When novelist J.K. Rowling, playwright Jack Thorne, and director John Tiffany announced that they were collaborating on a Harry Potter sequel stage play, the idea seemed charmingly old-fashioned. To have a bestselling author decide that the adventures of her beloved hero Harry should be continued as a play, not as a book or film, felt like a throwback to an era when theatre was at the center of pop culture. As it turns out, the resulting play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child—currently selling out on London’s West End, and being mulled for a Broadway transfer, but most available to fans in book form, as a playscript—feels like a throwback in other ways too. In essence, it is a 19th-century melodrama for the 21st century.
In his book-length survey English Melodrama, Michael R. Booth defines melodrama as “extremes of action, farce, morality, character, and emotion in a framework of fast, short, and rapidly changing scenes mounted with a maximum of sensation and scenic effect.” This description certainly characterizes The Cursed Child, which aims to provoke awe and wonderment, tears and gasps. Over the course of four acts and 85 scenes, the play’s heroes constantly wriggle out of scrapes only to find themselves in even greater peril. They are saved by some remarkable coincidences and by the virtues of courage, friendship, love, and loyalty. The poignant wisdom that Dumbledore offers to Harry in the play could also be the motto for any melodrama: “To suffer is as human as to breathe.”
Meanwhile, the script of The Cursed Child makes lavish technical demands: There’s a daring escape from the roof of a moving train, an enchanted bookshelf that attacks people who try to examine its volumes, an underwater scene in the lake at Hogwarts—and that’s just in the first half of the two-part epic. Melodrama means “music-drama,” so it’s appropriate that critics have praised the “light-synthy harmonies” of Imogen Heap’s incidental music, saying that it “leaves you feeling like you’re under some kind of spell.”
And from what I’ve seen of the brickwork and iron arches of Christine Jones’s sets, they’re a direct callback to an era when melodrama flourished: They are inspired by the Victorian Gothic architecture of Kings Cross railway station.
But while 19th-century melodramas often featured supernatural elements like ghosts and curses, they did not tend to be set in an organized fantasy world of witchcraft and wizardry. Among the more amusing things about The Cursed Child is the way it puts a fantasy spin on traditional melodrama tropes. Where earlier playwrights might show characters donning disguises themselves to pull off schemes, for instance, the characters of Cursed Child literally turn themselves into other people by drinking Polyjuice Potion. A villain’s plans can go undetected if she casts a Confundus Charm on the people around her. And rather than merely hissing like an old-fashioned melodrama villain, Voldemort speaks Parseltongue, the language of snakes.
In English Melodrama, Michael Booth delineates the stock characters common to the genre. For instance, the “good old man” is a figure of pathos whose purpose in the play is to lament his misfortunes and praise bygone glories. The Cursed Child provides an excellent example of this type in Amos Diggory, a wheelchair-bound oldster whose grief over the death of his son Cedric sets the plot in motion. In a heartrending speech, Amos asks Harry to use a magical Time-Turner gadget to go back in time, change the past, and save Cedric: “I am an old man—an old dying man—and I am here to ask you—beg you—to help me get him back.”
Meanwhile, the central figures of a melodrama are often a serious-minded young hero and a sidekick, the “comic man.” To wit, The Cursed Child’s leads are moody teen Albus Potter and his lovably goofy friend Scorpius Malfoy. These two characters also fulfill Michael Booth’s observation that in melodrama, the so-called hero is often remarkably ineffectual and requires the comic man to rescue him: At the end of Part One (spoiler alert), Albus meddles with the past and erases himself from existence, so it’s up to Scorpius, now in a nightmare version of the future where Voldemort has won, to restore the correct timeline and with it his friend’s life.
One way The Cursed Child differs from 19th-century melodrama is in the way it treats its female characters. Traditional melodramas place a suffering heroine at the center of the narrative and make her the focus of pathos; according to Michael Booth, the heroine usually suffers more than the hero, but she also bears her trials with more courage and resourcefulness. But modern audiences are likely to see “torture the heroine” playwriting as a kind of misogyny. So if the “proper” role for a woman in melodrama is to suffer, but modern audiences are uncomfortable with gratuitous female victimization, what is a 21st-century melodramatist to do? Perhaps in an attempt to get around this dilemma, The Cursed Child deemphasizes its female characters. This, in turn, has led to sharp criticism from feminist writers, who complain that the complex, active women of the Harry Potter novels have been reduced to “cardboard cutouts” or worse.
After indulging in hours of peril and suffering, melodramas end happily, showing a world restored to order, reassuring audiences that virtue would be rewarded and villains brought to justice. The ending of The Cursed Child functions similarly: It is happy for the characters, and also happy in a more philosophical sense. After using the Time-Turner to create several alternative futures, the characters learn that any attempt to change the past, even if well-intentioned, will only make things worse. As such, The Cursed Child affirms the Panglossian view that this is the “best of all possible worlds.” While Cedric Diggory and many other sympathetic Harry Potter characters die at the villains’ hands, their sacrifices are not in vain. Though they cannot be brought back to life, their memories will live on.
Finally, while The Cursed Child shares melodrama’s emphasis on plot over character, its characters have more of an interior life than the one-dimensional figures of 19th-century melodrama. For instance, Harry Potter is both a self-sacrificing hero and a frustrated bureaucrat who can’t relate to his angsty son. And despite its happy conclusion, the device of the Time-Turner creates ethical questions that lack clear-cut answers. In showing multiple possible futures, the play makes room for doubt and uncertainty to an extent that would be unimaginable in a traditional melodrama. Even the title is ambiguous: Who exactly is the cursed child? And is the curse irrevocable?
Still, The Cursed Child is probably the closest the theatre can come, in 2016, to reviving 19th-century melodrama. Much as Albus and Scorpius do with the Time-Turner, J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany have turned back the clock.