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.
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.