Monday, 1 August 2016

Review of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (the book of the stage play scripts). No spoilers

I shall try to review this book without spoilers - by focusing upon its form and the impression it made upon me, rather than the specific content.

Overall, I would say that the book is OK; but unimpressive and underwhelming - I was never at any point grabbed by it, and had to push myself to continue reading.

(This was not because I am unfamiliar with reading plays in script form - in contrast I have read hundreds of modern plays, for my own pleasure or interest - e.g. nearly all of the canonical plays of the British theatre from Shakespeare's time, including all of GB Shaw, and most of the mainstream published British plays from about 1945-80.)

Like most popular theatre throughout history, the script for Cursed Child is at the level of farce and melodrama; and did not at any point rise to comedy or tragedy. The prose is merely functional (considerably below the quality of the Harry Potter novels), and never poetic - and it is only by poetic qualities to its language that a play (qua play) can rise above farce/ melodrama.

Aside, the vast majority of plays achieve their higher or deeper qualities by factors of the production rather than by their words - i.e. the special qualities of acting and stagecraft (plus topicality and novelty) - or by the working of music, in the case of musicals and operas.

In sum, the most impressive factors are usaully extraneous to the writing. and confined to the live performance situation and thus do not long survive -- Which is why the permanent literary canon of plays is so slender compared with that of poems or novels; and also compared with the vast number of plays that are - for a while - a popular or critical success.

The best way to approach reading The Cursed Child is to think of it as a dramatised Soap about Harry Potter et al; or as a canonical Fan Fiction - because its focus, scope and nature is most like FanFic. I mean by this than FanFic is mostly about 'shipping' or relation-ships, and takes a strategy of getting the characters and making them a different age, or putting them into a different setting, or taking minor characters and making them protagonists - which is what Cursed Child does.

The Soap aspects are dominant because Cursed Child is utterly without the underpinning spiritual, indeed religious, aspects that raise the Harry Potter novels to the level of works of a work of genius.

The highest point to which Cursed Child rises, is the level of interpersonal relationships considered from a 'utilitarian' ethical perspective - of that being best which makes the  most people happiest for most of the time, and especially that which minimises suffering. From this angle; there are several heart-warming moments - as well as several more unconvincing, contrived and clunky male-male interactions.

The 'moral' of the two play cycle (as it came-through to me) is superficial and implausible: that evil is caused by childhood loneliness. In other words, the plays have a very secular, modern 'psychodynamic' kind of ethic (whereas the moral of the HP novels was very traditional - that the most important virtues are Love and Courage; and their importance goes beyond mortal life).

So - should you read it? That depends.

If, like me, you found the Harry Potter novels to be a deep experience, then probably better not to read it; because this book may tend retrospectively to trivialise and 'poison' some of the best aspects of the novels (in  the way that a movie of a book more often does).

If, on the other hand, you regard the Potter novels as mainly about human relationships and intricate plotting, then the plays would probably be of interest.

And if you are a Potter FanFic writer or aficionado, then you will probably be this play's ideal audience. 


Nancy said...

Thank you so much for this analysis. It made me realise that I would perhaps be better off not to read it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nancy - glad you found it useful.

Anonymous said...

"I have read [...] most of the mainstream published British plays from about 1945-80." In your linked post, you mention admiration followed by re-evaluation of "Tom Stoppard's Jumpers and Travesties": what of other Stoppard? (I've mostly acted in Shakespeare and Stoppard...) "If it wasn't for Shakespeare,[...]" - I know one Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead enthusiast whose opinion (stated opinion, at least) approaches asserting that Hamlet is basically of interest only in relation to Stoppard's play (!).

What, out of curiosity, of Eliot - and Fry? (I love Murder in the Cathedral as text, old Caedmon audio version, Eliot-adapted film, and live performance - but as much or more as text. I haven't tried the opera adaptation in full, yet...)

And what of 'closet dramas' and/or things apparently meant to be read rather than staged (Samson Agonistes, for example - which I have been interested to see staged, though too 'modernly'...)?

