Spoiler alert: the best happy endings don’t stay happy forever. Frodo destroys the ring, but he has to leave Middle Earth. Orphan Anne of Green Gables becomes a mother to a brood — only to lose her beloved son to the trenches of World War I. Nerdy Meg Murry of A Wrinkle in Time marries Calvin O’Keefe and like Anne, has a big family, but finds herself unable to do the level of scientific work she wants to while her kids feel neglected (feminist note: even female YA characters can’t have it all; Calvin becomes a famous researcher). The Hunger Games’ Katniss — well, where to begin with Katniss? She loses almost everything. Even Luke, Leia, and Han don’t end up merrily dancing with the Ewoks, the new installment of Star Wars informed us us, a decision that felt intrinsically right.
And just as The Force Awakens added a necessary new chapter to the cheesy ending of the Return of the Jedi, the latest addition to the growing Harry Potter canon has done the same. Something always felt off about the way J.K. Rowling wrapped up the seventh and final Harry Potter installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Yes, the body count in the final Battle of Hogwarts was massive, adding to the guilt already weighing heavily on Harry’s shoulders (how many died for The Boy Who Lived?). But then Rowling fast-forwarded us to the future in her much-maligned epilogue, showing all her characters older, married off to their teen sweethearts, and ready for their offspring to attend Hogwarts, the place where so many of their parents’ friends died, or almost died. “All was well,” she assures us unconvincingly, closing the book on a narrative full of anguish and moral ambiguity and sealing it shut with a large dollop of treacle.
I understand why she made this choice; to prevent unauthorized sequels and speculation, she was eager to have the final word on her character’s fates. But the epilogue presented the kind of snug-fitting closure she’d avoided successfully for so many installments. Rowling herself seemed to regret the tidy way she ended the books. After a respectable interval she began to talk, and tweet, and talk about the Potter books. The woman who let not a single spoiler pass through a single lip for over a decade returned to the wizarding world to offer us tidbits from her mind: Dumbledore, gay! Jewish kids at Hogwarts! And she began writing her own fiction, too, set within the Potter universe: A problematic tale of American witches. A new Fantastic Beasts movie, coming soon. And now, this “sequel,” Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a two-part play dazzling critics on London’s West End (with Hermione played by a black actress).
Thankfully, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has added a much-needed coda that reminds us of the original seven book-series’ complex folds and wrinkles. In short: this script’s existence makes the Harry Potter series better. I bought the script in book form on Sunday morning and read it in a day; it’s not a true sequel, since it’s neither a novel nor actually written by Rowling, but it’s her original story through and through, given life by playwright Jack Thorne and imagined onstage by director John Tiffany. The action, which picks up where the epilogue leaves off, bears Rowling’s best storytelling hallmarks: breathless, well-choreographed adventure setpieces, along with chemistry between the original characters, including a few bones thrown to ‘shippers out there in fandom — and fidelity to key details from the novels (book four and its glorious Triwizard tournament, and dark ending, are particularly important to understanding the play.)
The plot hinges on the characters going back and forward in time,and changing the future as Draco’s son Scorpius and Harry’s son Albus attempt to alter history try to save a single life. Anyone who knows anything about time travel plots knows that it’s never that simple, and the ripple effect of history is demonstrated brilliantly as the plot, or plots, unfold. The mechanics here echo Harry and his pals’ journey with a Time-Turner in the third book, which involved their own efforts to rescue a condemned Hippogriff. But the deeper meaning of Harry Potter and The Cursed Child’s series of time-jumping journeys hearkens back to the original trio’s desperate dig through history for Voldemort’s Horcruxes, and their growing understanding of the way evil Voldemort emerged from lonely young Tom Riddle. In its treatment of Harry Potter’s relationship to his younger son Albus Severus, Harry Potter and The Cursed Child reminds us that you can’t be the world’s savior without accumulating baggage on the way.
These weighty explorations of time travel, destiny and moral responsibility will satisfy the sci-fi fan who ponders these questions. But more importantly, the play demonstrates how Harry’s parentless childhood — neglected, underfed, shrouded from his heritage by the odious muggle relatives, the Dursleys — affects his own ability to be a father, particularly when conflict arises at home. To put it bluntly, for the most of the story’s duration, we see our hero being a crappy dad to Albus, who is something of a lovable dweeb.
Anxious, overprotective, even a little bit arrogant, Harry as a father is an archetype, the hero grown middle-aged and blinded by his own experience. But as with the “chosen one” plot that animated his childhood journey, the character’s flirtation with cliché amplifies the pathos of his story. He’s an ass, but you understand why because you remember the time he lost his parents, and then his father figure Sirius, and then his other father figure, Dumbledore, and then his other other father figure, Remus (Rowling sure showed no mercy, and she pointedly takes us back to the seat of Harry’s original trauma in the course of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child events, like a doctrinaire psychoanalyst).
The script’s dialogue is fine, although it lacks Rowling’s particular talent for precise verbal humor (she conceived the plot while her collaborators put the thing together), while the stage directions are so complex and whirling it’s clear that to appreciate the work in full, you kind of have to be there. The reviews of the West End production indicate the effect of the play as performed is far more than the sum of its written parts. (“Under Tiffany’s direction the spell-binding is utterly theatrical, drawing on sleight of hand and Victorian illusions. There are engulfing transformations but also small moments of complete simplicity…” wrote the Guardian.) But those parts are still good enough to be largely satisfying both to Potter fans and beyond.
In fact, the more subtle stuff is so interesting that one wishes there weren’t so many capers and adventures, suspenseful as they are, and the play focused more on an exploration of Harry’s family legacy. I admit I would have loved an or Arthur-Miller style drama that took place entirely in the Potter-Weasley living room, as Harry and his kids hashed it out and slammed doors and waved their wands at each other. When Albus is up sorted into a different house from his family, that he’s best friends with Draco’s kid, that he is something of a disappointment to his peers, and lacks his dad’s facility for broom-riding, the impulse arises in me to tell the authors, “Unpack this! Here’s where it gets uncomfortable: let’s stay there.” They don’t stay there, because the plot moves at breakneck pace through time and space, and I’m sure it’s amazing to behold onstage.
And fortunately Rowling and her collaborators have given us enough to demonstrate that trauma echoes down throughout the generations, even when our characters are as lovable, and beloved, as these famous ones are, and that opens an entire panorama without the aid of any theatrical sets.