I was lucky enough to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child last week. I enjoyed it. The music was immersive. The acting, as far as I can tell, was spot on. The use of space and the movement used to transition through it added to the entire production, instead of detracting from it. The effects were not magical, yet they did make me feel as if I was in a different world. But as Livy says, “Men feel the good less intensely than the bad”, so I’d like to share my primary gripe: the story. And to to do that it is necessary to go back in time, to revisit the second volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.
The following passage is from a part of the book where Proust’s narrator discusses the virtues of Bergotte, a writer he admires.
“These young Bergottes—the future writer and his brothers and sisters—were doubtless in no way superior, far from it, to other young people, more refined, more intellectual than themselves, who found the Bergottes rather noisy, not to say a trifle vulgar, irritating in their witticisms which characterised the tone, at once pretentious and asinine, of the household. But genius, and even great talent, springs less from seeds of intellect and social refinement superior to those of other people than from the faculty of transforming and transposing them. To heat a liquid with an electric lamp requires not the strongest lamp possible, but one of which the current can cease to illuminate, can be diverted so as to give heat instead of light. To mount the skies it is not necessary to have the most powerful of motors, one must have a motor which, instead of continuing to run along the earth’s surface, intersecting with a vertical line the horizontal which it began by following, is capable of converting its speed into lifting power. Similarly, the men who produce works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is the most brilliant or their culture the most extensive, but those who have had the power, ceasing suddenly to live only for themselves, to transform their personality into a sort of mirror, in such a way that their life, however mediocre it may be socially and even, in a sense, intellectually, is reflected by it, genius consisting in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected.”
Proust says that genius consists in “reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected.”—this holds the key to my (minor) discontent concerning Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
J.K. Rowling has said that the story of Harry Potter began on a train, with the image of the Boy Who Lived. From there, she has said, it all began to unfold. She’s also been known as a rather intricate plotter…
The above represents just a small slice of The Order of the Phoenix’s plot. Replicate similar structures across seven books, and add to that Rowling’s tendency to flesh out detailed character back-stories, and it becomes clear that Rowling has put a lot of herself into the seven books that make up the Harry Potter series.
Contrast this vast but mostly individual effort with the words from the beginning of the Cursed Child’s program. It begins with “A welcome message from J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany” which says:
“The three of us had our first momentous meeting about five years ago, just after Sonia Friedman and Colin Callender had proposed the idea of bringing Harry Potter to the stage. Acclaimed producers on both sides of the Atlantic, they didn’t want to produce a musical or an adaptation of the films or books; rather they suggested that a play would be a wonderful way to explore what had become of the ‘boy who lived under the stairs’.
Jo already had ideas about Harry and his world after leaving Hogwarts, as an adult and a father, and she became intrigued by how theatre could bring his story to life in a different way.”
Rowling had, naturally, shown interest in what came after the end of The Deathly Hallows, but that interest had never been enough to inspire her to put pen to paper and take up the story once again. And I think that shows in the Cursed Child.
It’s possible to split a story into four elements: characters, world, events and narration. “Characters” is the cast of beings that feature in the story. “World” is the time, space and culture that the characters exist in. “Events” are what happens to the characters and their world. “Narration” is how these three things are portrayed to the audience. Until now, I’ve considered this a relatively inclusive framework—every possible thing about a story fits under one of those headings. Except authorial intent.
In my mind, authorial intent is something akin to Proust’s “reflecting power”, but it includes something different, too. Authorial intent is a quality whose potency is felt on some non-conscious level by an audience member. It has to do with the purity of an executed vision. It is what makes a seemingly mediocre story—in terms of it characters, world, events and narration—strike right through to the soul. Its absence is what makes a story with incredible characters, an immersive world, an ingenious plot and deft narration feel limp and lifeless on a deep level. And it is, for me, the difference between The Cursed Child and the seven-part Harry Potter series.