Authors: Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

French playwright

Author Works


Idoménée, pr. 1705

Atrée et Thyeste, pr. 1707

Électre, pr. 1708

Rhadamiste et Zénobie, pr., pb. 1711 (Zenobia, 1768; better known as Rhadamisthus and Zenobia, 1956)

Pyrrhus, pr., pb. 1726

Catilina, pr. 1748

Le Triumvirat, pr. 1754


The literary career of Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon (kray-bee-yohn) can be divided into two parts. Between 1705 and 1726, he wrote seven neoclassical tragedies, using the standard formula of five acts and Alexandrine verse. These dramas were well received, despite protests against an excess of melodrama. Then in 1748, after not writing for more than twenty years, Catilina was warmly praised, and within two years a collection of his tragedies appeared. Crébillon ended his career with Le Triumvirat, a play about the death of the Roman orator Cicero.{$I[AN]9810000634}{$I[A]Crébillon, Prosper Jolyot de}{$S[A]Jolyot, Prosper;Crébillon, Prosper Jolyot de}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Crébillon, Prosper Jolyot de}{$I[tim]1674;Crébillon, Prosper Jolyot de}

Crébillon was educated at the Mazarin Jesuit school. Like his father, he studied law in Besançon, after which he worked as a clerk in a law office in Paris. He suffered a reversal of fortune in 1720 when, shortly after the death of his wife, he lost a great deal of money in financier John Law’s disastrous land scheme in colonial Mississippi. He raised two sons, one of whom, Claude-Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon (known as Crébillon fils), became an accomplished novelist who depicted moral depravity in the aristocracy.

Many of Crébillon’s plays are imitations of Seneca’s lurid tragedies. Indeed, Romanesque elements are common ingredients, along with inflated diction, incomprehensible plots, and countless recognition scenes. These works represent a transitional phase in French theater history, between the era of Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine and nineteenth century Romantic tragedy. Voltaire recycled five of Crébillon’s plots, perhaps to provoke a rivalry, but the unassuming Crébillon took little interest in literary disputes.

Crébillon had the good fortune to tutor Jeanne Poisson when she was nineteen years old. Later, during the second phase of his career, he enjoyed her patronage when she was the influential marquise de Pompadour and mistress to Louis XV. Crébillon worked as a censor for the monarchy from 1735 to 1745, after which he was granted a sinecure in the Royal Library and a generous pension. He was elected to the French Academy in 1731. Many consider his plays to be bizarre historical curiosities; close reading, however, reveals genuine passion, impressive vigor, and stageworthy inventiveness.

BibliographyCiureanu, Petre. Crébillon. Geneva: M. Bozzi, 1965. A study in French.Dutrait, Maurice. Étude sur la vie et le théâtre de Crébillon, 1674-1762. 1895. Reprint. Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1970. An early study.Lancaster, Henry Carrington. French Tragedy in the Time of Louis XIV and Voltaire, 1715-1774. 2 vols. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1950. Discusses the later part of Crébillon’s career. Together with Lancaster’s Sunset (below), offers a systematic account of Crébillon’s contribution to the history of French drama.Lancaster, Henry Carrington. Sunset: A History of Parisian Drama in the Last Years of Louis XIV, 1701-1715. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1945. Discusses the early part of Crébillon’s career.LeClerc, Paul O. Voltaire and Crébillon Père: History of an Enmity. Banbury, England: Voltaire Foundation, 1973. From the series Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century.
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