A Review of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” that Puzzles out but Keeps the Secrets

la-et-cm-harry-potter-and-the-cursed-child-london-2016-20150626Here’s a review of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for readers waiting to buy tickets to the first United States production when they go on sale.  The two-part script published last July is billed as the eighth and final installment of the Harry Potter saga.  It is a bold, even risky, decision to bring the Harry Potter saga to its conclusion in a play, but how does it work on the page?584731898-britain-entertainment-literature-harry-potterThe Cursed Child is slick but elegant market-driven bookmaking, with the many stakeholders’ claims on the title page verso.  Everything about the design of the “Special Rehearsal Edition Script”–the dust jacket’s conservative typography, the shiny but not too shiny raised letters, and the discreet touch of gold–helps define the new franchise under the umbrella of the Harry Potter brand. The enigmatic logo does not say “for young readers” the way Mary Grandpre’s colorful artwork for the American Harry Potter covers do.  It’s as if the script were trying to distance itself from the fantasy series for kids from nine to ninety.  Some fans were disappointed that The Cursed Child was not a novel, but they should have been tipped off by the credits at the end that figure in playbills–original London cast, production credits down to the chaperones and house seats assistant, biographies of the original story team (Rowling, Tiffany, and Thorne), plus acknowledgments.

imageIs the script of The Cursed Child  for Potterheads only?   It certainly helps to belong to the fan base because the plot draws so heavily on the chronicle of year four, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.   harry_potter_and_the_goblet_of_fire_us_coverThat was the year of the Triwizard Tournament, when fourteen-year-old Harry was pitted against his adolescent self, his friends, Hogwarts, unwelcome celebrity, and He Who Must Not Be Named.  You can get by If you have forgotten about Victor Krumm, Winky the house elf, and blast-ended skrewts, but not if you can’t remember how Harry and Cedric Diggory’s relationship changed during the three tasks, it will be harder to understand the characters’ motives and make sense of the plot.harry-cedric_xxxlarge42683340-54d9-0133-0b85-0e34a4cc753dAs there was no novel to dramatize, the script reveals just how much the wizards backstage were entrusted to flesh out the eighth Harry Potter. Thorne’s play whirls from past, present, and a future that must not be allowed to take place, propelled by special effects that must be jaw-dropping.  However, the kaleidoscope of rapidly changing scenes shrinks the dialogue to rapid-fire exchanges, which works in scenes where there’s no time to be wasted, like the encounter between the Trolley Witch, Albus, and Scorpius.  But the scenes with Ginny and Harry, for example, might have made a greater impact if the characters had been given more lines to reveal themselves.  Perhaps this isn’t as noticeable in the darkened theater as in the living room.

The story proper begins when that inseparable odd couple, Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy, decide to right a great wrong in the past using a Time Turner, the magical object that played a critical role in The Prisoner of Azkaban.  Dumbledore gave Hermione a beta version so she could double up on her courses and he also hinted that it might come in handy rescuing Sirius and Buckbeak at the novel’s climax.   Unlike the Egyptian tyet in E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet, the Time Turner is a precision instrument that either teenage wizards or powerful witches can operate without prior training.   The boys are too weighed down by Freudian angst and the urgency of rescuing the wizarding world to have any larks while time travelling: they are determined to return to a critical episode in Harry Potter’s childhood and edit the past, which includes a  visit to the school they would have attended if Voldemort had won the Battle of Hogwarts.  The brief reign of Dolores Umbridge as High Inquisitor in Order of the Phoenix foreshadows these nightmarish scenes, whose secondary function was to bring back Severus Snape for a not especially satisfying cameo appearance.

The close alignment of play’s narrative arc with that of the novels was deliberate and may reflect an assumption that the majority of people in the audience wanted to re-experience the myth as much or more as to be surprised by the new.  Some of the new material seems coldly calculated: for example, on the Hogwarts Express, Albus and Scorpius become best friends forever at first sight, instead of continuing the enmity of their fathers.  Yet throughout most of the play,  the undercurrent of their banter suggests a strong physical attraction, but that turns out to be a tease.  Instead Scorpius’ puppy love for Rose Granger Weasley hints at the possibility of intermarriage between antagonistic wizarding families and perhaps it is intended as a sign that the age of Voldemort has passed.

