Crébillon, Prosper Jolyot, Sieur de

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Crébillon, Prosper Jolyot, Sieur de (1674-1762). French, Playwright.

Prosper Jolyot Sieur de Crébillon came from minor nobility in Dijon, and was educated by the Jesuits. After studying law at Besançon, he left for Paris at the age of nineteen. While clerking for a law office, he became interested in the theater. For fifteen years, he wrote tragedies in the style of Racine and Corneille, gaining a reputation as their successor, but withdrew from writing after several critical failures. He successfully returned to stage in 1726 with Pyrrhus, and entered the French Academy in 1731.

Early in his career, he met Parisian literary figures Fontenelle, Bernard le Bovier de, La Motte and J.-B. Rousseau, among others, at the café Laurent. While his first play was a failure, he had his first modest success with Idoménée (1705). Atrée et Thyeste (1707), Électre (1708), and Rhadamiste et Zenobie (1711) would place him firmly among France’s great tragic playwrights.

Nonetheless, J.-B. Rousseau and Boileau became Crébillon’s harshest critics. Of particular concern was the level of violence in his plays: in a scene shocking to contemporary sensibilities, Crébillon depicts Atrée holding a cup of his son Thyeste’s blood.

After Rhadamiste, Crébillon suffered from a series of failures that, coupled with the collapse of his John Law System investments, caused him to withdraw from writing. In 1726, he staged Pyrrhus, and in 1729 became involved with his son’s literary circle Le Caveau. During this same period, he and Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de would become bitter rivals. In 1748, he completed Catalina, a final tragedy that took him twenty years to write.

Further reading:

Maurice Dutrait, Étude sur la vie et le théâtre de Crébillon, 1895, 1970.

Steven Daniell

Auburn University