Update 9/23/2020: I wrote this a while back, but since then a certain author has fully outed herself (See? Pronouns aren’t that difficult, Rowling, you crybaby) as a misogynistic, transphobic asshat. I feel like if I’m going to be talking about her work, I ought to use the space to promote something more useful, so here’s a link to some U.K. groups that help trans kids:
I would encourage you to donate money to them or another trans UK-based charity instead of feeding money to Rowling.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Act Three
Spoilers: Yes, for this book and the Harry Potter series.
Audience Assumptions: Familiarity with the Harry Potter series.
Star Rating: ****
Part One: What are Stage Directions and How Do they Work?
I’ve mentioned it a few times before, but the poor writing quality in this book is truly astounding. The dialogue is often stilted or unnatural, the jokes are weak and frequently derivative, and the generic plot does little to help matters. However, it’s really the stage directions and descriptions that are the odd ones out here. To impress upon you the absurdity of what theatre-goes may miss, here is a taste of what the script offers to flesh out the scene:
“They are returned from time, at the edge of the woods, and Ron is in a lot of pain. Snape looks around, immediately aware of the mess they’re in.”
“Ron thinks and then does. And the dementors descend and the two are yanked apart. They’re pinned to the ground and then pulled into the air. We watch as a golden-whitish haze is pulled from their bodies. They have their souls sucked from them. And it is terrifying.”
“Harry is in a horrible state. Petrified by what he thinks his dreams are telling him.”
“Scorpius leaves the office of Dolores Umbridge. He is dressed in darker, blacker robes. He has a pensive look on his face. He is aware of danger from all sides and remains coiled and alert throughout.”
Do you know what I love about scripts? They use dialogue to communicate context to the reader. A given line may be delivered in half a hundred ways depending on what the actor and director want it to do. Dialogue is ambiguous, especially when it’s merely written out. That ambiguity fuels discussion, arguments, variable interpretations. Do you imagine we would spend any amount of time thinking about and performing Shakespeare’s works today if they were blunt and immutable?
Of course, too much ambiguity makes dialogue needlessly dense, so as with any writing, ambiguity falls second to basic clarity. Actors, especially for live performances, need to know basic instructions like when to enter or exit the stage, whether they need to bring any props with them, and what the scene preceding their lines should generally look like. Occasionally, stage directions will include general instructions for how an actor should say their line, telling them to interrupt or over-enunciate. Still, any acting direction in the script needs to be functional; vocal directions are usually given when direct dialogue depends on a particular intonation to make sense. Specificity is on the part of the director and performers.
The Cursed Child script is clearly overwritten, especially where the stage directions are concerned, but it also manages to be imprecise to the point where key plot developments are easy to miss. Aside from the general grammatical oddity, one of the script’s most peculiar features is its insistence on using purple adjectives and adverbs. The added description is restrictive to the production team without really adding anything important, and the word choice frequently becomes unintentionally farcical when a word like “angrily” is needlessly tacked onto a moment that already has clear tone. The awkward wording gives the description a voice of its own — specifically, the voice of a drunken baboon that has recently become obsessed with dime romance novels.
Actually, the stage directions in this book are a prime example of why a writer should stick to the fundamentals taught in school unless they know how to break them to make a point. Most of the script could be simplified and easily half of the content cut out without impacting the story. The flow of the descriptions is clearly intended for dramatic and comedic timing, but not only is it ineffective to deliver such punches in the stage directions of a play script, the descriptions are far too short to build up the desired effect anyway.
Such structural choices are more common in film and television scripts, where mood may be communicated to provide guidelines for the many disparate departments of a filmed production, and where the script writer has influence over the cinematography. Viewed as a holdover from a film-style of script writing or even book descriptions, the odd stage directions make a little more sense, even if they remain poorly-written. This is clearly not a film script, though, as it’s too vague.
So what gives?
I’d love to point out one of the writers as the weak link and place all of the blame on them, but the simple truth is that the style of the Cursed Child is an outlier in all of the authors’ portfolios. I’ve searched through some of the scripts written by each of the credited authors, and while their styles are indeed distinct, none of them is outright inept. Rowling is the most verbose of the co-authors and the least experienced with play scripts, but even that is insufficient to explain the short sentences that are nonetheless superfluous and the repetition that plagues the writing style. The Cursed Child ends up living in this desolate valley between film and play script structure, perhaps originally structured as a film script and edited down, or simply written by people whose styles combined to deleterious effect. I would be fascinated to hear an honest account of how this book was written because its surface hints at something much more intricate under the hood, but for now it remains a curiosity. A sad, crude curiosity that will give English teachers nightmares.
Part Two: Even Snape Ships It
If it is possible for a single book to jump the shark (and I think it certainly is), then this series does so precisely at the Part One / Part Two break.
