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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon (1674–1762)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Robert Louis Sanderson (1851–1922)
 
PROSPER JOLYOT, tragic poet, called De Crébillon from the name of the estate his father purchased near Dijon, France, was born in that city January 13th, 1674. The elder Jolyot held an office in the magistracy of the province of Burgundy, and he intended that his son should follow in his footsteps. This the young man did for a time. He was admitted to the bar as advocate to the Parliament of Paris, and at the same time entered the office of a procureur (prosecuting magistrate), there to study the forms of procedure and practice of law. This procureur, whose name was Prieur, appears to have worked a decisive influence over Jolyot’s career, as he was the first to discover in the young man strong aptitudes for tragedy. Being a man of letters, he was struck by the correctness of his clerk’s criticisms of some of the French tragic poets, and urged him to try his hand at writing a tragedy himself. This Crébillon did at once, and composed his maiden play, ‘La Mort des Enfants de Brute’ (The Death of Brutus’s Children), a subject more than once treated before. The king’s troupe of players refused it, and it was not even printed. Crébillon was greatly disappointed, but encouraged by the good Prieur, he very soon conceived and wrote another tragedy, ‘Idoménée’ (1705), which this time was received and played with some success.  1
  ‘Idoménée’ was followed by ‘Atrée et Thyeste’ (1707), a play that put Crébillon in the very first rank of tragic poets. Called back to his native place by his father’s death, and detained there a long time by a family lawsuit, he brought back from the country his third tragedy, ‘Électre’ (1708), which was as much admired as the preceding one. ‘Rhadamiste et Zénobie,’ Crébillon’s masterpiece, appeared in 1711. It formed part of the repertoire of the Comédie Française up to the year 1829. ‘Xerxès,’ played in 1714, met with flat failure; ‘Sémiramis’ (1717) fared somewhat better. Disgusted with the poor success of his last two tragedies, it was nine years before Crébillon wrote again for the stage. ‘Pyrrhus’ appeared in 1726, and remained for a long time on the play-bills. Of his last two tragedies ‘Catilina’ (1748) was for its author a renewal of success, whilst ‘Le Triumvirat,’ written by Crébillon in his eightieth year, contains here and there fine passages.  2
  Crébillon was elected to the French Academy in 1731. He held several offices during life. He was first receiver of fines, then royal censor, and lastly king’s librarian; but neither from these various employments nor from his plays did he derive much profit. The most prosperous epoch of his existence seems to have been about the year 1715, during the brilliant but corrupt time of the Régence; part of his life was spent in actual penury, and we find him fifteen years later living in a poor quarter of the capital, having for sole companions of his misery a lot of dogs and cats that he picked up in the streets. However, Louis XV. gave him in his old age a proof of his royal favor. After the representation of ‘Catilina,’ the King ordered that the poet’s complete works be printed at his expense. The edition appeared in 1750, and yielded enough to save Crébillon at least from actual want during his remaining lifetime. It may be easily imagined that in his position of royal censor he incurred the enmity of his colleagues whose plays he refused; and in addition to his pecuniary embarrassments his life was embittered by the attacks of his enemies, among whom Voltaire was not the least conspicuous. Crébillon, who was a man of fine presence and strong constitution, died on June 14th, 1762, in his eighty-ninth year.  3
  Taking the writer’s tragedies as they appeared, ‘Idoménée,’ the first one, is borrowed from Homer’s Iliad. It is the story of Idomeneus, King of Crete, who returning from the siege of Troy and being assailed by a frightful tempest, took a vow of sacrificing to Neptune the first human creature he should meet on landing. His own son, Idamantus, was the first person he encountered, and his father at once sacrificed him. Such is the Greek legend; but it being too atrocious in its nature to suit modern taste, in Crébillon’s tragedy Idamantus kills himself. We can in a measure understand the terrible struggle going on in the father’s breast, obliged by his vow to kill his own child; but only in a measure, for our modern ideas will not admit that under such circumstances a parent should be held to his vow. Nor does it help matters that Idamantus should kill himself to save his father from committing the atrocious deed: the subject is repulsive. The speech of Idomeneus in the first act, recounting the storm scene, is not unfrequently mentioned as a piece of rhetoric.  4
  “Atrée et Thyeste’ is far superior to ‘Idoménée’ both in conception and construction. If the object of tragedy be to excite terror, that condition is certainly fulfilled in ‘Atrée et Thyeste.’ The subject, taken from Seneca, is well known. Atreus, King of Argos, to avenge the wrong done him by his own brother Thyestes, who had carried off his wife, had the latter’s son killed and served to him at a feast. Crébillon carries this fierce cruelty even farther, for in his play he makes Atreus offer his brother a cup filled with the blood of Plisthène, son of Thyestes. On being criticized for this refinement of cruelty the poet bluntly answered, “I never should have believed that in a land where there are so many unfortunate husbands, Atreus would have found so few partisans.” The strongest scenes are the closing ones. Although the general opinion at the time was that Crébillon had chosen too horrible a subject, he revealed his power as a tragic poet; and his reputation as such really dates from the production of ‘Atrée et Thyeste.’  5
