Thresholds, Part 2

Gene Wilder has died. This is murky, heavy news. (It is also, frankly, bitterly predictable in a year that has claimed the lives of extraordinary performers in the entertainment industry.)

I thought of Gene Wilder only yesterday. This is because I was thinking of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Mel Stuart’s 1970 film of Roald Dahl’s book, in which Wilder played Willy Wonka).

Now bear with me. The reason I was thinking of that is because I had been thinking of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius and comparing it with Wagner’s opera Parsifal. In these two music dramas a man is confronted with his sense of fear and given moral choices in the face of the extremity of death. Heavy stuff.

Gerontius is a beautiful, earnest setting of Catholic creed. The gravity of facing death and having to trust in Christian faith is realised in a musical masterpiece. Parsifal is a sexy, dark tale of an ingenue who wanders into these issues without knowing a creed; he recognises the choices and consequences at the last moment and barely makes it out again with sufficient self-respect to be able to continue his life as a better man.

In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie is gifted the opportunity to cross the threshold of the (pearly?) gates of a confectioner’s Valhalla. In his innocence he resists all mortal temptations (including the Devilish ‘Slugworth’) to reach the judgement seat. There he recognises his ignorance and makes a moral choice; his reward is, well, literally out of this world. This second threshold is not crossed but falls away, like the walls of the factory bow to Wonka’s fantastical elevator.

My favourite part of the film is the beatific face of Gene Wilder as he realises that Charlie is prepared to forgo all the trappings of the emporium, including an ‘everlasting gobstopper’, to literally inherit eternal — well, gobstopping.

This weekend I was involved in a special performance of The Dream of Gerontius. The (my) questions of the text, Creed and religious argument in the piece were swept aside by an innocent artistic commitment to trust all that is good in making music. It’s a simple thing, and I hope the performance might have been something that the now late and to-be-much-lamented Gene Wilder might have been prepared to smile at.

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