Bonus Chapter from “The Life and Lies of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore”: “Headmaster of the Puffs”
by MuggleNet · Published · Updated
“Another year gone! And what a year it has been!” So said the subject of my book, The Life and Lies of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore. The book in question was published exactly one year ago as I write this, on July 31, 2018. Since I’m a sentimental sort (when I’m not, y’know, riling people and being controversial), I wanted to do something special for the anniversary.
Unrelated, this coming month – August 18 – will see the end of the Off-Broadway production of Puffs. I’ve written a lot about Puffs in places other than the Three Broomsticks, but suffice to say, I very deeply love the show and wanted to pay homage to something that’s been an important part of my life for over three years.
So here’s a piece that meets both goals: a bonus chapter for my book that’s all about what Puffs has to say about Albus Dumbledore. I’d written this a long time ago and was debating what to do with it but can think of no better home for it than this column – it’s my thank you to both readers of my book and the creators of Puffs. Spoiler alert for both properties – I recommend reading this essay only after you’ve read and watched, respectively! So without further ado…
A character as important as Albus Dumbledore, in a franchise as mammoth as Harry Potter, has seen many different interpretations over the years, from the belligerence of Michael Gambon to the musical stylings of Dylan Saunders, and everything in between. This chapter will concern itself with Dumbledore as he is portrayed in the international hit play Puffs by Matt Cox, where he is only ever referred to as The Headmaster.¹ Given how valuable an addition to the fanon Puffs is, and how meticulously it’s been crafted, it’s worth engaging with their portrayal of Dumbledore. Amid the jokes, The Headmaster emerges as a worthy meditation on Dumbledore’s character.²
Since the play is from the perspective of the Puffs, not of the Braves, The Headmaster emerges as a slightly antagonistic figure in the first half of the play. Dumbledore once told Harry (in reference to Kreacher), “Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike” (OotP 834). Yet this is what comes to pass between The Headmaster and the Puffs - the Puffs are beneath his notice, yet they end up wounded by the decisions he makes. Whereas the books have a throughline of Dumbledore’s lack of charity toward Slytherins, the throughline in Puffs is how the Puffs are collateral damage in The Headmaster’s favoritism towards the Braves.
Please note: all citations are from Puffs (One Act Edition) by Matt Cox (2018).
Can He Do That?
Puffs illustrates how the choice of narrator can frame the same story so differently. The Harry Potter books are narrated by a third-person-limited Gryffindor (and written by a Gryffindor), and it shows: Dumbledore appears to be benevolent, with a gentle (though sassy) sense of humor. Puffs is narrated by a Puff, whose life was negatively impacted by The Headmaster’s emphasis on the Braves. Consequently, The Headmaster takes an impish glee in doing things he really oughtn’t.
This is first on display at the end of Year One, when The Headmaster is completely aware of how questionable his last-minute points are in the view of the non-Gryffindors. Yet he smugly says, “Now you may find yourself asking... can he give out more points now? Yes. Yes, he can” (Puffs 22).
Buried in that joke is an important truth about Dumbledore: He wields absolute power at Hogwarts and that’s the way he likes it. Whenever anyone tries to put a check on that power - Lucius Malfoy, the nebulous Hogwarts board of governors, or even the Ministry of Magic - Dumbledore chafes against it. He very much enjoys having complete authority over things at Hogwarts.
This is deeply ironic given what Dumbledore tells Harry in "King’s Cross":
I, meanwhile, was offered the post of Minister of Magic, not once, but several times. Naturally, I refused. I had learned that I was not to be trusted with power.” (DH717)
As usual, this is a half-truth. It’s true that Dumbledore tends to wield his power in less than ideal ways, and he is cognizant of it - hence his undermining of all non-Gryffindors, and the way that he treats Hogwarts as a political asylum first and a school second. But the last bit, about how he did not allow himself to wield power, rings false.
He passed over the post of Minister of Magic. But the post of Minister, regardless of what Cornelius Fudge did during his tenure, does not lend itself to absolute power. In most government systems, there are checks and balances, even if the British Ministry’s are nominal at best. Voldemort, too, decided to forego the tedium of Ministership in favor of more direct influence. Dumbledore instead installed himself in a position where there is no oversight - any dissent (Lucius, Fudge’s Ministry) is rapidly quelled. One could argue that influencing society by influencing children is even more powerful than being Minister, particularly when two entire generations passed through Hogwarts under Dumbledore’s regime.
In light of that, The Headmaster revels in his ability to do whatever he pleases. He closes out Year One in Puffs with a gleeful “Haha! Oh, Me” (Puffs 23). He expects absolutely no pushback on his actions.