And yet, I kind of like this act more than even the first one. Initially, the goth aesthetic for the dark universe where Voldemort lived instead of Harry is laughable in its desperate attempts to make the audience realize it’s bad. Scorpius is wearing dark, broody robes, and the students torture muggle-borns, muggles are being killed in the streets, Umbridge is in charge, and everyone uses Voldemort’s name as a blessing like how the modern characters use Dumbledore’s. I’m not sure how the visuals in the play come across, but the descriptions emphasize the Nazi aesthetic with fascist iconography and the Nazi eagle replaced with a bird called an augery (which I assume looks just like an eagle). Can you tell this is a bad place, yet?
Ah, but see, here’s the thing — in this world, Scorpius is better off. He’s got a goth nickname and his father is the minister of magic. He’s got older students doing his homework, he’s a favorite of the headmaster, and girls like him (won’t they be disappointed). Scorpius is mortified to learn that his alternate universe self is basically a wizard Nazi, which is an understandable concern, and he utterly fails to blend in. He eventually seeks out Snape, who hasn’t died in this universe, and after convincing Snape that he’s really from a different timeline, Snape takes him to the remainder of Dumbledore’s Army — specifically, Ron and Hermione, but slightly more punk.
This is obviously not a very good plot, and like the rest of the book, it falls into cliche and throws the audience plot twists mainly for the sake of tepid drama. The world it creates isn’t subversive in any way, and the few times it raises somewhat interesting ideas, like when Scorpius confronts his father and they share a moment, more questions are raised that boot the audience from the narrative entirely. The intention of that particular scene is to show that people are complex, as Scorpius’ father still loves him despite aiding a genocidal regime. However, it does so by clumsily trying to explain that Draco isn’t a real wizard Nazi — in fact, he tries to keep wizards from killing muggles and gets the blame when they do. You know, because in twenty years, apparently Voldemort had a change of heart and decided not to mass murder the muggles, I guess? It’s implied that the wizards are still keeping secret, which is doubly perplexing. What does this series honestly think muggles are capable of doing against magic fucking wizards?
Anyway, one of the key problems with this and every Harry Potter book is that it insists that some people are “good” or “bad” completely independent of their actions. Obviously the Scorpius we have here never does anything terrible beyond saying, “For Voldemort and Valor.” Its attempts to alleviate Draco of any responsibility for war crimes make the worst thing he does in the parallel universe being angry at his son. I mean, fuck, Harry Potter has done worse than that. The book continues to insist that Snape, Cedric, Harry, Draco, and Dumbledore are good people despite stated actions that range from manipulation to torture to murder (Draco continues to be the least culpable of this list, by the way, which is just weird given how he’s framed).
While the stated bad people like Umbridge, Voldemort, Bellatrix, and Delphi likewise do terrible things, the only clear marker the books seem to provide to differentiate the good characters from the evil ones is that the evil ones adopt Disney villain aesthetics. I mean, you could suppose that it’s their intentions to hurt people that makes them evil, but then we have Cedric becoming murderous and Harry spying on his kid and using the cruciatus curse in the seventh book… Okay, well maybe it’s love? The protagonists clearly love people while the bad guys don’t. Except of course for Delphi, who loves Voldemort, and Bellatrix, who loves Voldemort, and Nagini, who loves Voldemort. Well, the bad guys clearly support eugenic mass murder through their ideals, which is surely an easy way to tell them apart, right? Except for Draco and Snape and Cedric, all of whom are death eaters at one point or another. And kind of Dumbledore in his youth. Also the wizarding world has some inherently problematic ideas when it comes to discriminating against non-magical people. And half-humans. Yeah.
The overgrown tapeworm that is this series’ attempt to reconcile moral ambiguity while also insisting on the existence of moral extremes is a topic for another time. Suffice it to say, if you think about what this particular book is trying to say regarding good versus evil for more than about a minute, you’re going to find yourself in a mess of inconsistency. It inadvertently draws parallels between the good guys and bad guys and asks you to assume that some of them are near-angelic without question. It won’t even let the audience entertain the idea that maybe Dumbledore doesn’t deserve the heaps of praise he receives posthumously, and that worshiping real people is a bad idea in general.
However, I said I liked this act, and clearly the plot and themes are terrible, so what else am I lying about?
This is the first time the book has become somewhat self-aware. Snape is clearly introduced as one of the dozens of excessive cameos, but love him or hate him as a character, his design is nonetheless excellent. It’s nice to have a sarcastic character thrown into the mix again, and while many of Snape’s actions are wholly inconsistent with the character from the original series, enough of his wit and vitriol sticks through to make his performance here enjoyable. His interactions with Ron and Hemione, while of course total bullshit, actually get a few genuinely good laughs and prime comedic timing. While the setup is absurd, more like a fan construct than a legitimate attempt at a cohesive narrative, its setup and delivery work. Even Ron gets a good line here and there.
And, of course, the best part is that Snape totally ships Scorpalbius too. Even he realizes their love for one another. And he hasn’t even met Albus.
