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Love, Reality, and Parenting: The Magic of "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child"

On a late summer night in July 2016, weeks before I became an adult, I found myself reliving a cornerstone of my childhood. Blasting Hamilton in the car, I was on my way to the midnight release party of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Like many fans who rushed out to bookstores and finished the script overnight, I had to grapple with the fact that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was a script, not a book. Just as seeing a performance of Hamlet is different (and often more enjoyable than reading it), the script was simply not the same as seeing Cursed Child live. Yet, what could Jack Thorne do? He could stick with live theatre as the only medium in which to experience Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and receive an overwhelming number of glowing reviews. But consequently, Thorne would be criticized for making a story that is part of a global franchise inaccessible to 99% of fans. For me, I had to accept that I would never get to see a live performance. I shelved the script and planned never to associate with Cursed Child again. However, life has a funny way of working out.

Years since I put down the script for what I thought would be the last time, I found myself at my ninth and final attendance of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. From the time I saw the play live, I was instantly transported to the magical world, which shaped the person I am today. Magic happened before my eyes—owls flew across the stage, people polyjuiced into different characters, and actors disappeared and reappeared in a blink of an eye. I finally understood what the fuss was all about. One might think that seeing over 45 hours of the same play would get repetitive, but theatre is always alive. Unlike film and tv shows, the magic of live theatre is that every performance is different. From covers, slipups, slight changes to line delivery, and everything in between, each time I saw Cursed Child, I noticed something different. Ultimately, the magic of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child lies within its timeless discussion of love, legacies, friendships, and parenting through the captivating medium of live theatre.

What Cursed Child does best is recognize that the original Potter generation (those whose childhood or teenage years fell between 1997-2007) has grown up. There is no need to force happy endings. When you reread the Harry Potter series as an adult, you notice certain aspects you hadn't noticed when reading the series as a child. For example, until I was well past high school age, I didn't realize how young the main heroes were. At the end of the series, they are just over seventeen years old. When you are a child, you think seventeen-year-olds are super old. In reality, when you are seventeen, you are a senior in high school, and you have your entire life ahead of you. The whole Harry Potter series is about kids getting caught up in their elders' war and recruited and forced to fight in it in various capacities. Tiffany and Thorne wanted to address the obvious trauma, reflecting, "we wanted it to be about where Harry was now, and the scars that accompany him from that time. What happens to a kid when they don't have any parental support, and they're entrusted with the world? How do you come out of that with any sense of sanity?"

While the books and play touch upon the importance of connection, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child specifically speaks to the damage caused to children who grow up without love. Sonia Friedman, the plays producer, spoke to The Guardian about the importance of the Cursed Child discussion of Harry's status as an orphan, stating, "The starting point was: how does a 40-year-old man, who's also an orphan and a wizard and one of the world's greatest heroes, how does he do the most basic thing of being a dad when he's had no parenting experience and actually had quite a lot of abuse." Centered around the question of parenting, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child naturally developed into a story about the relationship Harry has with his middle child, Albus Severus Potter.

Albus Severus Potter is the central character in this epic two-part five-hour extension of the series' epilogue that acts as a retrospective of the original series. While one might not be the son of the savior of the Wizarding World, everyone can relate to the pressure to live up to your family's expectations. Everyone has had feelings of being an outsider, even if you belong to a loving community such as your family. Through Albus' character arc in the play, Cursed Child explores how the past and its darkest moments shape our present. It's about learning to deal with its impact instead of trying to erase it. As reviewer Siddhant Adlakha points out, "perhaps the play’s most ingenious device, one that feels like a sour dose of reality, is the movement away from love as a magical abstraction. Rather than a betrayal of the original themes, Cursed Child expands on them in touching and even profound ways through the love between fathers and sons."

The Cursed Child funnels the themes of the overall series through a realistic filter, forcing both Harry and its readers to go beyond the simple notions of unity and tolerance. In other words, it forces its readers to grow up. Take Cursed Child's "alternative view" of Hogwarts, for example. Hogwarts to Harry was an escape from the abusive Durselys, but to Albus, it's the place where his bullies live. Thorne expands on this, explaining, "I wanted to get into what it's like at Hogwarts when you don't fit in." It is clear that Cursed Child aims to expand on the established themes of the series, but this time, there is no sugar coating allowed. Simply put, everything that Harry felt and experienced regarding Hogwarts, Albus feels the opposite. One small but representative example is the Hogwarts Express Trolley Witch. What was once a friendly train employee who brought sweets to Harry and his friends on their way to school, turns into an actual demon who will do whatever it takes to force Albus and Scorpius to travel to Hogwarts.

At the heart of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is the relationship between Albus and Harry. Albus is resentful of his father and thinks Harry is perfect in every way. The resentment is the driving force behind Albus' choice to steal a time turner and go back to the events of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to try to save Cedric Diggory. The choice is the inciting event of the entire play. Albus is obsessed with saving Cedric because Albus overhears Cedric's father Amos talking with Harry. Cedric's father is still, after all these years, devastated by his son's death. Amos is a father who loves his son, which is something Albus does not feel from Harry.