The Evolving Portrait of the Headmaster
The Headmaster is even more direct in his speech at the end of Year Two. “Now, you all know I don’t pick favorites. But, Harry - he’s my favorite” (Puffs 29). That one sentence may as well be the thesis of this entire book. Through the eyes of the Puffs, Dumbledore’s favoritism must have been so deliberate, it may as well have been explicitly stated.
The major change in The Headmaster comes at the end of Year Four when Cedric Diggory dies in "Scene: The Third Task." This is a seminal moment in Puffs, informing the entire rest of the story. If Cedric’s death was rough for Harry, it was devastating for the Puffs. Even through the Puffs’ eyes, The Headmaster’s response was well-done: a somber speech honoring Cedric.
Remember. Should a time ever come where you must choose between something that is easy or something that is right... remember a kind, sweet, loyal boy... and what happened to him, because he crossed the path of an evil man. Remember Cedric." (Puffs 61)
This is the closest any dialogue in Puffs skews to the books because even in the books, Dumbledore’s closing speech honoring Cedric was one of his finest moments as Headmaster. This is noteworthy for being the only time throughout Puffs that The Headmaster is in a scene and does not make a joke.
“Remember Cedric” is the beginning of a slightly redemptive arc for The Headmaster. We next see him at the beginning of Year Five, when he runs into Wayne in "Scene: Hopkins, Potter, & Emotions."
[THE] HEADMASTER: Excuse me. Oh. Um. Student. Have you seen Harry? I wanted to explain some facts about his past, and why I’ve been avoiding him.
WAYNE HOPKINS: Haven’t seen him.
[THE] HEADMASTER: Hm. I guess it can wait until the end of the year." (Puffs 63)
There is a lot to unpack here. First, the fact that Dumbledore does not know Wayne’s name is very telling (and probably accurate). It’s a callback to the fact that Harry didn’t know some of the Puffs’ names when he formed Dumbledore’s Army, which is astounding considering he’d had classes with these same forty people for over four years. But neither the leader nor the namesake of Dumbledore’s Army concern themselves with the Puffs.
There is a heavy dose of irony in The Headmaster not remembering Wayne’s name literally two scenes after telling his students to “Remember Cedric.” In fact, throughout Puffs, The Headmaster only ever says a Puff’s name after the Puff in question has died. It shows that The Headmaster, despite his outpouring of emotion and respect for Cedric, still does not expend mental energy on the Puffs while they live. With that kind of attitude coming from The Headmaster, it’s no wonder Wayne snaps, “We’re the Puffs. We’re just here to die” (Puffs 62). No one seems to care about them when they’re alive.
But it also makes so much sense that Dumbledore would have a crisis of conscience here about keeping the prophecy secret - that his resolve towards distancing himself would waver and he’d want to talk to Harry. It makes sense that at some point during the year, he would work up the nerve and go seek out Harry to finally tell him about the prophecy. It also makes sense that upon not being able to find Harry, he would be easily dissuaded from doing the unpleasant task, and would take it as a sign that he could wait until the end of the year. Dumbledore’s behavior in the last two books shows us, as does the timeline of his confronting Grindelwald, that Dumbledore is a procrastinator.
There is even a sinister poetic justice to this moment. By dismissing Dumbledore, Wayne is indirectly responsible for Sirius Black’s death and the ensuing pain Harry went through. At the end of the play, Harry indirectly causes Wayne’s death during the Battle of Hogwarts: poetic justice at its cruelest. And that’s when we get a final, crucial, scene with The Headmaster.
Scene: A Very White Room
In order to understand Puffs' King’s Cross scene (“Scene: A Very White Room”), we must first consider its place in the story - namely, how reliable the portrayal of that scene is. I conducted an interview with A.J. Ditty (who originated the role of the Narrator) where we discussed just that. His theory, which I subscribe to, is that "A Very White Room" is the only scene in Puffs that the Narrator made up out of whole cloth. According to Puffs' apocrypha ("19 Years Later"), the Narrator can travel through time, so he has seen all of the other scenes portrayed in Puffs. But “because he can’t have visited the White Room unless he died, it feels like the one scene that the Narrator wrote” (Ditty, August 10, 2018). It is the Narrator’s fictional account of what happened during that meeting.
Through that lens, the scene becomes about what the Narrator thinks of Dumbledore. That is why there are callbacks to every major trait that The Headmaster has exhibited in Puffs, in reverse chronological order.
WAYNE HOPKINS: AHHHHHHH!! What? Where? Where am I?
[THE] HEADMASTER:... You - are not Harry. Uhmm... I want to say Wayne?
[...] WAYNE HOPKINS: Where are we?
[THE] HEADMASTER: To be honest I’m not sure. It’s more of a thing for Harry." (Puffs 93-94)
First, The Headmaster does not immediately recognize Wayne, because he is focused on Harry. This is a callback to Year Five when The Headmaster did not know Wayne’s name. However, The Headmaster does eventually recall Wayne’s name... now that he’s died, of course.
