical screenplay. The two Cursed Child plays are stuffed with 75 scenes.
I would love to see these plays on stage, if only to witness how the design and production team pull off the wild demands made by the script. Just a few examples: smoke comes out of ears; students “spring’ into their dormitories; paper balls fly across stage and burst into flame; papers and books in a messy office transform themselves into neat piles. Explosions, booms, fires, and crashes are a dime a dozen. Characters swim in a lake (this on stage, remember) and have their faces change after a bout of potion-drinking. Oh my, what fun the design team had.
Although two million of the published script were sold in the first 48 hours, the publisher’s initial print run was 4.5 million books. So I’m sure one would still be available for you if you felt inclined to read a play whose story is enchanted and whose pages seem to turn by themselves.
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