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22 Jun 2024, Edition - 3266, Saturday

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Harry Potter and the mystery of the bestselling play

Covai Post Network


Do plays ever become bestsellers? A few have captured the popular imagination to the extent where the books also sell in large numbers – Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, for instance. Many of us grew up with copies of Christie’s The Mousetrap in our local lending libraries or book collections (I used mine to hide the racy covers of Nancy Drew: Case Files).

We devoured one act plays in textbooks and Shakespeare, as Blackadder reminded us, will haunt schoolchildren till the end of time, but how many of us would walk into a bookstore today and buy Yasmina Reza’s The God of Carnage or Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman for a spot of fun reading? Personally, I guiltily avoid TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral whenever I come across it at bookstores and head towards books by Rainbow Rowell, even though my college professor made that play come alive thanks to her incendiary views on religion.

Plays rarely outsell novels and become mainstream experiences, so maybe this is why JK Rowling is a true wizard. With Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – don’t forget, this is “the special rehearsal script” – she has children, young adults and non-literary folk like programmers, lawyers, engineers and waitresses diving into a completely different genre, only to come out with their curiosity satisfied and their heads messed up. In fact, the book is on its way to becoming the top-selling script of all times.

Not a novel, but so what?

Like most people, I received the news about the new play with enthusiasm. Sure, it was not a novel but, having an MA in English, I was made of play-reading mettle. Also, it was Harry Potter, and while Rowling didn’t write the actual words, I have known Jo long enough (mostly through the books, her awesome Twitter feed and news stories, I will have to admit) to trust that she would never approve any material on Harry Potter without making sure that it merited all our time.

Besides, the casting of the play was creating ripples, with black actor Noma Dumezweni, who was born in Swaziland, playing Hermione. But what interested me the most was that the book was taking some interesting risks with the material. When I read the play, I found out why. In the play, Harry Potter’s son Albus Severus Potter hates him and is best friends with Draco Malfoy’s son, Scorpius.

What might this mean for people like Robert Saulter, a lawyer and a Harry Potter fan, who stood on the pavement in London, waiting for the release of the new book? Saulter, 32, was feeling emotional because Harry’s journey still moved him even as a grown-up, as Harry wanted to do good things in the world.

So, I don’t know if this play tells a story that Saulter wants to read, because Harry does some very problematic things in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Maybe this is why so many of my adult friends had serious issues with the play – they thought that Harry, Hermione and Ron were shadows of their lively selves in the books.

Children are more tolerant

In Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Voldemort is dead and gone, but his memory still infects people’s lives, much in the way the past cripples everyone in The Glass Menagerie. Cursed Child sees the younger generations take the narrative arc in a completely different direction – no wonder the kids are lapping it up.

Eleven-year-old Anirudh Jagannath, for instance, was initially disappointed that the book was a play, but once he started reading it, he was riveted by the plot. Was he surprised that Harry Potter’s son is best friends with his father’s enemy’s son? “No, I thought it was totally normal. I enjoyed how complicated it all was.”

Released as a hardcover, the play is written by John Tiffany and Jack Thorne and looks like a regular Harry Potter book, so much so that angry young fans have been ranting on review sites about how they felt cheated out of a book, even though Rowling expressly said that it was a play based on a story she had written. Many young fans did end up reading the book though, and it has sold very well.

Why read a play?

Back in 2005, I was once a part of an online reading group, with most of its members being based in America and England. I posted a harmless question: “Has anyone read Tennessee Williams’s play, A Streetcar Named Desire?”

The question provoked a volley of responses. “For heaven’s sake!” cried someone. “Has anyone here read Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony? It’s a perfectly possible thing to do. But why, I ask again, would you want to? By definition, plays are designed to be played, with real actors, even amateur ones, playing the parts, and watched by an audience.”

Being a college girl in Chennai in the pre-YouTube era, who did not live 45 minutes from Broadway, I could not get his point. So I went to my library and read Edward Albee’s Why Read Plays. Albee was of the opinion that we should read all genres, because if we do, we can exercise this superpower called parallelism – we can connect genres or mediums to get a broader perspective of things. Maybe even talk to aliens. Okay, this was not quite how he put it but I found it amazing.

Fifteen-year-old Arya does this on a regular basis. With a background in theatre, she reads plays frequently. She also follows an interesting Harry Potter tradition at home. Ever since the first book came out, she and her mother read them out loud to each other. One of them would start reading it out loud, while the other would be in the kitchen or doing the housework. They read out books by other authors like PG Wodehouse and Bill Bryson too, but Harry Potter has a special place in their hearts.

Arya loved Harry Potter and the Cursed Child so much that she even thought that the stage directions, with words like “kerfuffle” in them, read like narratives. “Reading it all out was fun.”

Fifteen-year-old Priya Srinivas was sceptical about how the play started, but found herself glued to the page once the action kicked off. “My classmates and I wish we had this play instead of Shakespeare in school. We wish schools would have children acting out plays instead of reading it as texts, but they do not do that.”

How indeed is drama taught in school? Aparna Raman, founder of Timbuktoo Publishing, publishes books written by children and has also taught in schools in Bangalore. “Teaching drama is surreal in a sense, because we are getting into the playwright’s head, in a way. I once played Peter Brooks’s Mahabharata for the children and they were amazed. I also think that my generation read a lot of plays. Drama certainly takes us outside our comfort zones, so it is interesting to see a popular series like Harry Potter do the same.”

The excitement of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child comes close to what my father tells me about his youth and how he loved reading Kannada plays like Hutthadalli Huttha by TP Kailasam. These plays would be released in small editions and they were so engrossing that he would fight with his brother and sisters to read them first.

Eleven years after I read Albee’s Why Read Plays, Rowling has signalled a change in the rubric. Does this mean that we will all follow Albee’s advice? Probably not, but this is a literary kerfuffle that is worth its weight in Gringotts gold.

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