  Crébillon’s ‘Électre’ is in the main the same as that of Sophocles, Euripides, and others. Electra, whose father Agamemnon has been murdered by Ægisthus, induces her brother Orestes to slay the murderer. The change introduced into the plot by the French poet is this one: he makes Electra love the son of her father’s slayer, whilst Orestes, who is ignorant of his own birth, loves the daughter. The admirers of the classic models were up in arms at these changes, and ‘Électre’ was attacked on all sides; but if it had its defects, it had also its merits, and these were finally recognized as being of high order. The scene between Clytemnestra and Electra in the first act, the meeting between Electra and Orestes, and the latter’s ravings when he discovers that he has killed his mother, are among the best.  6
  ‘Rhadamiste et Zénobie’ is generally considered Crébillon’s masterpiece: it is the only one of his tragedies that contains the romantic element. As narrated in Tacitus, the legend upon which this play is founded runs thus: Rhadamistus, son of Pharasmanes, King of Iberia, had married his cousin Zenobia, daughter of his uncle Mithridates, King of Armenia. The latter was put to death by order of Rhadamistus, who took possession of his uncle’s provinces. An insurrection broke out, and Rhadamistus had to flee for his life. He carried off Zenobia with him, but she, owing to her condition, unable to bear the fatigues of the flight, begged her husband to put her to death. After piercing her with his sword and throwing her into the Araxes, he hurriedly made off for his father’s kingdom. Zenobia, however, was not dead. She was found on the bank of the river by some shepherds, who carried her to the court of the King Tiridates, who received her kindly and treated her as a queen.  7
  In his tragedy Crébillon makes the husband and wife meet again at the court of Pharasmanes; and Zenobia, believing herself to be a widow, shows her love for Prince Arsames, own brother to Rhadamistus. This invention is certainly no more improbable than the whole story itself. The interview between Pharasmanes and his son in the second act, and the meeting between Rhadamistus and Zenobia in the third, are both remarkable, the first for its grandeur, the second for its pathos and passion.  8
  ‘Xerxès’ is an inferior tragedy. The strongest character in the play is that of the prime minister Artaban, who sows discord between the two sons of Xerxès, intending to seize the throne of Persia for himself. Inferior also is ‘Sémiramis.’ The famous queen is in love with Agénor, who proves to be her own son Ninias; but even after this discovery, Sémiramis perseveres in her passion. Such a subject can be tolerated on the stage only on condition that the spectator be made to feel the victim’s struggle and remorse, as in Racine’s ‘Phèdre.’  9
  ‘Pyrrhus’ differs from Crébillon’s previous tragedies in this one point: no blood is spilled upon the stage; the poet does not rely upon his usual method of striking terror to gain success. For the first time his characters are heroic and express noble sentiments. Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, has been brought up by his guardian Glaucias under the name of Helenus, and believes himself to be his son. It is only when the usurper Neoptolemes demands of Glaucias the surrender of Pyrrhus, that the latter discovers the truth. The courage and magnanimity of Glaucias in refusing to give up his trust; of his son Illyrus in taking the place of Pyrrhus; of Pyrrhus in revealing his true name and offering himself to the usurper, and lastly of Neoptolemes in showing clemency, are worthy of admiration.  10
  Twenty-two years intervene between ‘Pyrrhus’ and ‘Catilina’ (1748). As might be expected in a tragedy having for its principal characters Cicero and Cato, political speeches are plentiful. The scene between Catiline, Cato, and Cicero, in the fourth act, is perhaps the strongest. Another interval of six years, and Crébillon wrote his last tragedy ‘Le Triumvirat’ or ‘Le Mort de Cicéron,’ which may be termed a rehabilitation of Cicero, who, the critics said, should not have been made a subordinate character to that of Catiline in Crébillon’s previous tragedy. Although written in his eightieth year, it cannot be said that this composition shows any sign of mental decay.  11
  With two such masters as Corneille and Racine towering with their mighty height over all other French dramatic poets, it is often difficult to be just towards the latter. They must always suffer by comparison; yet all they wrote did not deserve almost entire oblivion. In the case of Crébillon, the only tragedy by which he is now remembered is that of ‘Rhadamiste et Zénobie,’ and that principally because it is the only one that has in it an element of romance. But his others contain also qualities of their own: grandeur of conception, great force and energy, together with a severe and sober language. As to his defects, they consist in too great a predilection for the horrible, and in a style which at times is inflated. Voltaire, who could brook no superiority or even equality in any line of literature, did not spare Crébillon his sarcasms. The best outcome of this rivalry between the two poets was the emulation it stimulated in Voltaire, causing him to write over five of Crébillon’s tragedies—‘Sémiramis,’ ‘Électre,’ ‘Catilina,’ ‘Le Triumvirat,’ ‘Atrée et Thyeste,’—under the respective names of ‘Sémiramis,’ ‘Oreste,’ ‘Rome Sauvée,’ ‘Le Triumvirat,’ ‘Les Pélopides.’  12
 
 
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