The casting of African-born British actress Noma Dumezweni as Hermione was another move after the fact to make the Harry Potter series more diverse.  I would love to see what Dumezweni made of the role.  In The Cursed Child Granger may be the Minister of Magic, but deep down she is still the trio’s fixer and problem-solver.  Now that she is the boss of Harry Potter, head of the Department of Magical Enforcement, and the dominant partner in her marriage to the goofy underachiever Ron Weasley, it is hard to accept that so little seems to have changed over the decades.  Her situation vis-a-vis Harry is something like that of Mary Lennox at the end of The Secret Garden–edged aside by the author so as not to detract from the hero’s triumph. It is ironic that Hermione–and all the other strong women in the Cursed Child– are defined largely by their men.

As important as mother’s love or friendship is to the Harry Potter series, the dynamics of The Cursed Child revolve more around the ties between fathers and their children.  In the play, Harry’s struggle to connect with his son Albus is contrasted with that of Draco and Scorpius Malfoy on the one hand and the inconsolable grief of  Amos Diggory on the other.  Dumbledore reappears in his role as Harry’s father substitute as well.  Equally resonant are the examples  of children who  destroyed their fathers or those who longed to prove themselves to fathers they never knew.  By the end of the play, the ongoing tensions between the different fathers and children have been resolved to such an extent that the passions driving the seven Harry Potter novels are reduced to dying embers.  J. K Rowling could, I suppose, write a novel based on the script of The Cursed Child, but I’m taking her at her word that this spectacular production really is the end.   At least until a certain prisoner in Azkaban breaks out…

Who then is  the cursed child?   The clues I think are concealed in the text and the logo point to not one, but two characters,  a boy and a girl.   To them, I would add a third person, the boy who lived, without whom the quest to forestall fulfillment of the second prophecy would have failed.


Who Filled in William Cole’s Poetry-Drawing Book? Feiffer, Stamaty, Gorey…


The Poetry-Drawing Book (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960) was supposed to provide children with a substitute for coloring books, which co-editors William Cole and Julia Colmore believed were “insulting to their imagination and intelligence” with “the banal and badly drawn” pictures.  Their volume was designed with a blank page facing each poem, space for a boy or girl to draw whatever ideas the reading of the poem prompted.  To facilitate self-expression with pencil, crayons, or watercolors, the book was spiral-bound so that it would lay flat on a table (or the floor).  Cole and Colmore argued that this concept would encourage “a child’s innate sense of color and design, and to give free rein to his imagination.  At the same time our book functions as an introduction to the magical world of poetry.”

Bill Cole was not an educator, but a journalist, publicity director, publisher, board member of the  Poetry Society of America and Poets and Writers, and connoisseur of light verse and knock-knock jokes.  The Poetry-Drawing Book was just one of many anthologies he produced for children over his long career.

cole_ungererCotsen’s collection of manuscripts includes a very special copy of The Poetry-Drawing Book, whose purchase was underwritten several years ago by the Friends of the Princeton University Library.  It belonged to Cole  and his penciled initials are in the upper-left-hand corner just above the plates the clown is juggling.  Cole and Colmore claimed that the book had been “tried out on hundreds of children” and perhaps a few of the “enriching, enlightening, and often hilarious” results were selected to go on the cover.ctsn_ms_unproc_item_4347646_cover

Cole’s son Rossa grew up to be a professional photographer, but the Cotsen copy of The Poetry-Activity Book does not happen to be filled with the little boy’s drawings.   Cole intended it to be a showcase for somewhat older aspiring artists.

There is a drawing by the thirty-one-year old Jules Feiffer, political satirist and illustrator of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth.

To deliver a message of good cheer satirist Jules Feiffer, photographed in New York City, March 3, 1976, has chosen theater rather than cartoons. The result is "Knock Knock," his hit Broadway farce. (AP Photo/Jerry Mosey)

Jules Feiffer in 1976 (AP Photo/Jerry Mosey).


Feiffer was born in 1929. If he was thirty-one when he painted this rather ominous feline, then he must have done it in 1960.

And another by twenty-eight-year old cartoonist Mark Alan Stamaty, author/illustrator of Who Needs Doughnuts (1973) and Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq (2004).



If Stamaty was born in 1947 and he drew the rootin’ tootin’ shootin’ television when he was twenty-eight, then his page was completed in 1975.

Another surprise is this elaborate color drawing by a master of the macabre in black and white, Edward Gorey, then thirty six.edward-gorey-3


This enchanting vision of the snake in the garden would have been executed in 1961 by the thirty-six-year-old Gorey, who was born in 1929.

And that’s what happens when you give an artist a blank page…