First off: this play really is terrible. It’s probably impossible to summarise all of the ways in which it is so, and I’m pretty sure I barely scratched the surface in my read-through and our discussions in the comments (thank you to everyone for engaging, though, it’s been fun). I want to break this down into sections to try to keep my thoughts organised.
Let’s talk about the plot.
I don’t want to talk about the plot. I already went through and summarised all of it with running commentary. And also, the plot is the most widely-discussed aspect of the play. It’s practically been done to death at this point.
The plot of this thing is an incoherent mess, taken as a whole. If you look at the interconnectedness of individual scenes, you can sort of see how they’re meant to follow from each other, but even then I don’t think it holds up. (This is a problem Loten and I have observed in a lot of fiction, which ends up being written in such a way that individual scenes aren’t terribly problematic, and scenes flow reasonably from one to the next, but when you look at the trends that emerge over the entire work it becomes a huge mess. Whether in terms of themes, or worldbuilding contradictions, characterisation turning out not to be what the author intended, or what have you.) Cursed Child doesn’t even manage that, though. From the beginning there are contradictions and inconsistencies everywhere, whether it’s internally or with respect to the books.
Then let’s look at the structure of this thing. It starts off with a sort of bait-and-switch, the first couple of scenes are setting up for this thing to be about the Next Generation’s Hogwarts experience, then they skip over that with a weird montage-style “scene”, and immediately start doing more setup for the time travel. Even disregarding the characterisation fail that’s already been rampant by this point, that was the first sign this thing was going to go off the rails: they skipped through three years of Hogwarts in a single “scene”, when I suspect the Hogwarts time is what most people would have been interested in seeing.
And most of the plot is driven by Delphi, who in turn is motivated by a prophecy of unknown provenance. It’s not even like the prophecy in the books, where she had the decency to do the self-fulfilling thing and have the mere existence of the prophecy be a motivator for people (I really don’t like prophecy tropes overall, but at least Rowling was willing to play with it a bit in the books), and in different ways for different people. I won’t say she did it particularly well there, necessarily, but it was miles better than what we got in this play. Nobody knows where this prophecy came from, nobody thinks to ask. And the only sensible explanation for why Delphi did the things she did is “the prophecy said so”, which ends up meaning authorial fiat. The writers wanted her to do things for the sake of plot, but couldn’t think up a motivation so they papered over it with a prophecy. That doesn’t make for a good character, nor for an interesting villain (which aren’t always precisely the same thing).
[Particularly since we’re never told who made the prophecy or who witnessed it or how anyone knew it was real. At least in the main series we were told all the reasons why the entire cast believed it without question.]
The final act of this play is honestly just bizarre. You would think that, if they were going to do this “rehash the backstory of the original series” thing, they’d actually do something interesting and maybe reveal some new information or a new interpretation of those events. Nope. It just served as a backdrop for the (honestly uninteresting) reconciliations and confrontations that were going to end the primary plot of this thing, and I think it was meant as nothing more than emotional manipulation of the audience (or at least of invested fans) so that the ending felt like it had more weight. I don’t think it succeeded at that because it was so blatant, but I think that’s what they were trying to do.
It doesn’t help at all that the vast majority of this thing is an Idiot Plot and required the characters to be unaware of things they should have known, and/or making the worst possible decisions they could make. And the actual events that occur are just… stupid.
Likewise, it has no sense of what the logical consequences of any particular thing should be. We’ve had lots of discussion about “Cedric the Death Eater” but that’s really symptomatic of a much larger problem, in which the writer(s) didn’t seem interested in actually thinking through how the actions taken would actually cause the timeline changes they wanted.
