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.


Illustrating Summertime Fun in Children’s Books

Little Tot's Holiday Book (Warne: not before 1881) Cotsen 30357

Little Tot’s Holiday Book (Warne & Co.: ca. 1881) Cotsen 30357.

As the days of summer dwindle into a precious few, the long days of sunshine slowly get shorter, and a new school term impends, we all tend to wonder: “Where did the summer go?”

With that thought in mind, we might help keep summer alive a little longer by taking a look at how children’s book illustrators picture summer and its activities.

It certainly didn’t take children’s books to make school kids (and the rest of us) love the prospect of having time off from school and being able to enjoy all the activities available for a few precious months a year. But nineteenth-century books for children certainly stressed summertime fun and vividly pictured outdoor activities, some relatively ‘novel’ ones at the time, such as beach holidays at newly-popular (and accessible) ocean-side resorts. As such, they provide a terrific window onto life and leisure-time activities at the time.


Children at the shore (detail from Little Tot’s Holiday Book).

Frederick Warne & Co., one of the major nineteenth-century publishers of children’s books readily added “holiday” books picturing seasonal and summertime fun to its line of books. The large format (over 12″ tall) picture book Little Tot’s Holiday Book features vivid, full-page chromolithographed illustrations of children in all sorts of holiday activities (including some in winter). The bright red cloth front cover features a paper onlay of two Victorian children at a seaside locale. Note their fashionable, but modest, attire, fairly typical for the time.

“A Holiday at the Seaside.”

One of the illustrations inside the book shows children happily engaged in a range of contemporary seaside activities: playing on the beach and making sandcastles, taking donkey rides, and riding in a goat cart. I like the background detail of “On the Sands,” which shows a Brighton-like pleasure pier, one of the “novel” aspects of Victorian seaside resorts.


“Off to the Seashore”…via train.

Another full-page illustration features a train. While trains were always popular with children, particularly boys, why does a train appear in a holiday book? The answer lies in the caption: “off to the seashore.” Trains were a relatively novel form of transportation at this time, and one of the ways that middle-class and more prosperous working-class families went to the seashore in the 1880s.


Little Tot’s Holiday Book, alternate cover – Cotsen 30357 (c.2)

Little Tot’s Holiday was apparently a popular title, because Warne issued another version of the same title, with identical content, but a different cover, one showing a very different kind of summertime activity. Again, two fashionable and apparently affluent children (similar to the book’s target audience) are featured, but this time they’re presented in a rural setting, getting donkey rides from a young adult from the country (note, his mustache and “rural” attire).

Warne’s picture books repeatedly show children at the seaside, attesting to the popularity of the subject.  Another large-format picture book, Little Tots Playtime Book includes an illustration of a girl on a donkey, a sailor-suited boy, and the family dog on the beach, with sailboats in the background and a nearby patriotic Union Jack, which breaks the perfect (“boring”?) symmetry of the rectangular frame and creates visual interest via a technique sometimes used by painters.

At the seashore again… (Little Tots Playtime Book, ca. 1881) Cotsen 30359


Cover of Little Tots Playtime Book

The general design of the Playtime Book’s cloth cover is essentially the same as that of the Holiday Book (perhaps this was Warne’s stock design for these picture books?), but the inset chromolithographed medallion provides quite a different, more formal and stylized, view of little women in summertime — a somewhat Kate “Greenawayesque” presentation.

Cover of Kate Greenaway’s Book of Games, (Routledge & Co., ca. 1899) Cotsen 5633

Speaking of Kate Greenaway (whose presentations of children are famous), let’s take a quick look at how she pictures summer in Kate Greenaway’s Book of Games, issued by by George Routledge & Sons in 1889 (and later reissued by Warne in 1899). The cover shows a vignette of children on a rustic teeter-totter. The twenty-four colored wood-engraved illustrations by Edmund Evans show children in Greenaway distinctive style: extremely well-dressed, fashionable, and not very kinetic. The two illustrations below present several girls in caps playing “Battledore & Shuttlecock” (“badminton” to us now) and “Puss in the Corner,” both accompanied by brief descriptions of the games.

greenaway 1

“Battledore & Shuttlecock”

grrenaway 2

“Puss in the Corner”







I wouldn’t want to give you the impression that summertime and beaches are featured only in English books for children — that was definitely not the case! For instance, a German book, In Sommer, from about 1900 features a terrific, highly-saturated color depiction of children playing on the beach on its cover. And illustrations inside the book show children busily involved in other summer activities: flying kites, picking flowers, and making quite a fuss over an apple!


In Sommer: quite a fuss about an apple in the woods on a bright summer day


In Sommer: Children and their kites, including the “Man-in-the Moon” and giant clown face


Children on the beach: cover of In Sommer, ([Germany? ca. 1900]) Cotsen 52215









Another terrific book cover appears on Johnny Headstrong’s Trip to Coney Island, published about 1882 by New York’s McLoughlin Brothers, perhaps the preeminent children’s books publisher in the USA at the time. In the 1880s, Coney Island was a seaside resort for residents of New York City and Brooklyn Heights, a place reached by train and with the same sort of summery, festive ambience as Cape May or Cape Cod, if you can imagine that. The chromolithographed cover of this “toybook” presents an idyllic beach scene via illustrator William Bruton’s artwork, although something in Johnny’s own facial expression suggests another strand in the thread of the story…


Johnny Headstong’s Trip to Coney Island (McLoughlin Bros, ca. 1882) Cotsen 540

page 1

Johnny arrives at Coney Island with his family (note the masted sailing ships in the background)

Johnny Headstong’s story begins in much the same way as the other summertime books we’ve been looking at – a fashionable youth sets out for the Coney Island seaside resort accompanied by his sister, nanny, and father, a “kindly man of good repute…and wealth.”

But as his name suggests, Johnny is impulsive and lacking in self-discipline — he gets into all sorts of trouble… He climbs over the railing while sailing a toy sailboat, falls into a pool, and has to be fished out. He then “slips away” from the adults “to see things by himself.” More trouble ensues in the form of various misadventures, as Johnny hits another boy in the face with a ball, falls off a swing he pushed too high, and finds himself on a runaway donkey, causing mayhem on the beach and knocking over an apple-seller (as Bruton’s double-page illustration vividly shows). Eventually, covered in bandages, Johnny winds up back home, where his father admonishes: “You see what comes to heedless boys, whene’er they disobey.”


Bruton’s double-page illustration of Johnny Headstrong on the pony causing mayhem

So McLoughlin’s Brothers’ rendition of this “summertime story” is really one of the “cautionary tales” inspired by Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter for which the firm was famous: stories showing kids “acting badly” and suffering the consequences. Some of their other classics in this vein have titles like: Little Suck-a-Thumb, Naughty Girls, Lazy Sam, Inky Jake, Foolish Fanny, Paulina Pry, and Moping Mary. After all, “to please and instruct” was the company motto, even during summer vacation!