“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child:” A Review 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 was billed as the eighth and final installment of Harry Potter.  It was a bold, even risky, decision to bring the saga to its conclusion in a play, but how does the story work on the page?584731898-britain-entertainment-literature-harry-potterThe Cursed Child is slick, elegant market-driven bookmaking, with the numerous 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 a new franchise under the Harry Potter brand’s umbrella. The enigmatic logo does not say “for young readers” as clearly as does Mary Grandpre’s colorful artwork for the American Harry Potter jackets and covers. Could the script be 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 is dependent upon knowledge of Harry Potter and the Goblet of  Fire. harry_potter_and_the_goblet_of_fire_us_coverThe chronicle of year four was dominated by 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.   If you can’t recall much about about Victor Krumm, Winky the house elf, and blast-ended skrewts you can get by, but understanding how the relationship between Harry Cedric Diggory changed during the three tasks makes it much easier to understand the characters’ motives and in turn the plot of The Cursed Child.harry-cedric_xxxlarge42683340-54d9-0133-0b85-0e34a4cc753dAs there was no novel to dramatize, the script reveals the extent to which the wizards backstage fleshed out the eighth Harry Potter.   With what must be jaw-dropping special effects as the foundation, Thorne’s play whirls from past, present, and a future that must not be allowed to take place.  However the kaleidoscope of rapidly changing scenes shrinks most of the dialogue to rapid-fire exchanges.  This is not a shortcoming in scenes where there’s no time to be wasted, like the surprising 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 their fears and feelings.  Perhaps this isn’t as noticeable in the darkened theater as in the living room.

The story proper begins when the 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 could be rather useful in the rescue of Sirius and Buckbeak.  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 when they time travel: they return only to certain critical episodes in Harry Potter’s childhood first to improve, then preserve the past as it happened.  There is a side trip 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 seems to be bringing back Severus Snape for a not especially satisfying cameo appearance.

The alignment of play’s narrative arc with that of the novels seems quite deliberate and it may reflect a creative decision to allow the audience to re-experience the myth rather than to engage them with the lives of the younger generation’s lives.  Somewhat to its detriment, The Cursed Child is no The Year of the Griffin.  Some of the new material seems coldly calculated to stir a frisson of surprise in an audience that knows the score: for example, on the Hogwarts Express, Albus and Scorpius become best friends forever at first sight, instead of continuing the enmity of their fathers.  The undercurrent of their banter throughout most of the play suggests a strong physical attraction, but it turns out to be a tease, which I hear let down young gay fans in Northern Europe.  Scorpius’ puppy love for Rose Granger Weasley is surely a foreshadowing of intermarriage between antagonistic wizarding families and perhaps was intended as symbol that the age of Voldemort had indeed passed.

Casting African-born British actress Noma Dumezweni as Hermione was another uneasy if well-intentioned move after the fact to make the Harry Potter series more diverse.  I would love to see what Dumezweni made of the role.  Granger may be the Minister of Magic, but deep down she is still the trio’s fixer and problem-solver.  It is hard to believe that she has changed so little, now that she is the boss of Harry Potter, head of the Department of Magical Enforcement.  On the other hand the fact that she is still married to to the goofy underachiever Ron Weasley, makes it psychologically plausible, if politically incorrect.  Hermione’s situation vis-a-vis Harry was always reminiscent 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 a mother’s love or friendship between the sexes is to the Harry Potter series, in the end it’s a boy’s chronicle.  The Cursed Child‘s dynamics revolve  around the ties between fathers and their children: 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 for the dead Cedric on the other, with Dumbledore reappearing as Harry’s most important father substitute.  Equally resonant are the 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 fathers and children have been resolved to such an extent that the passions driving the seven Harry Potter novels are reduced to dying embers.  In principle, J. K Rowling could write a novel based on the script of The Cursed Child, but we should take her at her word that this spectacular production really is the end.   At least until the break out of a certain prisoner in Azkaban…

Who then is  the cursed child?   If I am right, the clues concealed in the text and the logo point to not one, but two characters,  a male and a female.  What’s your take?

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

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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).

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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).

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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

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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…