The play also wastes loads of our time with Harry’s prophetic dream scenes, that didn’t make any sense and also didn’t end up mattering at all in the end. They were clearly just an attempt to squeeze in certain characters (I really don’t know why it was so important to see Petunia and Vernon, really I don’t) [maybe the writers realised Harry was being openly abusive and felt they should tell us the Dursleys were (allegedly) worse, instead of actually doing something to either fix or acknowledge it?], and occasionally to feed Harry information he might have otherwise had to work to obtain (I think the only things he actually learned from the dreams were “Albus is in the Forbidden Forest”, which he could easily have learnt some other way and didn’t even need to know, and “something to do with Voldemort is afoot” which, likewise). And to make matters worse, it never even explains how Harry is capable of having such dreams, when there was no previously-established mechanism by which he could.
In the end, the plot honestly doesn’t even matter, because the play basically ends with a restoration of (and acceptance of) status quo. Yes, there’s theoretically some character development that happened, that’s normally the point of this kind of plot where the end goal is to return things to the way they started, but because the vast majority of the characters were so thoroughly derailed so early on, I found it nigh impossible to care about their development after that. (Maybe the derailment is less obvious in the actual theatre, when the actors have a chance to do something with it?) [Most of the characters don’t seem to change that much, honestly. Harry realises he’s been a complete dick to his son. Everyone else seems to stay more or less the same.] There are actually a couple of other things (Albus and Scorpius get closer and learn time travel is wrong, Harry and Draco become friends) but it’s pretty minimal.
What I found weirdest about this thing, honestly, is that it does feel qualitatively quite different from fanfiction. Fanfiction, or at least good fanfiction, in my experience generally has an awareness that it’s subverting the canon in some way and does so with purpose. It’s engaging with the canon (building on it, filling in gaps, criticising it, etc), and having a conversation. Even the worst of fanfiction tends to do this. This play, possibly by dint of having been declared canon, or possibly just because the authors didn’t feel like they had anything to say, doesn’t do that, and in failing to do that, feels very hollow. I don’t get the impression this play had anything to say about the canon, or was really doing any constructive building on the original story. It’s just kind of… there.
This has been a non-exhaustive rant about the plot of this play.
What about the themes and messages?
There are two major themes that come through loud and clear in this play: time travel is stupid and you shouldn’t do it, and something to do with parent-child relationships (well, really just father-son and father-daughter, mothers are pretty de-emphasised).
I’m not sure what can really be said about the first one, aside from maybe “thank you, Captain Obvious”. Time travel doesn’t even exist, so did we really need a heavy-handed morality play telling people not to do it?
That said, what’s less obvious about the time-travel theme is that it also ends up having some very unfortunate implications. The play is pretty clear that it views the alternative timelines are aberrations, less good than the original outcome (never mind whether or not readers/audiences agree, e.g. on Ron/Hermione versus Ron/Padma), and must be corrected. I think this is problematic for two reasons: firstly, it encourages a sort of Panglossian “best of all possible worlds” interpretation of the canonical Harry Potter endgame, when that’s failed to address all of the dystopian elements of the Potterverse, and secondly, if viewed in any kind of metaphorical sense it has to be seen as arguing that trying to change the world is pointless and destructive and the status quo must be preserved at all costs. I don’t think I need to elaborate further on how or why this is toxic.
As for what it has to say about parent-child relationships… I really don’t know that it has a coherent message, beyond “these things are important, and being a shitty parent will fuck up your kid”. “Don’t be oblivious to your kid’s concerns and try to listen to them, and don’t expect your child to be a clone of you.” Once again, thank you, Captain Obvious.
Oh, and I suppose you could argue something like “child abuse and subsequent reconciliation is a good way to get a cheap emotional response from the audience”.
What about characterisation?
As far as the existing characters went, it was almost uniformly awful. I may not think Rowling is a spectacular writer, but her characters do tend to have distinctive voices (well, with some exceptions) and this play did not do a good job adhering to those. Nobody’s dialogue sounded anything like their canon selves to me.
The only exceptions were Ginny and Draco. I actually thought that they were written better than canon, though of course this comes with the huge caveat that I’m being charitable in not holding the plot against them. Even though they were responding to a nonsense plot, their reactions seemed genuine and understandable. And I have to give them some credit for managing to have Ginny acknowledge and react to a past that the books largely forgot she’d experienced, even though they ended up contradicting the books in doing so. I never thought I’d be saying Ginny Weasley was the high point of anything.
