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What’s the Point of a ‘Harry Potter’ Play?

J.K. Rowling has more in common with Marvel and ‘Star Wars’ than you might think

Ringer illustration/Getty Images
Ringer illustration/Getty Images

Note to readers: This piece contains spoilers for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

In the almost 20 years since the first book in the series was released, the Harry Potter universe has grown to Milky Way proportions: It comprises the core novels, the movies, Pottermore (the “digital publishing, e-commerce, entertainment and news company” to which J.K. Rowling herself contributes Potter-adjacent material), three entire theme parks — and now, a play.

That play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, recently premiered in London; Rowling cocreated the story, sharing the credit with writer Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany. To the vast majority of the reading public, though, Cursed Child is actually the bound script that was released at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, thereby enabling us to cosplay our childhoods and go through the motions of trivia contests and 24-hour reading binges. And, bluntly: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is not very good. It’s cheesy and clumsy; future generations of unlucky actors will have to deliver the line “My geekness is a-quivering” with a semistraight face.

But it also marks Harry Potter’s transition into a franchise long-lived and multifaceted enough to have a relationship with itself. In some ways, Rowling anticipated the rise of the ever-expanding fictional universe. Her first extra-textual proclamation (that Dumbledore is definitely, totally into dudes) was handed down in 2007, before Iron Man hit theaters and jump-started Marvel’s colossal cinematic universe. Meanwhile in fantasyland, George R.R. Martin was churning out books, a TV show (or two?) and assorted hints at yet-to-come novels. Nearly 10 years later, Martin is still writing, and Rowling’s fiefdom is approaching Marvel levels of complexity and internal diversity.

So where, exactly, does Cursed Child fit in?

The action picks up almost exactly where Deathly Hallows infamously saccharine epilogue left off: Harry and Ginny are sending their middle child, Albus Severus, off to Hogwarts, thereby passing off the protagonist’s baton to a new generation. Albus Severus is Not Like His Dad — he’s socially awkward, can’t even get his broom off the ground, and he’s in Slytherin. This is literally the story of someone grappling with the legacy of Harry Potter, and by extension, Harry Potter.

That someone, of course, could be Rowling herself, who now swears she’s done with Harry’s story. But that statement only holds water if you discount much of her past and future work: the upcoming prequel movie, the companion books, and the reams of raw mythology she’s still uploading to Pottermore. Despite her assertions to the contrary, Rowling is continually engaging with her most iconic creation, and it’s easy to see the overlap between Albus’s struggle to create an identity independent of his family name and Rowling’s own ambivalence toward her creation.

Albus is a stand-in for more than just his author, though. In a practically sci-fi framing device, the magical force in Cursed Child isn’t spells or Horcruxes. It’s time travel, wherein the Potterverse’s latest McGuffin — a bootleg Time-Turner that goes back years instead of hours — allows both Albus and the reader to revisit a highlight reel of his father’s past, from the Triwizard Tournament to the death of Harry’s parents.

The enthusiasm around Cursed Child’s release was fueled by our desire to relive the excitement of the original. That the play itself is basically about that desire reads like the ultimate act of fan service. It’s the most literal possible version of what so many reboots, sequels, and franchise extensions strain for: going straight back to the wellspring of nostalgia, and the popularity that comes with it. The modern Star Trek movies have Spock and Kirk recreate a flipped version of their most famous scene; Ghostbusters may be girls now, but they’re still busting ghosts. Cursed Child doesn’t even bother with the reenactment, instead bringing its heroes back in time and straight to the source.

To wit: Every one of its characters is either directly related to a Potter principal, or simply is one. (Albus’s best friend isn’t just another social outcast; he’s Draco Malfoy’s son, Scorpius.) And while I’ll refrain from spoiling the identity of the villain, I will say it exemplifies the Olympic-level backflips required to make sure Cursed Child can inherit as much emotional investment from the books as possible.

Cursed Child shares this strategy with yet another franchise, one that also recently returned to the spotlight after some time on the sidelines. Like Harry Potter, Star Wars began as the product of a singular voice, and then expanded into novels, comics, and yes, fan fiction. And like Harry Potter, both Star Wars’ source material and its ephemera have created a practically infinite universe, one that could theoretically hold an infinite number of stories. But when it really counts, both properties fall back on their true core: not the worlds they’ve built, but the characters who populate them — or, failing that, those characters’ children.

Cursed Child does this less successfully than The Force Awakens. Then again, it doesn’t really matter. Backed by Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in the fall, an ever-expanding online database, and those theme parks, Cursed Child isn’t tasked with the same kind of heavy lifting as a box office workhorse, either financially or tonally. There’s no pressure to deliver on visual wonder when the special effects … wizards can deliver that at the multiplex, or even in person. And thanks to Pottermore and Rowling’s Twitter account, continually updated with authoritative pronouncements on all things Potter, the play is even relieved of having to add much to our understanding of the wizarding world; if it’s straight information we want, we can go elsewhere.

Liberated from these responsibilities, Cursed Child strips down to emotion and little else. The play is an exercise in pure sentiment, filled with speeches on the power of friendship, the parent-child bond, and true love. It’s a very narrow slice of the Potter appeal, but, unlike the first time around, Rowling isn’t flying solo. She doesn’t have to: She’s got a whole universe to fall back on.