Magic Old and Out-of-Sync? A Review and Defense of ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Play’


Beware, my fellow Muggle friend
Of what you’ll see and hear below
For if the play you haven’t read
A simple curse for you awaits
I spill the beans and spoil the fun
The mystery’ll be gone, the magic there’ll be none. 

I did not particularly like it. And apparently, many others didn’t too. But as I thought about and wrote this review, I realized that in not liking the play, I failed to listen to its lesson: that love means accepting people for who they are, not who they could be or who they want to be.

Similarly, loving Harry and his adventures, including the latest one in this play, means accepting him and his friends for who they are. Love for the series should not blind us to the fact that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child deserves love from us, just as much as Albus Severus Potter does, and in the way most beneficial to him, not for Harry.

Like many fans, we read this play with happy memories and great expectations created by the seven books. Reading the series from the Sorcerer’s Stone to Deathly Hallows was such a spellbinding experience that the Cursed Child understandably falls short of our expectations. Though there are scenes in the play echoing the novels — Harry and Ron’s Ford Anglia ride and Albus and Scorpius’ escape from the Hogwarts Express; and Harry and Draco’s brief duel, among others — it’s just not like the typical Harry Potter narrative that we’ve come to know and love.

First, there really are many jarring encounters in the play, which are so unbecoming of our characters. First is the idea of Harry talking down, threatening, and even bossing Minerva McGonagall around; even the portrait of Albus Dumbledore gets a share of the blame and a talking down; Draco Malfoy taking orders from and working with Hermione Granger; Harry’s son being Sorted into Slytherin; two Slytherin boys who turn out be the heroes, so unlike the fate of others from their House who became Death Eaters; a Potter and a Malfoy being best friends; and lastly, Voldemort shagging Bellatrix Lestrange. It’s really hard for me to picture Lord Voldemort having sex. I would have thought that in his quest for power, and in his loneliness and hatred, he had no time for such mundane matters. And as Dumbledore said, Tom Riddle is incapable of love. So his making love seems rather unusual and unnerving, to say the least.

Second, this is a play, and thus cannot be compared to a/the novels. As a piece of theater, the play does not have the time and luxury to build up the suspense, sympathy, emotion, exposition in ways made the Harry Potter novels effective storytelling. It’s true that the play feels like it’s just one scene after another; we are not given enough time to relish events and dwell on them the way we could in a novel. But then again, this is us expecting the Cursed Child to be just like the novels.  A cursed play if ever there was one, to live under so much expectation. Yet also, perhaps more importantly, the full magic of the play cannot be felt by reading it; it has to be performed and seen, what with all the effects that a West End or a Broadway production can create, to be really appreciated.

Third, we’ve changed. As simple as that. Perhaps we’ve grown older and wiser, and perhaps more cynical and less enchanted. Maybe our Muggle tastes and interests have shifted a bit as well, so much so that Harry Potter does not excite many of us the way it used to. I did not even know that the Cursed Child would be coming out last week. When Books 5, 6, and 7 came out, we were in front of the book store first thing in the morning of release day. And I still remember. Book 5 came out on 21 June 2003; Book 6, 16 July 2005; and Book 7 (this one, I forgot). 

Third, Harry, Hermione, Ron, and the others have changed too. After over years, we cannot expect them to behave the same as they did in the books. After all, Hermione’s the Minister of Magic, and Harry’s the Head of Magical Law Enforcement.

But this litany of disjunctures does not simply pertain to our feelings about the play; the gap between past and present, and the clashing expectations between different people lie at the heart of the narrative itself. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child involves a lot of time traveling, where we take little trip down memory lane as we revisit old scenes (the Triwizard Tournament, etc.). More importantly, the time traveling reveals the contrast between what actually happened (in the seven books) and what might or could have been.

The disjunction between past and present, and the desire to heal the rift, is of course brought about by an inability to accept the latter. This holds true for at least three people: Albus Potter, Delphi Riddle, and Harry Potter himself. Albus Potter struggles with the weight and legacy of his famous father; they have a complicated relationship, to say the least. A conflict between the two partly sparks the near-crisis that everyone averts in the end. Albus teams up with his best friend Scorpius Malfoy to steal a Time Turner so that they could change the past and thus remedy the present. At one point, they had met Amos Diggory,  and moved by his loneliness and bitterness because of Cedric’s death, the boys want to go back in time to save him. In the meantime, Delphi Riddle is the hitherto unknown daughter of Lord Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange. As a Dark Wizard herself, she wants to resurrect Voldemort by going back in time, to Halloween 1981, to prevent Voldemort from attempting to kill Harry.