As for the new characters… outside of Scorpius, who actually is half-decently realised, there isn’t much of a sense of who these people are. (Witness, for instance, the Sorting issues: if we were going by personality instead of plot contrivance and family allegiance, Rose should be in Slytherin, Scorpius in Hufflepuff and Albus – ironically – in Gryffindor.) The most I can say for the new generation is that they did a decent job selling me on the Albus/Scorpius relationship as friendship and possibly more, until they decided they had to No Homo the ending and ruined everything. Compulsory heterosexuality!
That only really leaves Delphi. I’m not sure what to say about Delphi, honestly. They had the opportunity to do something interesting with her, even if I think on the whole her existence was a contrivance that created way too many plot holes. If they had fleshed out her motivation and maybe given her some doubts – she’s trying to bring back a father she never knew, a regime she never knew, based solely on what she’s learned from the neglectful and possibly abusive people who raised her; she should have some questions about this. But no, biological heritage is everything. And while her plan could have been interesting, they ruined it by making it a prophecy (even if we had to keep the time travel, how much cooler would it have been if she’d analysed the history books and figured out points of divergence to try on her own? Just that would go a huge way toward improving her as a villain). And then there are all the things she shouldn’t know but somehow does, all of the amazing powers she has, and her absurd hair colour; she really is very badfic Mary Sue (right down to the absurd hair colouration and being shoehorned into canon where she doesn’t really fit).
How did this happen?
I want to talk about how this play came about, because I have a theory about the thought processes that led to it. (casts Legilimens)
[Current spell count: Mitchell, 1!]
I think it went something like this:
I don’t think the writers were clear on how to write a Harry Potter story with conflict that didn’t involve Voldemort. But Voldemort was pretty thoroughly dead, so they needed to figure out a way to keep him relevant or bring him back or something. Someone hit on the idea of time-travel from there.
Once the idea of time-travel was settled on, there are questions about who’s going to do it, what they’re going to try to change, and why they’re going to do that. Maybe Thorne just liked Goblet of Fire and wanted to do a homage to it, but I actually think it goes a bit deeper also. Goblet of Fire was probably the most structured of the books, because the Triwizard Tournament forced a distinct sequence of discrete (and recognisable!) events that had to happen in a certain order. So I think someone liked the idea of using the three tasks of the Triwizard as the touchstones where our traveller(s) would instigate changes because it would help structure the play. And if you look at Goblet of Fire… well, what are the biggest things that went wrong in that book? Cedric died, and Voldemort returned.
I suppose “go back in time and kill Voldemort/prevent Voldemort reviving” would too obviously create a huge ripple effect, but saving Cedric is the kind of thing that could look innocuous on its face and be the sort of thing that would appeal to children to try to fix. And aside from Voldemort himself, there’s not much else to fiddle with in that year.
[This raises a good point. Why was there no reference to Barty Crouch at any point? If the kids know how the tournament went wrong, they must know who did it. I realise that as you say it would be too big a change, but it’s something the characters should discuss while they’re trying to figure out what they should do.]
The parallel question is this: if someone’s instigating time travel to bring back Voldemort… well, who’s going to do it? Most of his supporters outside the Malfoys (who are better off without him and know it) were either dead or in prison. They could probably have just picked a random Death Eater who’d survived and handwave that, and would frankly have been better served to do it, but I suppose they might’ve been thinking that all of the surviving ones would reason similarly to the Malfoys (though that’s optimistic and I doubt it). The writers may have been thinking that nobody who is not intimately connected to Voldemort wouldn’t want him back? Anyway, I think we ended up with Delphi because they couldn’t think of any other reason someone might want to bring Voldemort back. I’m not sure if they decided to emphasise all of the father-son issues for parallelism after they decided Voldemort’s child was going to be integral to the plot, or if that reasoning went the other way around (we want to talk about parent-child issues, so what if Voldy had a kid?), but there’s definitely a connection there too.
