Playwrights Dissect 'Cursed Child' and Find Bad News for Theater
The latest installment in the Harry Potter saga was written for the stage, but not high school theater
The multimedia Harry Potter universe has now added a new medium to its ever-expanding portfolio of magical franchising: a play. After seven record-breaking novels and eight blockbuster film adaptations, continuing the story of the wizarding world of Potter on the stage seems strange, like trying to move a woolly mammoth into a fishbowl. How could the scope of Potter suit the constraints of theatre?
Just before Harry Potter and the Cursed Child opened in the West End of London, the play’s producer Sonia Friedman summed up the unique movement between mediums neatly: “Imagine Star Wars was opening in one cinema in one city and that was the only place you could see it.” But now, like the novels that preceded it, the full text of the play is in the hands of the entire world.
If you’re a Harry Potter fan, there’s a lot to talk about. But what if you’re a playwright? Or a theatre critic? This years bestselling book is in a reading type that the vast majority of the world’s readership doesn’t usually interact with. Playwriting is a different beast than straight prose and the movement of Potter from the novel page to the script page raises an interesting question: how does Harry Potter and the Cursed Child stack up as a written play?
Fans of the series might just say that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is just the next story of Harry Potter, and that the format doesn’t matter. But that’s not entirely true, because with the release of the book version of the playscript, the nature of the way people are interacting with the text has already been altered. When a play is meant to be read rather than actually performed, it’s known as a “closet drama.” Goethe’s Faust Part 1 and Faust Part 2 then could be the 1808 version of Cursed Child for the twin reasons that the story was divided into two parts, and it was read far more than it was initially performed. Of course, unlike Goethe, playwright Jack Thorne wrote Cursed Child with the intention that it be staged. Still, with certainly more people reading the script than seeing a production of the script, has the Cursed Child effectively become a retroactive closet drama?
“For those of us who do read play scripts recreationally, this is an issue we confront on a regular basis,” George Lopercio told Inverse. Lopercio holds an MFA in Theatre from the New School in New York City, and teaches theatre at Estrella Mountain Community College in Arizona. “There are incredible plays that I will never get to see staged in my own life - so reading them from that point of view actually becomes second nature. A good play script is, in some ways, like a good screenplay – it should be visual. And it should be action packed.”
Cursed Child is certainly action packed. Characters are flying and walking through walls. Time Travel! To quote from Brad Neely’s infamous Potter-spoof Wizard People: “Magical deeds are afoot, dear readers, magical darkness, a must!” But if we were to overlook the magic, does Harry Potter and the Cursed Child have the rich qualities theatre-lovers look for in a good play?
“We need to see some reflection of ourselves onstage, and it needs to be real, and then we need to feel something about what we’re seeing,” Dallas-based theatre critic Katy Lemieux told Inverse, “[At the beginning of The Cursed Child], the human element is introduced right off. Whatever happens after is fine, because we’ve accepted that this isn’t beyond our realm of comprehension.”
What the actors bring to a performance is certainly a huge part of what makes a play what it is. Stage directions written with room for interpretation can create various different opportunities for actors. “There is a misconception, I think, among the general population that plays are just a bunch of talking,” Lopercio said, “This is never true of good plays… But this is a bit of a double-edged sword, because a playwright should also leave quite a bit of the visual story up to the interpretation of its director.”
Lopercio went on to point out that Cursed Child has both very open stage directions, but also some that are overly specific, to the point where no other interpretation could possibly happen for an actor, and therefore a potential audience member. “It’s not terribly uncommon for the mass marketed published script from a successful production to contain specificities drawn from the production,” he told Inverse. “But this one does so in unusual abundance.”
Recently, the Independent pointed out the various challenges in a reader racing through the script in a few hours, versus watching the whole production on stage. Certain “magical” scenes will doubtlessly not translate for a reader. But since the play has moved to the hands of readers almost exclusively, should we care what audiences saw or what actors might have felt?
“One of my favorite things to say is that most actors can’t read,” Lemieux jokingly told Inverse, but added seriously, “I want to know what’s in the words and not just on the stage. And if you read those classic, amazing, playwrights- Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill, August Wilson those words matter.”
Jack Thorne’s dialogue certainly sparkles in certain moments, but might not work for everyone if they’re unfamiliar with the Potter lexicon. This might be a unique play, though, because, as Lemieux pointed out, “Harry Potter is such a specific thing that so many readers have already imagined in their heads; the setting already exists to them. In this way, this play might be the greatest exception to the dilemma of if it matters more in the script or on the stage.”
With real action, human drama, and (occasionally) specific language, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, at this point, seems to have the earmarks of potential quality script. Except, there’s just one problem: if we view Cursed Child not as a strange new kind of closet drama which we enjoy in our minds, but a piece of potentially staged theatre specifically, it actually becomes symptomatic of larger problem facing the theatre community in general: the logistics of producibility.
“If you live like most people do — in a non-theater market-city, you don’t see productions,” George Lopercio said. “There’s no money to be made by producing new plays. And, what seems to push [Cursed Child] further into that unproducible realm is its reliance on special effects. It feels intentionally exclusive to me - almost like a marketing ploy - to drum up major excitement before the inevitable release of the movie version.”
While J.K. Rowling has screenwriting credit for the next Harry Potter spin-off film – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – this venture, the actual “sequel” to the existing Harry Potter stories, was written by a bonafide playwright. Jack Thorne’s career before Cursed Child included his original scripts (like 2015’s The Solid Life of Sugar Water) in addition to other adaptations for different media, like his stage version of Let the Right One In. Clearly, he is a playwright who can move between the membranes of artistic mediums with ease. So, will Jack Thorne’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child inspire a new generations of playwrights? And would that be a good thing?
“If one of my students were inspired to write a play because of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I would be glad,” Lopercio told Inverse. “Young blood being been drawn to the theater, whatever their reason, is good. BUT, my concern would be connected to what I mentioned about producibility; the sheer spectacle of this production is seductive, and a new playwright who exclusively sets out to write plays like this will most likely never be produced.”
Since Harry Potter’s popularity redefined – for better or for worse – the conventional publishing landscape, it feels like something similar might be happening here. Post-1999, writing teachers across the world were faced with an avalanche of aspiring novelists who wanted to become the next J.K. Rowling. Correlatively to Lopercio’s points about play producibility, the attempt for other novelists – and now playwrights – to reproduce or emulate their writing heroes (Rowling or Thorne) might create unrealistic expectations. Further still, from an art history perspective, it’s unclear if Harry Potter’s literary merits will allow it to stand the test of time, making its status as a piece of timeless theatre doubly dubious.
“The limitations of theater is what enables plays to endure,” Lopercio said. “But, the expansive, boundary-less scale of a play like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child prevents widespread production, which means fewer people will experience seeing a theatrical production of it. And, in my opinion, theater should still be the medium of the people.”