It seems largely unintentional, but this is the point where the book seems to understand that it’s a farce and leans into it. Hermione says, “Kiss me!” to Ron, and dementors join in. Umbridge appears out of literally nowhere and fights Snape. Characters decide to go it alone, then everyone else comes along for no discernible reason. Snape is totally chill now for some reason, and best friends with Hermione and Ron (who are at Hogwarts, despite being forty and on the run). This is the sort of thing I kind of hoped this book would be.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. When Scorpius leaves the alternate world, any attempt at depth or nuance, or even self-awareness, dissipates into the void, replaced by the all-consuming maw of Harry Potter.
Part Three: How About Some Casual Murder in Your Fun Family Comedy?
The latter half of the act features Scorpius reuniting with Albus, explaining everything that happened, and life going on as normal, except, whoops, Delphi’s evil and also Voldemort’s daughter. Shocker.
Harry is of course a huge downer and really wasn’t missed as much as I think the authors intended. I was starting to get used to a story that primarily featured the actual protagonists of this book, or at least one of them. When he re-appears, he makes a half-assed apology to Albus where he explains that he had to watch Cedric die, and we should therefore feel sorry for him. Way to not make it about yourself, Harry.
The time-turner goes missing, and to demonstrate just how similar this world is to the evil one, the adults casually mention dredging the lake with the merfolk inside. I understand that magic is a thing, but dredging? Don’t the merfolk have, like, houses and temples? The line makes it sound like they’re asking for permission, not getting help from the merfolk directly.
What’s even better is that the time-turner isn’t even there because, hey, Scorpius has it instead! I guess the merfolk’s houses will be destroyed for nothing! Albus invites Delphi for some goddamn reason and the three of them try to destroy it. Except, of course, Delphi reveals herself to be evil and wants the dark universe back. It turns out that she’s the Augery, a character who was mentioned all of about once in the parallel universe and did nothing. Now that the book has a single person it can pin all of its interpersonal issues on, the story nosedives into a capture-and-rescue ordeal. Delphi takes Albus and Scorpius to the Third Task and they more or less immediately foil her plan. Rather than, for instance, use the time-turner to go back in time and try again, she traps them in the past and decides to go back and stop Voldemort from being defeated by baby Harry in the first place. End of Act Three.
There are a lot of lazy or convoluted or outright incompetent parts of this subplot, not the least of which is that it really doesn’t fit with any of the themes built up over the course of the rest of the play. However, two things stand out to me here.
First, let’s just acknowledge that Cedric Diggory is an asshole. Because the book seems to think he’s heroic; that’s how they portray him as he heads off to complete the Third Task, despite establishing that he’s one bad day away from murdering Neville. The book at no point implies that Cedric ought to be killed or needs to be stopped or taken aside and, for instance, prevented from becoming a wizard Nazi. It takes the approach that if Cedric doesn’t die, a sort of butterfly effect will make the future worse. Except, that’s explicitly not what’s happening here. It’s not like Cedric living leads to a series of unpredictable coincidences means that some death eater ends up killing Neville. Like, no, Cedric himself just up and turns into a murderer because pretty boy made an oopsie in front of a bunch of people. Again, could you not just throw him into a closet instead of publicly humiliating him? And then, presumably, get him a healthy dose of anger therapy?
The second thing to note is how dark this book is, and how that really clashes with the entirety of its tone. For instance, to demonstrate how dire the situation is when Delphi kidnaps Albus and Scorpius, she murders some other kid named Craig. Just out of the blue, literally telling the boys that she’s murdering some kid to prove how dangerous she is. The book is full of little elements like that, from the casual torture of muggle-borns in the dark universe to Hermione, Ron, and Snape all arbitrarily getting their souls sucked out by dementors. These darker elements are taken seriously and contrasted with the extremely lighthearted, even childish tone of the rest of the series.
The book wants to have dramatic character deaths, but the time-turner means it doesn’t have to commit to anything. Because it doesn’t commit, characters never discuss their issues or the things they’ve seen with any conviction or indication that it has a deep impact on them. Albus will occasionally sit down with Scorpius or his father and mention how awful that other world was, but if it has a lasting effect, the book does little to show it. The dramatic moments frequently seem like excuses for special effects, which admittedly sound impressive from a staging perspective, but that serves little use to people reading the script. The story remains unchanged if all of the dark events happen off-stage, and even those that the characters witness are brushed off like enemy combatants in a video game.
The utter lack of stakes begs the question, who the hell is this play for, aside from sad, nostalgic Harry Potter fans who will buy anything? It’s pointlessly grim in a way that will upset the youngest children, while the low stakes and bad jokes won’t likely appeal to anyone older than about four. It’s not for adults who don’t already love Harry Potter, because it relies far too heavily on the franchise and offers too many childish elements to be appealing to an outside observer. (On a side note, though, I would love to see what someone unfamiliar with Harry Potter thinks if The Cursed Child is their first introduction to it.)
Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 3
Aesthetics and Style: 2
Overall Plot: 2