And there you have it: Voldemort’s secret daughter manipulates some well-meaning children into interfering with the Triwizard tasks to try to save Cedric Diggory, in a plot to bring him back.
Or in shorter words, I think this entire play happened because they were too lazy to think up a plot that didn’t involve Voldemort, and the rest was just a chain of interconnected bad ideas from there, following at least a sort of logic. It doesn’t explain everything, and obviously I’m just speculating here, but it does seem to hang together and make sense of the otherwise incomprehensible.
[Looks like Rowling’s exam-conditions writing is catching. Someone really needs to explain to authors the world over that you can actually change things, you don’t need to just keep going and hope to stumble on a way of trying to fix the first idea that popped into your head.]
Who should see this play?
In all seriousness, I found myself repeatedly asking the question “who was this written for?”. And I did end up having some thoughts about that.
First off, there’s the question about barrier to entry. This play makes some pretty extensive assumptions about what the audience will know, and does not in any way try to explain things for newcomers. Parents of children who are into the series but haven’t read it yourself who’ve been dragged to see it? Good luck understanding anything. This is a very weird choice, considering the change in medium, though I suppose understandable if you consider this thing “Harry Potter Book Eight”. (And I suppose to some degree, Harry Potter has reached a level of saturation in the cultural consciousness that you could assume at least some baseline level of audience familiarity…)
[This could explain why the characters never seem to discuss things they really ought to talk about. The writers assume the viewers will know it all already, and overlook the fact that it’s still relevant to the characters. And assuming even a baseline level of familiarity would be optimistic, I’m thinking of my own parents here – I once challenged them to name literally any character who wasn’t Harry. My mother actually got Hermione, which is impressive, though couldn’t say who that actually was. Dad made a vague stab at Voldy and got the name wrong. That’s as far as they got. They don’t know the name Hogwarts, they don’t know the plot, my father assumed for years that my Slytherin tie was my own school tie despite my uniform never including a tie at any point ever. Yet they’ve been in the room while I watched at least two of the films, and were ostensibly watching them with me. I can confidently say that they’d be utterly lost while watching this within the first two minutes.]
I actually think part of the problem is that this thing wanted to be Book Eight, when for the change in medium it would have been much better to try to make it a more independent story. There is absolutely no reason that a story about “Harry Potter: the Next Generation” had to be so intimately tied up with plotlines from the books. I think they’d have been much better served to treat the series’ events as backstory, and try to tell an original story featuring the children (e.g. a conflict that had nothing to do with Voldemort, or at least connected only tangentially through residual social issues). Look to the future, not the past. I am not arguing that ignoring history completely is a good idea (neither in fiction nor real life), but rather that the fixation on time travel and returning to the past events of the books did this play no favours in terms of its accessibility to people who are not enfranchised fans.
So what does that say about who this is aimed at? This play is aimed squarely at deeply enfranchised fans who prefer to engage the source material with their brains firmly shut off, people who always accept what the narrative tells them rather than what it shows them. This play is aimed at validating the Goddamned Epilogue, and telling anyone remotely critical of it that alternative realities are not as good. I really do think that’s it. As an example, much ado was made (including by me) of the deathblows this play deals to e.g. the Ron/Hermione ship if you’re thinking through the implications, but it ends up coming down firmly in favour of it and arguing that it’s effectively predestined, part of a perfect world and must not be protested.
[This after even Rowling admitted it was a mistake she should never have written. Seems like she’s retconned that opinion and is back to thinking it’s wonderful. Consistency, what is that?]
Does the play succeed, as something aimed at people who loved everything about the original series? I’ve seen a few people claim to enjoy it on those terms, but it doesn’t seem to have been the most common reaction. Even a lot of people who were not critical of the series, I think, were turned off by the blatant absurdity of the plot in this, and by the character assassination of almost everyone.
