Saturday, August 27, 2016
My Level-Headed Attempt At Explaining Why Harry Potter And The Cursed Child Is More Disappointing Than Any Of My Own Cursed Children I May Have Complicated, Distant Familial Relationships With In The Future
By now, those who have long awaited its release have likely read Cursed Child. And by now, overwhelming disappointment has clouded those people’s judgment of a beloved book series and movie franchise. And by now, the apologists have also come to the fore, attempting to defend it, either on the grounds that a play is meant to be seen and not read (much like children themselves, I think), or that it’s really not as bad as people think and to give it a chance.
It sucks that the first piece of theatre I’ve gotten to write about in a while is such a drag-fest, and not a fabulous drag-fest like at LIPS or something, but instead a total drag of a time. But like my title notes, I am attempting to explain this reasonably. I don’t think the negative feedback from those who have read it is entirely misdirected or misguided. I also don’t take anything from those who have found enjoyment in it. For some, simply getting to be back in the world of Harry Potter is enough, and revisiting the characters in some way and form is magic sufficient. But I do think those who were expecting more, who had higher expectations for the result are justified in their disappointment. I agree that something with the depth of Potter should have received a higher threshold of standards.
Three main things work against Harry Potter And The Cursed Child:
- The scenes are short, lack progression, and don’t accumulate value.
Something I find most unfortunate is that I see a lot of criticism leveled at Cursed Child and even some defending it are arguing, “It’s a play!” and this is completely inaccurate. If a story, even in script-form, seems thin and stagnant, that’s not a criticism of plays as opposed to novels. Certainly, a script is far stripped down from the robustness of a novel, but the dynamics of scenes should never be sacrificed. In fact, they should be even more substantial, because that’s all a play has. Those passages in between lines of dialogue in a novel, where we are privy to the inner thoughts of a character, that all has to be conveyed in only dialogue and the abilities of the actor on stage. A script needs to convey as much of that as possible to the actor. Certainly, there is always room for interpretation, but a scene always has a point, and the characters in the scene are supposed to be looking to gain something. So again, reading it may not fully immerse you while reading it as a book would, but don’t mistake that for playwriting. That’s still bad playwriting. That’s poor scene-building.
The basis of drama is a two-person scene. It’s the most straightforward setup in the world. In Cursed Child specifically, the scenes are practically designed to keep our two main characters in conflict, Harry and his son Albus, apart. The two characters don’t grow and change in relation to each other. One could argue that the distance of the relationship is reflected in the make-up of the scenes, which would be fine, but it does nothing to inform their relationship: Albus learns nothing of his father, Harry gains no insight in how to reach his son, nor do the secondary interactions sow mistrust of each other, Albus simply begins to resent his father more, Harry simply begins to distrust his son. But we’ll come back to characters.
As a result of the brevity of these scenes, it makes sense that nothing progresses throughout them. No character “wins” the scene, no characters leave a scene better or worse off because of the action or dialogue that took place during the scene. Now, short scenes are not inherently a problem. The problem here is that in addition to the scenes being short, they also achieve nothing for the characters within. They seem to cut off before deeper conversations emerge, before moments of revelation happen to our characters. Very symptomatic of that therefore, is the scenes should accumulate value but they don’t. Things that happen in previous scenes do not directly have bearing on later scenes. Harry and Albus do not eventually mend their relationships directly from the events of the play. If they did, the pivotal emotional breakthrough would have happened during the gang’s final confrontation with the main villain. Instead, it happens in a wrap-up scene post adventure. Harry and Voldemort apparently cannot kill each other with their given wands because of twin wand cores. Even if you take this as complete bullshit, it at least gives a reason to the proceedings. It also inherently ties Harry and Voldemort to this plot specifically. It can be nobody else because they alone share wand twins. Albus ends up coming in a clutch during the final battle because... he's the smallest and could fit in a grate? So. Nothing to inform us of the relationship, nothing to tie them to the proceedings of the plot around them. So again, I just have to reiterate that plays are not inherently thin in immersion. The problem here is the problem with any story that disappoints: it is still simply bad writing.
- The characters lack motivation or intention for anything they do.
So now we have to address the deeper problem than things not happening, because those “things” are perpetrated by characters who don’t know what they’re doing. I think this could easily be the main issue of the play. A character has to be sympathetic, we have to at least be understanding of the decisions they are making, even if we don’t necessarily agree with them. The problem with so many characters in this piece is that they are doing things for absolutely no reason. Albus’s plan to avoid going to Hogwarts comes completely out of nowhere. From one conversation he overhears he latches on to a very specific event from his father’s past and decides that can fix everything. At this point, we’re still unclear just what he’s trying to prove. I think it’s that he thinks fixing a mistake made by his father will somehow distinguish him from the famous Potter, except that it’s 1) a plan that further intertwines him to his father’s legacy rather than distinguishing him from it, 2) the death of Cedric Diggory was not Harry’s fault, and 3) it’s overall a piss-poor plan full of too many variables that they cannot account for. Even if you buy into the idea that Delphi manipulates the entire thing, it is then her plan that makes absolutely no sense.
