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Cursed Child: Is the play the thing?

I will unabashedly admit that Harry Potter takes up a considerable amount of my everyday existence. I truly can’t imagine my life without the wonderful universe that Ms. J. K. Rowling has so generously gifted us Muggles. So, naturally, as a theatre student and Potterhead I was thrilled to learn when it was announced that there was going to be a Harry Potter play.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Rowling’s collaboration with playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany, opened on July 30 at the Palace Theatre in London’s West End. Mr. Thorne helmed the script as playwright while the story is by Ms. Rowling, Mr. Thorne, and Mr. Tiffany. The pair of plays received rave reviews from theatre critics and the published script was well-received by book critics. Fans, though, have wildly mixed feelings. While I have a few minor qualms with the story (the shrewish AU Hermione who never married Ron raises some feminist alarm bells), I was altogether quite pleased with the script and I was thrilled to reenter the wizarding world once again.

 

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Playwright Jack Thorne, Queen J. K. Rowling, and Director John Tiffany at work on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

However, just as fascinating as the work itself are the artistic questions it raises. First of all, why is it a play? We already know that the Harry Potter story works as a series of novels, so why continue the story in a new form, and by a different writer, no less?  Ms. Rowling, when approached by producers to create a Harry Potter play, said that she would only do it if she found a playwright because she herself is not one. I certainly respect her for recognizing the limitations of her skills, but why move forward with a story telling form which you cannot achieve yourself? Was the desire to collaborate with a playwright and a director a goal for her? Was it the irresistibility of continuing a story she can’t seem to leave behind? Or were the potential financial benefits too great to pass up? I can only speculate as to Ms. Rowling’s personal artistic intentions, but I do find it curious that she would choose theatre as the next step for Harry Potter.

Regardless of whether a play is the right medium to tell this story, there’s no denying the power that this immensely popular story can have on the theatre. “Over 50% of [the Cursed Child] audience are first-time theatre-goers and over 50% of [the] audience – again, unusual – is under 35. Which is genuine audience development for our industry,” says producers Collin Callender and Sonia Friedman. And yes, while the reach of a pricey West End play is not necessarily very far, it can regardless spark the beginnings of a young person’s interest in the theatre. The Stage editor Alistair Smith writes that just as the Harry Potter novels created a boom in interest in young adult novels, so too should the theatre strive to meet new interest in work like Cursed Child: “New audiences from Harry Potter are not going to jump straight from Cursed Child to Chekhov…we need shows that will tempt these audiences back into theatres to show them that the magic of Harry Potter is not a one-off, but something that theatre can do week in, week out.”

While I appreciate the ability of the play to bring in new theatre audiences, I am still left with further questions.What does it mean for a play’s story to be created by three people but only written by one? We usually give the playwright the last word, but what happens when the playwright is responsible to someone else who has greater artistic authority over the story (and receives much larger billing)? And what does it mean for a play to exist within the canon of an entire larger body of work? Could Cursed Child stand alone? Is it even a good enough pair of plays that it could stand alone? I’m hoping to address some more of these questions in a future post, but for now I’ll be busy pondering the meaning of my newly-assigned Patronus.

Thanks, Jo.

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“I am paint and memory, Harry. Paint and memory.” – Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, pg122

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