Harry’s struggle to express specific love to Albus is something he would rightly struggle with due to years of feeling unloved by the Dursleys. However, Albus does not understand early childhood developmental psychology. Albus convinces himself that he has to save Cedric. The creators of Cursed Child chose Cedric instead of Fred, Remus, Tonks, or any other character in Harry's life because Cedric makes sense in the context of what Albus is struggling with. It had to be a death Albus believed Harry was personally responsible for. In that way, going back to save him, Albus could be as heroic as Harry and good enough to be the savior's son. Setting the majority of the story around the events of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire also makes sense on a textual level. As John Tiffany explains, "the story that Jack [Thorne] and I both loved was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. For the first time, the world opens. The characters are maturing, and the world is expanding." Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the turning point of the entire Harry Potter series. Cedric is Harry's first death and is the point in the series where everything changes. Having the play take place in Albus' fourth year as well, Cursed Child developed into a story about "family, loss, what it means to be a father, and what it means to be a child of a very unusual father."

For all its time travel adventures, alternate realities, and magical illusions, the final scene is contrastingly simple. The play's final scene takes place in a graveyard. Among the names on headstones are Sirius, Hedwig, Tonks, Remus, and Cedric. As Tumblr user Philippa Peall remarks, "it's a symbolic setting as Harry is surrounded by the characters who have made sacrifices for him. He is both accepting the title as 'TheBoy Who Lived' and overcoming it. He brings Albus to the graveyard to show his true self to his son."  Harry shows Albus that he is a person who is utterly terrified of being a father. Harry tells Albus of his relationship with Voldemort, the loss of Cedric, and countless others, and all the things he had to learn. Together Harry and Albus say sorry to the people who have died for both of them.

It's also worth noting the props used in the scene. The headstones are suitcases that represent Harry's metaphorical baggage. As Tumblr user Mel explains, "The play is overflowing with suitcases and baggage. Suitcases used as part of the scenery a lot. The Hogwarts Express is made out of the students' trunks. They are a symbol of the past, the things the adult characters have carried with them from the past, the things that now surround their children." In the final scene, Harry and Albus are surrounded by Harry's emotional baggage. The baggage is the enormous weight of being “The Boy Who Lived.” The two talk about how much they are alike and come to terms with it.

Unlike the final pages of The Deathly Hallows, the new play offers neither contentment nor closure. The last line of Deathly Hallows is "all was well." In contrast, the last lines of Cursed Child are Harry telling his son, "I think it's going to be a nice day" with Albus replying, "so do I." The line "all was well" rounds off the seven-book saga, a saga full of the terrors and abuse of war with a perfectly rosy picture. The sharp contrast does not sit well. While it may give everyone warm fuzzy feelings, life doesn't begin with "once upon a time" and end with, "and they all lived happily ever after." As Cursed Child fan Clary on Twitter beautifully observes, "the final line of Cursed Child is Harry teaching his son how to grieve. As the main audience gets older, they become more disillusioned with the final words. The epilogue rings more and more hollow the older we get because we understand that the traumas of life don't disappear. They never leave you, and you can only learn to live with it. Taking life, especially grief and trauma one day at a time, living for that next 'nice day' hits so much closer to reality."

As theatre critic, Siddhant Adlakha expresses, "By dissecting the very nature of the original themes, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child serves as a companion piece to the children's series. It does not reduce the power of love but treats it like a locomotive, one with the potential to derail if the tracks aren't properly laid. It treats paternal love as imperfect, forcing us to confront Harry's flaws as a parent the way he was forced to confront them in his father figures - including and especially his son's two namesakes [Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape]. It treats suffering as a natural part of the human experience, and it posits plowing through the difficulties of loving relationships as part of that very suffering." In other words, by peeling back the layers of the complex original themes, Cursed Child serves as a more mature sequel to the children’s books. The story is aimed at the original generation of Harry Potter fans who are ready for such a discussion.

The creators of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child could have chosen many mediums in which to tell the eighth story, but they chose the stage because they knew the power of live theatre. High schooler Maeve Knepper discusses the power of live theatre, saying, "Art in its simplest and purest form consists of telling a story by mentally and physically transforming something. This process quite literally allows a person to step into another's shoes. The transformation allows us to be more empathetic. Empathy is a fundamental trait that we, as global citizens must be able to demonstrate to truly see another's perspective." The transformative nature of art is at the core of theatre. A play is the art of storytelling in its purest form.

Almost all of the biggest Cursed Child fans agree that seeing Cursed Child on stage as opposed to simply reading the script only positively improved or changed their opinion of the story. In fact, out of the fans, I surveyed most hated the story until seeing it on stage. The fans surveyed have gone to the show multiple times, even once a week. The fact that the biggest Cursed Child fans once hated the script speaks to the power of live theatre. John Tiffany recognized the power of theatre as a storytelling medium. Tiffany emphasized, "I recently found myself saying about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child the movies have green screen, but we have the audience's imagination. All of these people [I've worked with on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child] understand the power of our imagination to enable magic to become real."

In the end, no matter what you take away from Cursed Child, there's nothing better than soaking up the buzz of anticipation as you wait for the lights to dim. I loved watching fellow theatre attendees being utterly entranced or squealing with delight. I reveled in seeing people connect with characters and the story in an emotional way. The audience's reaction to the magic allusion, plot twists, and dialogue demonstrates the power of the imagination that's unique to theatre.

The story's most sobering lessons both inverts and builds on the series' core. Most importantly, Cursed Child teaches audiences that the power of love isn't restricted to the magical world. Love is reaching out to a stranger, a friend, or a family member. Love is sharing your pain, fear, and vulnerabilities. Love is being empathetic and communicating honestly with the people you love, even if they hurt you in the past. Love is taking one day at a time, knowing you will be successful and make huge mistakes but loving yourself anyway. That's a kind of magic you don't need a wand to wield.