"If it wasn't for Shakespeare, who would (except from curiosity) want to sit through anything by Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson? Or Webster, or Beaumont and Fletcher?" A very interesting question (or two)! Might we - if most of the rest of Elizabethan and Jacobean literature were intact in the same form (even including Shakespeare's sonnets and other non-dramatic poetry) - even be more interested, and rate them variously more highly, without Shakespeare to put them in the shade? I think I would be, in any case - if I got the chance (reading and/or seeing). I'd certainly like Dr. Faustus and The Knight of the Burning Pestle (and probably Sejanus His Fall) if I'd never heard of Shakespeare (as far as I can tell).

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David LD - I read or saw everything, and thought a lot about, Stoppard up to the early 1980s - he seemed to match perfectly the way my mind worked in late teens early 20s, and his wit was so imble and deep as to suffice for any other lack.

But I find I don't enjoy him much any more (Jumpers and Travesties, which seemed so dazzling, have dated badly), and I don't like his work after the TV play Professional Foul. I suspect that he will only be remembered for Rosenkranz and Guildenstern, and even that only by scholars (most modern people don't know Hamlet well enough to understand the play, or its jokes).

I couldn't make anything at all of Eliot and Fry's verse plays - they were a pure chore to read and left nothing behind. I would probably like them more now I am a Christian.

Anonymous said...


I wonder how your saying "Like most popular theatre throughout history, the script for Cursed Child is at the level of farce and melodrama" applies to some (how much?) Stoppard - I've acted in 'The Real Inspector Hound' twice (in two different roles), and in 'Dirty Linen', and don't (considering your phrasing) know just where to put either on a farce-comedy spectrum: maybe both pretty farcical (which can be to say, 'comical', too, but perhaps not in the fullest sense 'comedy'- ?)?

I like 'Professional Foul' a lot, and also 'Squaring the Circle' - I don't know much of his work since then, though I enjoyed Hapgood (in the version Wikipedia says was "a critical failure"!), and I've seen a couple of the films he scripted (and I largely love the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern movie) - I got cold feet when I got a chance to buy a boxed set of Parade's End at a good price, not know what the BBC - and he - would 'do with (or 'to'?) it'.

You ought to try Murder in the Cathedral again, both in the audio version with Paul Scofield as Thomas, and (if you can find it) in Eliot's film adaptation. I've quite enjoyed both the Branaagh televison and the old abridged Gielgud radio version of The Lady's Not for Burning - I think the only Fry I've seen or heard performed (and I do like the film version of Lagerkvist's Barabbas for which he wrote the screenplay). Come to that, I like both the novella and play versions of Lagerkvist's The Executioner (or 'The Hangman'), though I've read rather than seen the latter.

David Llewellyn Dodds

P.S.: Thank you for this spoiler-eschewing review - which leaves me wondering what I want to do (as does the prospect of the Newt Scamander films) - the public persona of Rowling is so disappointing (as well as what I've heard of her non-Potter works, whether pseudonymous or not) that I don't know how much it might detract from the HP novels.

D. Ll. D.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Thanks for the recommendations which I may well follow-up.

BTW On further reflection, I would include satire as a major type of drama, and arguably The dominant one through most of history and certainly today - and since satire can be either farcical or melodramatic, it probably requires a third category of its own.

I have written fairly thoroughly about Rowling post-Potter on this blog - I think she has become that dangerous thing, an apostate who is trying to repudiate her formerly Christian self - to 'show the world' (i.e. the evil secular Leftist elite) that she is no longer *that* kind of person. Therefore I feel sure that she is incapable of writing anything genuinely good again.

The Cursed Child is so poorly done and produced that it amounts to a shabby deception, in my opinion; a spit in the face of the HP fans who she must despise. You will know that Bernard Shaw set the standard, well over a century ago, for publishing plays so they could be read 'as novels' by adding detailed link passages and stage directions - Rowling couldn't even be bothered to do that for her loyal HP readers - Indeed, clearly she couldn't be bothered actually to write, nor even to edit, the 'prose'.

As for the HP movies - I regard the series as entertaining, but a sadly wasted opportunity - since they have almost none of the deep structure of the books. However, there was a truly wonderful part of Deathly Hallows Part 2 from the death of Snape up to the 'death' of Harry which is about as good as cinema gets (before the makers ludicrously messed up the ending).