Now again, maybe this play is improved somewhat by seeing it in actual theatres. It’s been pointed out many places already that a lot of work goes in between a script and the final performance you see, maybe the actors are rewriting the dialogue to sound more natural, or something. And maybe the “special effects” are seriously impressive, because the play does actually call for a lot of them. I can well imagine appreciating what the tech crew were able to pull off on a stage without necessarily approving of the plot or anything else. (What I have a harder time imagining is choosing to invest the money and resources in pulling off all those effects for such a stupid story.) And there’s also the theory I put forward in my prior post, that, essentially, after the huge downer ending on night one, the relief of seeing the status quo restored may well make the second night’s ending a high note.
I still don’t think you should see it. Or read the script. I read it so you don’t have to. Just try to forget this bullshit exists and get on with your life.
Before I forget…
Some last-minute miscellany. I was asked to look at the cast list and see if there was anything interesting there, and Loten wanted me to do the spell counter.
Firstly, the cast list.
These are the roles that were combined:
Moaning Myrtle and Lily Potter Sr
Uncle Vernon, Severus Snape, and Voldemort (!!! seriously?)
Hagrid and the Sorting Hat (again, why is someone playing the Sorting Hat)
Aunt Petunia, Madam Hooch, and Dolores Umbridge
Amos Diggory and Albus Dumbledore (again, seriously?)
Trolley Witch and Professor McGonagall
Cedric Diggory, James Potter Jr and James Potter Sr
Dudley Dursley, Karl Jenkins and Viktor Krum (these people aren’t built remotely the same!)
Rose Granger-Weasley and Young Hermione
[Okay most of these are very silly. Vernon’s the size of Snape and Voldemort combined. Umbridge is shorter and wider than Petunia or Hooch (and why was Madam Hooch even in this?) Krum and Dudley are also very different. The notion of Hagrid (presumably not actual size) being a hat is quite funny though, and McGonagall being a weird child-attacking monster works worryingly well.]
Young Harry is played by six different people, I guess so he can appear different ages in different flashbacks?
Lily Potter Jr, likewise, is played by three different people. I didn’t even realise she appeared on stage that many times.
Craig Bowker Jr, despite appearing in all of two scenes before he gets killed, has a unique actor. Bane, the centaur, who appears in exactly one scene, has a unique actor (though he’s also credited as Movement Captain later, so I think if anything this is more of a prominent crewperson getting a cameo). The stationmaster, who appears in exactly one scene and has barely any lines, has a unique actor.
I don’t really think I have any special insights from this, but perhaps someone will find this information interesting.
And the spell counter. Here are the results:
Delphi – 16
Draco – 13
Albus – 10
Harry – 9
Hermione – 5
Ginny – 4
Scorpius – 4
Cedric – 4
Snape – 3
Ron – 3
Trolley Witch – 2
Voldemort – 2
(Total = 75)
Honestly, there’s not much to remark on there. Some of this was a little ambiguous, there were some nonverbal things I chose to count as spells, and likewise a few attempts at spells that were cut off that I chose to still count (and on a couple of occasions, lots of people casting the same spell at the same time, which gave all of them a point each). I’m not sure if this actually tells us anything; there were actually a lot of spells cast in this.
Delphi, Draco and Harry have their counts inflated by participating in duels (although Harry somehow manages fewer spells than either despite being the one involved in both of those duels…). Cedric appears for one brief scene and does four spells in it. Snape is present only in three scenes in the alternate timeline, and manages three spells. The Trolley Witch and Voldemort are effectively present in only a single scene each, but manage two spells each (yes, that’s two for Voldemort also; apparently they only showed him killing James and Lily, not casting the third spell at Harry). Professor McGonagall is not on the list because she never does a single spell the entire play.
Delphi won the spell count despite not using magic at all until late in act three. Once she decides to reveal she’s evil, she starts spamming all over the place.
I found it odd Albus did so many more spells than Scorpius, despite Scorpius being present in more of the play (particularly the “bad timeline” when Albus doesn’t exist, but he does no spells in the bad timeline).
Make of that what you will.
[It’s a lot more than I was expecting. I suspect that’s going to be close to the entire spell count for at least half the canon series. Good to know Harry continues to suck magically, though.]