The problem of the cursed child

I’m seeing a lot of reactions from the theatre world to the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child this past week, and for the most part, these messages are all hugely positive and filled with excitement at the prospect of people, regular, non-theatre people, reading the script for a play. Generally, among the people I’ve seen excited by this, this is the kind of thing I have been seeing:

Yes. It is in fact great that people are reading a play. But the problem is that I don’t actually think that many of them intended to read a play. They went out to read a Harry Potter book and ended up with a play. And now, the backlash follows. Because of the people on my list who are not regular play readers (and there are actually a lot of them on my friend list), the generally feeling is not “Oh wow, is this what a play is? I want to read more!”; no, the general feeling is one of disappointment. And, to be honest, I’m not surprised, because I think the publisher made a huge mistake.

The publisher’s mistake was to treat this like any other Potter book. Advertisements said “Harry Potter Returns” or “The 8th Story, 19 years later” or some variation of those. I heard people I know, huge Potter fans, talking about how excited they were for the new book. And when I mentioned to them that it was the script for the play, they seemed, shocked. Now, I know that the book cover on all the advertisements said “The complete play script”, but some people just didn’t see this. And others, didn’t really know what that meant. Then, the publisher put out the book in hard cover, like they would a novel, like any of the previous Potter books. But what play has been published in hard cover in recent memory (aside form the Complete Works of Shakespeare)?

But none of those are the main failing of this book launch. The main problem is this: a play script isn’t meant to be read like a book. The script for a play is a blueprint for the director, actors, and creative team. By design, a play has spaces that are meant to be filled by the actors and the director. There are choices for the actors to make in interpretation and decisions for the director to make. These choices and decisions help to make up the final product that will be the play. A play script is not meant to be something that you sit and read like you would a novel. That’s not to say that you can’t read a play that way. I can. And I know lots of people who can. But that’s because we’ve learned how to read into a script. And anyone can do it, but it takes a different kind of effort than a novel takes. To read a play script, you have to fill in the blanks. No one will describe how something is being said, you have to do that yourself. You have to imagine how it will look on the stage. You have to imagine the costumes. You have to imagine everything. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t do it, by all means, you should; because once you are able to do that, you will find reading a play script so very satisfying.

I just wish that this was not the introduction that the masses had to reading a script. Because their disappointment is such that they aren’t likely to do so again.