Off the page: why the Cursed Child script is bound to disappoint

by Emily Strand

My favorite English teacher in high school used to begin each new Shakespearean play we tackled by 220px-Hw-shakespearerunning into the classroom, shouting, “Off the page and onto the stage!” I still remember the particular gleam in his eye on such days, reserved for the cusp of a Shakespearean work, and how he would creep around the room, carefully selecting people to read the different characters. (Unlike most in the class, I always hoped he’d pick me, as I’d rehearsed them all the night before.) We’d try our best to give voice to the verse, stumbling over the Elizabethan strangeness of it all, our slightly unhinged teacher shouting us down if we dared display insufficient enthusiasm or gravitas.

My teacher may have been unhinged (it’s why I liked him), but his point was coherent, and important. It was that theater is meant to be seen, heard and experienced, not read. One can’t appreciate the impassioned vitriol of a Kate, the joyful mischief of a Puck, or the infuriating inertia of a Hamlet from the flat confines of the printed page, no matter how well-penned.

My teacher’s catch phrase, “Off the page and onto the stage!”, has crossed my mind more than a few times in the lead-up to the release of Jack Thorne’s script of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child this week. More than our host’s fine arguments for why this work may be poised to disappoint, more than the hastily-compiled and unflattering plot summaries anyone can find online, it is this realization of the incompleteness of what we’re receiving in Cursed Child that has kept my own expectations low. We’re Harry Albus and Ginnyreceiving what Louise Freeman rightly described as only about 10% of the magic of the story. We’re receiving a bare-bones skeleton: the flesh, sinew, organs and skin of which, we’re just supposed to imagine from the words on the page, and a handful of cast pictures.

I’ll admit that my imagination is not that good. And as my teacher always suggested, it’s not supposed to be. Plays are meant to be acted, not read. So, to Potter fans, no matter how die-hard, who rush out and purchase their copy of the script on July 31, I say: don’t be disappointed when you don’t like – or perhaps don’t even understand – the so-called “eighth Harry Potter story”.

Now please don’t confuse me with the imaginatively indolent: those who Tolkien said roundly reject fantasy due to their discomfort with the “arresting strangeness” of the genre: those who are too tired, or too preoccupied with the “real world,” or simply too lazy for the hard work of filling in the mental details of what a school of magic or a hobbit might look like. That’s not where I’m coming from. I truly believe that our imaginations are mighty muscles that, if trained to their full potential, will move us a long way toward saving the world. And, as an exercise toward that end, I love the work of supplying the mental images of characters and settings which are foreign to this mundane world in stories like Potter. Even outside the fantasy genre, I love letting my brain make movie versions of the beautiful emotion and the narrative tension to which the words on the page of good stories merely point.

But plays are not supposed to be words on a page. Like liturgy, they are supposed to be enacted, either by us, or by a competent crew of actors, directors and dramaturgists.

Which begs the question: if Cursed Child really is the eighth installment in a very complete, internally interdependent, seven-part series (a bold claim in itself, as John Granger has wisely insisted), a series that so many millions (billions?) of fans lay claim to, then why this medium? Isn’t it necessarily a bit exclusive, even elitist, for what it claims to be?jesus_canaanite_woman

Rowling has tweeted that, once people have seen the play, it will be clear that the theater is the “only proper medium” for Cursed Child. Sadly, her reasoning for this statement will remain a mystery for us Muggles with no access to the work in its intended form. We’re left, as the Syrophoenician woman from the Gospels described it, like dogs beneath the table, snapping up the crumbs that fall from children’s plates. We can only hope that, like the woman, our faith will be rewarded someday. But given what we know about the relative racial and socio-economic exclusivity of Broadway audiences, it’s hard to see how.


  1. Dolores Gordon-Smith says

    About the canon/not canon debate: I like the criteria of CS Lewis, when he was discussing how to determine if a scrap of an ancient text was actually part of a much more famous work. (As if, say, someone found a missing scene from Hamlet or a new bit of Beowulf, for instance.) I think he says this in his Oxford Guide to English Literature.
    Anyway, his acid test was this; does the new material illuminate the existing material? Does it reinforce or shed new light on what we know is there and know to be authentic? If so, and as long as there’s no obvious reason not to accept it, then OK – it’s in.
    So on that criteria, I’d happily accept the Tales of Beedle the Bard, Quidditch through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts (the book, I mean) as canon, but feel awkward about including Cursed Child. Delphine may think she’s got a famous father, but has she? When did the Famous Father actually get down to brass tacks with nutty Bellatrix? And when was Delphine born? Admittedly, Bellatrix hung about Voldemort like a bad smell, but having a baby, even one with a Famous Father, takes a fair old bit of time, and I don’t think she could’ve fitted it in before her date in the Great Hall with Molly Weasley.
    Having said that, there was great rejoicing in the Gordon-Smith household when daughter Jenny managed to get two tickets for The Cursed Child. She’s taking her sister, Lucy, though, not her mother. Shame.

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