Delphi almost succeeds because of Albus and Scorpius’ escapade to steal the Time-Turner. She initially befriends the two boys, and during one of their (the two boys) time-traveling adventures, gets hold of the Time Turner and reveals who she really is and what she wants. At any rate, Albus and Scorpius’ journeys through time and interfere therein finds them in different scenarios, all of which failed to save Cedric. In one instance, they time-travel to an era where Voldemort did not die at the Battle of Hogwarts,  Harry Potter was dead, and where Hermione, Ron, and Severus Snape led the rebellion; where Cedric became a Death Eater; and where Ron and Hermione did not end up together.  

Basically, the lesson is: Remember, but don’t mess with time. Get in touch with your past, accept it, even its pains. Only then can you move on.

This acceptance also has to do with love, the central concept in the Harry Potter novels, the key emotion to defeating Lord Voldemort. In this case, Harry and his son, Albus have a fraught relationship, where at one point Harry says that he wished he could have had a better son (Or something to that effect). Later in the play, we hear Harry confess that he was blinded by his love for James, and this helped strain their relationship, just as Dumbledore was blinded by his love for Harry and hurt him unintentionally. The conflict between father and son is resolved just as the struggle against the Dark Wizard ends. Harry and Albus reconcile and reconnect (across time, if I may add) and learn to accept, and thus love each one another properly and healthily.

Thus is how the acceptance of the past, of one another is a core lesson of the book. And that, I think, goes as well for our relationship with the Harry Potter series, both the seven-novel series, and this play. I do agree that I really wanted a novel, and that it’s just not the same Harry Potter story that we used to know; but it’s still a Harry Potter story. And just as Harry and Albus have to accept each other and learn from their mistakes, so too do we need to accept this play and love it for what it is. We can’t change the present (having the Cursed Child) by figuratively going back in time to pattern it after the past (remembering the magic of the novels). After all, “if you truly loved Harry Potter, really loved her, then you know the way forward.”

Reactionary Form, Revolutionary Criticism: Taking Pop Culture Seriously

Philippine telenovelas have been, as a genre, denounced and then ignored as wishful thinking, classless, and poor taste; it doesn’t empower the poor, and so on. But because of, among other things, the erasure of the boundaries between high and low culture, some scholars have treated telenovelas, and other forms of popular culture, with all the seriousness that had previously been given to, say, the greats and classics of literature.

The academic study of popular literature in the Philippines was given great impetus and direction by Soledad Reyes and other scholars who did related work on folklore, popular theater,  indigenous psychology, and the like. Today, this sympathetic but serious criticism of popular culture carries on in the work of, among others, Rolando Tolentino (media, etc.), Louie Jon Sanchez (teleseryes), and the contributors to the former’s edited volume on popular culture. Their works have done much to advance the study of and our appreciation of popular culture.

I see myself in this scholarly tradition, and I agree that any radical and progressive should take popular culture seriously, not dismiss it out of hand. It is ironic for people to espouse democratic ideals while dismissing other people’s taste in entertainment and media. A truly radical, progressive, and even revolutionary politics must come to terms with popular culture, and some of its practitioners must set aside their views of it as crass and jologs.

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Deck of Cards, Pile of Books: Biographies and the Art of Living

whats-your-playFate hands each of us a deck of cards, and we call it Life. Throughout our days, we discard some and add others; and we reshuffle the deck from time to time. Certainly, we have a semblance of control, but no amount of discarding, adding, and reshuffling will change the fact that at any given point, we are stuck with a specific hand; a particular set of circumstances that come with attendant limits and possibilities. That enable and constrain us in different ways.

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All In The Family: Maids, Migrants, And ‘Mango Brides’

The family is said to be the basic unit of society, but in the Philippines, it is a vital loci of political and economic power. Some families dominate society as political dynasties; others control the economy, and much else besides. Quite several families do both.

The rich, powerful family plays so huge a role in the Philippines that it figures in attempts to imagine, critique, and transform Philippine society. The subject of many scholarly studies (Alfred McCoy’s Anarchy of Families is one), it provides the characters of several Filipino soap operas like Mara Clara and produces the contrabida in many a Filipino action movie.

Read the full commentary @ The Manila Review