Sunday, November 13, 2016

Hufflepuff Reinterpretted

Elektra Theatre in New York is putting on a comedy piece called "Puffs" which is the story of the Harry Potter years at Hogwarts, told from the perspective of Hufflepuff students, or in this very unlicensed script, the "Puffs", alongside the other houses "Brave, Smart, and Snake."

If you're going to see it, this review contains some spoilers, though honestly there can't be that much to spoil given your knowledge of the books and basic narrative structure.

So what is a Puff?

So in traditional Hogwarts fandom, each of the houses stands for a different but valuable trait. This sort of feudal diversity of powers is what makes them such a compelling mapping scheme, and is a constant theme in many fantasy novels and genre fic. In that schema, Hufflepuff is the house of loyalty and friendship and community - or sometimes the stubbornness of a badger. This is not at all consistent in the novels (leading to the oft-commented observation that the three main kids - Harry, Hermione, Ron - would be ideal representatives of three different houses - Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff respectively - with Malfoy rounding out the four) but that's just why the sorting hat has such a hard time deciding; kids can't be grouped into just one personality trait.

So you'd expect this play would be about the house of friendship and loyalty. The Puffs of Puffs... are not that. They are not particularly loyal and kind or hardworking and stubborn. They do not epitomize any ideal trait at all. This may be disappointing to Potter fans.

Instead they are the house of losing. They are the house kids beg to not go into and are devastated to find out they've been sorted into. They are the house identified by getting fourth place every year. Puffs becomes a pratfall comedy that laughs at the many failures of its students, which quickly gets painful. Which gives the whole play a feeling closer to "Animal House" than anything else (without an intense rivalry with either the administration or any other house. They are just sad.)

In the end, we see the story of Helga Hufflepuff saying she will take all the leftover kids. That's the founding of their house. The play even works Cedric Diggory in wonderfully, making him the shining star of the house, and legitimately competent at many aspects of being a wizard. And the play tells us, even when you are actually better skilled, harder working, and more meritorious than Harry Potter, you will still lose and die a pointless death, because this is his story and not yours.

Be it in stories or life, there's the upper class with more advantages, or just more protagonism, and there's the rest of you who will get bullied, used as cannon fodder, and take last place. The Puffs. The proletariat. Puffs is the lower class house.

And once you accept that, the play gets legitimately uplifting. It says there is joy in failure (Cedric explains to the main character Wayne how their failure lets them get more practice and understanding.)

The most important moment of the play is when one of the character's mother, who is a devotee of Lord Voldemort, invades the school to spring her daughter (a goth Snake-wannabe who bitterly lamented her Hufflepuff status) and kill her daughters friends. Her daughter refuses to kill her friends, so the evil mother is going to curse all three of them... and she can't. She literally can not pronounce the Avada Kedavra curse correctly, until the daughter can escape and realizes her mother is a Puff just like her, full of innocuous failure. She shows her mother how to use Avada Kedrava, and she promptly accidentally kills a Death Eater ally. "That's it? That was easy! That was... way too easy" as she looks in horror at her wand which can end a life in five syllables.

That's wizarding in a nutshell. It's so easy to cause pain and death with the massive power they've been handed, that the few who can't pull it off reliably are the much more moral, and happier, for it.

There's also some cute nuance, in that Wayne keeps encountering Harry when he's in a bad mood, and they bond a little over hating the world and being angsty teenagers. Wayne could strike up a friendship here, but is too full of bitterness at his lot in life to do anything with it. Sometimes the proletariat let their bitterness overwhelm them from experiencing what unity they could with their upper-class brothers, who are not really happy themselves, but it's an understandable, tragic antipathy.

In the end, the main character dies, and meets Dumbledore, who's expecting to talk to Harry (this being the end of Book 7). Wayne laments how Harry has always upstaged him in everything, now even his own death, and this is the shitty lot of the underclass Puffs. It's a cry on behalf of every background extra and sidekick in fiction. Dumbledore explains that yes, if you only take that perspective it sucks, but there's always another perspective, and always a way of looking at it where you're the hero. Everyone is the hero sometimes, and scenery to another person's story sometimes. It's an important message for anyone who feels left behind or forgotten.

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