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THE PASSING OF THE TORCH

an analysis of the play by Paul Hervieu

The following essay is reprinted from George Neely Henning's introduction to La Course du Flambeau. Paul Hervieu. New York: D.C. Heath & Co., 1922.

The Passing of the Torch (La course du flambeau) is almost universally recognized by critics as Hervieu's masterpiece. Doumic calls it "of incomparable grandeur and perfect beauty." The structure of the play is excellent; given the thesis, the course of events to the final solution is worked out with almost flawless logic and ever-increasing interest. The main characters, the three generations of women, are natural and lifelike, though Sabine has been criticized as being too violent for the "average humanity" that the play portrays. The minor characters -- Maravon, who gladly sacrifices his modest fortune to his son; Didier, who unhesitatingly accepts it; Gribert and his wife, who toil ceaselessly to accumulate a dowry for their selfish daughter Béatrice; even the strong-willed Stangy, who breaks down utterly at the loss of his child -- almost without exception serve the purpose of emphasizing the central theme. In the choice of a theme and of characters to exemplify it, Hervieu is unusually well inspired. He breaks away from the narrow aristocratic set of idlers that he had portrayed so often, and sets the scene in the great industrious middle class. He leaves aside the trite theme of adultery, the "eternal triangle," that figures all too frequently in his works and in those of his contemporaries. Nor does he, as in La loi de l'homme, base the interest on a man-made law that might easily be abolished by legislative fiat. Here the action springs largely from the pursuit of wealth as a means of comfort and power, a subject of interest to nearly every one. But the pursuit of wealth is itself here closely interwoven with a greater theme, that of mother-love, the unreasoning and all-powerful instinct to protect one's offspring and thus carry on the torch. Paternal love and filial gratitude had often been pictured in literature -- for instance, in King Lear and Père Goriot. But Hervieu, by portraying three generations, goes a step farther; he shows how one generation will not only sacrifice wealth, happiness, honor, for the sake of the succeeding, but will even sacrifice the life of the preceding. Based on fundamental principles, of universal and eternal interest, vividly rendered, The Passing of the Torch may justly be termed not simply Hervieu's masterpiece, but a masterpiece.

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