I am absolutely willing to believe in large, complicated plans coming together in film or any medium simply because the group is that good and their timing is impeccable. But the work has to be there. There is no reason that Delphi decides to target Amos Diggory. There is no reason that Amos yelling at Harry should be enough to motivate Albus to fix his father’s mistake. Delphi would also have to have known that Albus felt this way about his father, despite only meeting him briefly the very night she accompanies Amos to the Potter house, presumably to carry out this plan in the first place. And this is all the characters. Albus doesn’t give me enough reason to be behind him for his plan. I don’t understand why Harry flies off the rails about a curse, as if he’s the only one in this world who believes in curses. I don’t understand why McGonagall bends to Harry’s irrational wishes under threat of… what, exactly, I don’t know. Malfoy doesn’t give me a reason that he’s chumming around with the trio, and similarly Ron remains largely absent from the proceedings for no real reason.
Aristotle’s elements of tragedy, which get extended to all drama, has a loose hierarchy, listing plot at the top, character second. But honestly, character is tops for me. As long as the characters are characters I care about or are at the very least interesting. Characters doing nothing but talking, as long as they have opinions informed by their background and mutual histories is more interesting to me than boring, uninteresting characters doing something, because that makes me not care about what they’re doing. So a bad plot can easily be saved by good characters, but bad characters will make the plot bad, regardless of how good it was in theory. Cursed Child suffers already from a convoluted, bad plot. But the characters, with motivations unclear or nonexistent, make it infinitely worse. All of them are plot devices moving from one required beat to another simply to fulfill the requirements of a plot that feels predetermined, separate from the characters.
I think that’s one of the effective things that sets apart the Harry Potter books. The plots aren’t simply happening to the characters. They are as much intrinsic to the plot as the plot is to them. If you took out these characters from the play and just replaced them with generic names, it doesn’t change anything. The plot operates independently of the characters and that’s not good, because again, what the characters do and why they do it makes us care about their progress.
What would a real story about Harry Potter and his friends be about 19 years later? I don’t know for sure, but what about Harry’s struggles of remaining relevant, or living up to the reputation he possessed at half his age? What about the progression of the marriage of Ron and Hermione, two characters who seem to have so little in common except that they care deeply for each other? Potter’s relationship to his child is not an inherently bad idea, nor are the specifics of this plot, but it feels forced upon these characters, without getting at the heart of what makes it unique. Why is Harry finding himself unable to relate to Albus? Why does Albus resent Harry so much, despite the fact that it seems Harry has sunken into irrelevance long before Albus came around? What more reason is there for Delphi to try and meet her father, and why does she believe this is the best plan of action? Again, the characters move as dictated by the plot points set before them, not the other way around, which makes for flat, undefined at best, and inconsistent at worst characters.
And speaking of the characters, who are some of these people?
I would say almost everyone is hilariously out of character in this story. What makes it especially sad is that it’s arguably the strongest selling point for a follow-up story based on a beloved franchise. We’d like to see where these characters have developed and grown in the past 19 years since we last saw them. And the answers are disappointing. Harry, despite already having raised two children, is impossibly incapable as a father to his third child. Ginny does no better, offering no help or insight. Ron is reduced to comic relief, it seems they took a cue from movie Ron rather than book Ron. The strong women of the books are similarly reduced to piles of irrationality, with Hermione ineffective as Minister, and McGonagall bending to Harry’s will as Headmistress. Draco sulks with guilt instead of grief over his wife’s death and similar to Harry has no parenting skills. He also shortsells his two schoolyears friends Crabbe and Goyle in an offhanded comment where he confesses he would have much preferred being friends with the power trio of Hogwarts. Dumbledore has an extremely puzzling cameo that’s completely out of line with his character from the books and even the movies. This could perhaps be explained away by a line McGonagall says to Harry, that paintings are not the full person, they are memories and fragments. But even then, a character that was constantly a voice of reason offers wild and unfounded advice to a still-influential Harry, who even after having had 19 years of reflection on how Dumbledore acted, still holds him in as high regard. Even Cedric Diggory, who only appears for a scene, has his memory tainted with a weird exchange between him and Albus and Scorpius.
It’s less indicative of growth and transformation and rings more like a sitcom that has persisted too long, and the characters have become exaggerated, broad caricatures of themselves, shells and shreds of what they used to be. Ron was always a little dopey, here he’s the clown. Hermione could get frazzled, so she’s a shipwreck here, and Harry seems solely based on his most hormonal self from Order Of The Phoenix. And personally, I find Dumbledore and McGonagall to just be straight character assassinations.
- And finally, the plot is messy and convoluted.
