When Time Turns Against Us — The Cursed Child and the Perils of Nostalgia
“Okay, second point — more significant point — we’re going back without any knowledge of whether we can travel back afterwards.”
So says Scorpius Malfoy — son of everyone’s favorite sneering prettyboy Draco Malfoy, perpetually misunderstood antagonist of the Harry Potter series — in the newly released play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The play is a continuation of the now classic Harry Potter story, picking up right at the storybook-perfect epilogue of the final novel The Deathly Hallows. It’s written for the stage by Jack Thorne, but is based on a manuscript written by J.K. Rowling, and is canonical.
It would be news to no one to say that the Harry Potter series is a worldwide phenomenon and source of many cherished memories for the millennial set, especially those of us now in our 20’s. Nostalgia isn’t reserved for any one generation, but it seems to be celebrated particularly strongly in popular culture right now. And so the lifelong Harry Potter audience leapt for joy when news of a continuation of our beloved series was due, ready to crawl back into a familiar world and perhaps relive a bit of the past.
But The Cursed Child is all about how going back to the past means nothing but disaster.
The play centers on Albus Potter, son of Harry, and Scorpius Malfoy, son of Draco. The two make unlikely best friends as the children of two men who have hated each other for most of their lives. In fact, every single character in The Cursed Child is one that is already familiar (Harry, Ron, Hermione, etc.), or directly related to one of the central protagonists or antagonists of the original series.
Already, nothing in the play is exactly new.
Then, to compound the feeling of Déjà vu, the play regularly re-creates scenes from the previous books. This happens sometimes in the form of dreams, but most frequently as time travel.
The central conflict of The Cursed Child is that Albus steals what is believed to be the last existing Time Turner to go back and save Cedric Diggory, the boy who faced Voldemort with Harry Potter and died in The Goblet of Fire. Albus attempts this in order to prove some sense of worth to his father, with whom his relationship strains under the weight of Harry’s celebrity and Albus’s inability or lack of desire to match it. It’s a bit contrived, but so are a lot of the things in the play.
Criticisms aside, what’s most interesting about The Cursed Child is its focus on revisiting the past, and the dangers therein.
Nostalgia is nothing new. Allison Graham traces the origin of the “plague” of nostalgia in American culture to the mid-1970’s in History, Nostalgia, and the Criminality of Popular Culture. However long nostalgia has been a cultural fixation, it’s hard not to feel like it’s been especially potent recently when Buzzfeed repeatedly declares “Only 90’s Kids Will Remember,” Netflix reboots series from not so long ago, Nickelodeon debuts a late-night re-syndication of it’s most popular shows from the 90’s, and the first in an infinite line of new Star Wars films mirrors the original in almost every conceivable way.
But the promise of nostalgia is one that can never be realized. What’s desired is a return to the past, but such a return is impossible without the risk of tainting the original memory.
A friend of mine had a childhood obsession with The Power Rangers. When Netflix picked up the series, he made it his mission to re-watch it, but was quickly dismayed. With his adult eyes, all he could see was how poor the practical effects were. Rather than the immersive world he perceived as a child, he only saw costumes, sets, and bad actors.
What we want is to be able to re-inhabit our childhood states of mind, but we can only revisit memories of the past as our present selves. There is no return to innocence. You can only re-frame the original experience, and risk breaking it in the process.
Once you try to go back, as Scorpius says, you can never really set things back as they once were.
The Cursed Child confronts this problem head-on and seems to warn its readers from expecting too much. Because expect we certainly do.
The cultural impact of “The Boy Who Lived” is impossible to overstate.
The first book in the Harry Potter series, The Philosopher’s Stone (or The Sorcerer’s Stone, if you’re an uncultured American like myself) was published in 1997. The eponymous first film was released in theaters in 2001, drawing in new young readers who devoured the books and washed them down with the subsequent release of each film throughout the 2000’s.
Series finale The Deathly Hallows was published in 2007, but fans of the series were immediately able to re-live their experience of the story with the release of the fifth film, The Order of the Phoenix, that same year. Harry Potter mania was put on additional life support when the final film was split into two parts, with The Deathly Hallows, Part 2 bringing things to a tearful close in 2011.
But the cultural obsession never quite ended.
The original audience grew up. Quidditch appeared as a sport on college campuses in 2005, incorporated in 2010, and continues to grow. Twenty-somethings test their Harry Potter knowledge at pub quizzes, perhaps even drinking actual, alcoholic “butterbeer.” Fans try to insert themselves into the fictional universe at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, or at Harry Potter festivals all over the world.
People were hungry to dive back into their favorite world.
But every time Albus and Scorpius take us back there, to many of the very scenes that have now become iconic — Platform 9 & 3/4, the Triwizard Tournament — everything goes completely wrong. By attempting to revisit the past, they only destroy the perfect world that Rowling had set up throughout the books and at the end of The Deathly Hallows.
The epilogue was everything readers could have wanted. Characters that were supposed to end up together got married, had kids, and the last we see is them being sent off to school and the journey beginning anew. You’re free to imagine them living in bliss because the “happily ever after” story remains both preserved and open to possibilities in those few pages. Anything a reader might imagine would happen in that eternity would be undone by a canonical declaration by the author in the form of another book or in this case, a play.
The Time Turner does just that. When Albus and Scorpius go back, they set off a butterfly effect that, among other things, ends in the separation of Hermione and Ron, the perpetual “will they, won’t they” romance that everyone was rooting for. Even the play suggests it was meant to be, as in all the alternate futures, Ron and Hermione are completely miserable. They only timeline in which they are happy is the true one, that agreed upon by both author and audience.
It doesn’t stop at ending marriages, either. Albus and Scorpius’s Time-Turning exploits go so far as to create an alternate reality in which the protagonists never won, and Voldemort reigns over the entire world. They literally undo the work of the entire series.
Re-visiting the past actually kills Harry Potter.
Eventually, because this is a J.K. Rowling story, everything is set perfectly right again. But the damage done to the canon throughout the book feels almost painful.
This fictional history of the wizarding world is one that feels real to many readers. Fans, like myself, quite literally grew up with these characters. When The Cursed Child revisits those moments we hold so dearly and upends them, it hurts.
We want to revisit the past, but we can’t. The Cursed Child reminds us that we only do so at our own peril.