Second, after a chat that we’ll address shortly, The Headmaster says, “And on that note. I really hate to do this but... I am expecting someone... and so... uh” (Puffs 94)... The Headmaster shoos Wayne away because he’s waiting for Harry - a callback to Year Two when The Headmaster explicitly stated his preference for Harry over the other students.
Third, toward the end of the scene, The Headmaster revels in his own absurdity over how “love is the greatest magic there is.” (Puffs 94). This is a callback to Year One and his smugness at dishing out those last-minute House points.
But the Narrator has also seen that The Headmaster can be a force for good when he honored Cedric Diggory at the end of Year Four. Therefore, amid all the intended and unintended punchlines, we get a moment of sincerity. The Headmaster exhibits genuine compassion for Wayne and does a good thing for him, by assuaging Wayne’s fears of irrelevance and honoring the part of Wayne that was a Puff. In our interview, A.J. Ditty describes it thus:
From The Headmaster’s perspective in that scene, he doesn’t know this kid, he’s run into him maybe once or twice at school. But they didn’t have a special relationship. Yet he takes the time to explain to him that everything’s going to be okay. And what a profound kindness...
The Headmaster takes a moment - as the fate of the wizarding world is being decided - to offer Wayne comfort and to put him at ease. Even if he barely knew Wayne’s name prior to this, he gets a good enough measure of Wayne at that moment to say exactly what Wayne needs to hear. As we know, Dumbledore is excellent at reading people.
This kindness is perfectly in character for Dumbledore. Recall what we discussed in Chapter 7 of the book: how Dumbledore is kind and compassionate to his students, absent any mitigating factors (relevance to his overarching plans or membership in Slytherin House). He was much the same in his treatment of Ginny in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, offering comfort to a distraught child. Therefore, we see that the Narrator (and, by extension, playwright Matt Cox) fully have the measure of Dumbledore.
It’s a shame we don’t get to see Dumbledore in peacetime because it would be fascinating to see the contrast. So much is made of how he’s the most beloved headmaster ever, and to us readers, that seems a ludicrous claim: He is loathed by a quarter of the school, and he does a fairly bad job as an administrator. However, in moments like these, he is wonderful to the students in question. If he is regularly as kind to students in distress as he is to Ginny and Wayne, it’s not hard to see how he got the moniker of “best loved of all Hogwarts headmasters” (DH 20).
The Headmaster says some very poignant words to Wayne in "A Very White Room:"
Wayne, it is very easy to feel like you’re only a secondary character in someone else’s grand story. That does not mean, however, there isn’t another story out there that’s all about you. The one where we’re the most important person in the world. The hero. We’re all important, Wayne. And we’re all unimportant. We’re all heroes. In some way. To someone. (Puffs 94)
This works on several levels - first and foremost, it is a perfect cap to Wayne’s arc, and it’s Dumbledore’s compassion showing. But the words also apply to Dumbledore himself and his place in the story of the war against Voldemort.
Depending on who the story is about, Dumbledore can be the hero or the villain. If the story is about the Puffs, Dumbledore is a distant figure, a tertiary antagonist until he reveals the best of himself. If the story is about Severus Snape, Dumbledore is the villain. If the story is about Harry Potter, as the original story is, Dumbledore is a hero later revealed to be murky in his morals.
But what about the story that’s all about Albus Dumbledore? In that story, Dumbledore has to fight against his better nature to do what must be done to take down Voldemort. He is the one who makes the tough choices, who makes the sacrifices that no one else can or would make. That story is the one where Dumbledore is the most important person in the world and the one who managed to take down Voldemort after years of hard work and plotting. While nowhere near as morally uncompromised as Harry, Albus Dumbledore is the hero of that story.
We love heroes who live in moral gray areas these days, struggling in a world that isn’t black and white. If the story were about Dumbledore, he would be a hero and have the sympathy of most readers. Unfortunately, that wonderful story is not yet out there. But that has been the exercise of my book: teasing it out from where it’s buried in Harry’s grand story, just as Matt Cox did for the Puffs. And as The Headmaster himself says, “I think it was pretty cool” (Puffs 94).
¹ Technically, he is referred to as “The First Headmaster” and “The Second Headmaster,” based on who is portraying him (a riff on the casting change in the Potter films). For our intents and purposes, we will refer to The Headmaster as a single character.
² Out of deference to Puffs and their stylistic choices, I will use their terminology when referring strictly to their portrayal of something in the wizarding world. Hufflepuffs are “Puffs,” Gryffindors are “Braves,” Slytherins are “Snakes,” and Ravenclaws are “Smarts.”