And of course, even despite truncated scenes of no substance and paper thin characters, the plot we’re left with is still not anything to write home about. I know other people have said it, but it does read a lot like fan fiction, and fan fiction has its place, certainly. Revisiting existing plot points with a twist can be a fun what-if exercise. That’s the basis of the story here. Albus and Scorpius venture through the Triwizard Tournament events of Goblet Of Fire to keep Cedric Diggory alive. To what end? They set about their plan through the use of a bootleg Time Turner. Let’s put aside the fact that right at the end of the story, Draco Malfoy reveals he had a fully functional Time Turner all along. Put that aside. We know how messy time travel plots can be and how quickly they can unravel. There’s a reason Prisoner of Azkaban is the only time travel story of the original seven books and a reasoning behind Rowling then retroactively destroying every Time Turner in existence to avoid the mess of implications their existence entails. The issue I have with this particular time travel plot is that it prevents any character growth for almost everyone involved. They’re simply playing parts at different points in time, and in some cases, in different timelines. So the interesting implications of Scorpius’ character in the darkest timeline, where he is heralded as a hero of purebloods, is never explored and this character development is irrelevant anyway because it’s in a timeline that doesn’t count. It also alters nothing inherently about the “real” Scorpius, the one we’ve been following throughout the play thus far. With the way the scenes move and end, insightful conversations and meaningful moments are taken away from us because the scene is over. We have to get to the next part.
The inability of the plot to exhibit character growth is exacerbated by the fact that the play still strictly adheres to the timeline of a Hogwarts school year. So our two biggest characters and our main conflict, Harry and Albus, are separated except for sporadic scenes, often taking place the night before Albus goes off for another year to school. Was there are any attempt between the two to mend things during the three months of summer? Apparently not. Something cannot be designated a plothole simply because it happens offstage or offscreen. But a huge problem is that according to the action of the play, nothing happens offstage. The characters exist only in their scenes and remain in stasis while off. There’s nothing wrong with things happening offstage that the audience doesn’t see. It implies that there is life happening in the world of the play outside of what we can see, that there is a larger world outside of the confines of the story. But each scene only builds from the previous scene, which in some cases take place a year apart. That’s incredibly poor planning on the plot. And to reiterate the motivations of the characters, because they seem to lack consistent motivations, the plot itself lacks coherent momentum. Suddenly, we are in the past, and Delphi decides to simply abandon Albus and Scorpius, I guess believing that since they have no clue as to where they are or what Delphi’s intentions are, there is nothing they can do. I still think it’s a hilarious oversight for the daughter of the Dark Lord, who also managed to flawlessly bring this harebrained plan together, anticipating every single choice and idiocy along the way.
Are there good things in the play? The biggest redeeming quality is Scorpius Malfoy. About a quarter of the way in, he gets older and suddenly becomes this excellent, fully realized character. Besides being literally the only one of those in the play, he is a genuinely good character: smart, insecure, funny, and loyal. He’s a little bit uncool, but also quietly confident. I found myself loving Scorpius like I did characters in the original books. Other than that, there is one moment of drama I also was genuinely moved by. During the aforementioned scene where Malfoy confesses to not liking Crabbe and Goyle much, and being jealous of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, Ginny lets the façade fall and confesses the same. Harry is taken aback by this, but Ginny admits that she was also constantly jealous of the close-knit bond of the trio, and it’s a marvelous bit of character development, arguably the most she’s had in eight stories she’s been a part of. That’s wonderful, and should be what the play is serving in general: insight into more sidelined characters, opportunity to develop character dynamics further. What’s so disappointing mostly is that there is so much opportunity squandered and with source material as strong as the seven Harry Potter novels, there really is no reason to come up with such a lackluster plot helmed by poorly written characters.
Obviously, simply reading a script is not a full experience of the play. It has to be seen to be fully enjoyed and critiqued. But that doesn’t mean analysis and criticism of a script by itself is without warrant. I went to school for theatre, we took classes where we analyzed many scripts without ever seeing them. The script can still be judged on the merits of clarity of story, conveyance of character motivation, and quality of lines. Again, not everything can be fully judged, because sometimes things depend on how actors portray characters and deliver lines, or things can be interpreted differently based on staging or a more realized context. Cursed Child lacks these things, the qualities that make a script good. A script that forces those reading it to ask the questions, “What is my character doing?” “Why is my character doing these things?” “How am I supposed to make this moment work as an actor?” but not in an exploratory ‘getting into character’ kind of way, rather in a “Please someone explain to me what’s going on” kind of way, then the scriptwriter has failed to properly convey intentions of the story.
At the conclusion of the story, we’re left with Harry and Albus, their conflict resolved, their relationship on the mend, Harry revises a line he had once said to Albus in the epilogue. “You’re named after two very great men, with very big flaws. And those flaws made them better men.” Really, Harry? Dumbledore’s arrogance and disregard for life and safety and Snape’s unrequited pining and love for a woman that did not love him made them better? No, Harry. It is how Dumbledore continuously sought to be better and threw himself into the fray first to overcome his arrogance, and how Snape chose to protect the one remaining thing on Earth that reminded him of her despite also being reminded by that thing of his childhood tormentors and even going undercover to deceived the most powerful Dark Wizard of all time, for love. Simply, it is not their flaws that made them great. It is how those men chose to confront their flaws and not allow them to define their characters that made them great. Essentially, they are great men despite those flaws. This sums up Cursed Child for me: continuously missing the point.