1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Crébillon, Prosper Jolyot de
CRÉBILLON, PROSPER JOLYOT DE (1674–1762), French tragic poet, was born on the 13th of January 1674 at Dijon, where his father, Melchior Jolyot, was notary-royal. Having been educated at the Jesuits’ school of the town, and at the Collège Mazarin, he became an advocate, and was placed in the office of a lawyer named Prieur at Paris. With the encouragement of his master, son of an old friend of Scarron’s, he produced a Mort des enfants de Brutus, which, however, he failed to bring upon the stage. But in 1705 he succeeded with Idoménée; in 1707 his Atrée et Thyeste was repeatedly acted at court; Électre appeared in 1709; and in 1711 he produced his finest play, the Rhadamiste et Zénobie, which is his masterpiece and held the stage for a long period, although the plot is so complicated as to be almost incomprehensible. But his Xerxes (1714) was only once played, and his Sémiramis (1717) was an absolute failure. In 1707 Crébillon had married a girl without fortune, who had since died, leaving him two young children. His father also had died, insolvent. His three years’ attendance at court had been fruitless. Envy had circulated innumerable slanders against him. Oppressed with melancholy, he removed to a garret, where he surrounded himself with a number of dogs, cats and ravens, which he had befriended; he became utterly careless of cleanliness or food, and solaced himself with constant smoking. But in 1731, in spite of his long seclusion, he was elected member of the French Academy; in 1735 he was appointed royal censor; and in 1745 Mme de Pompadour presented him with a pension of 1000 francs and a post in the royal library. He returned to the stage in 1726 with a successful play, Pyrrhus; in 1748 his Catilina was played with great success before the court; and in 1754, when he was eighty years old, appeared his last tragedy, Le Triumvirat. Crébillon died on the 17th of June 1754. The enemies of Voltaire maintained that Crébillon was his superior as a tragic poet. The spirit of rivalry thus provoked induced Voltaire to take the subjects of no less than five of Crébillon’s tragedies—Sémiramis, Électre, Catilina, Le Triumvirat, Atrée—as subjects for tragedies of his own. The so-called Éloge de Crébillon (1762), really a depreciation, which appeared in the year of the poet’s death, is generally attributed to Voltaire, though he strenuously denied the authorship. Crébillon’s drama is marked by a force too often gained at the expense of scenes of unnatural horror; his pieces show lack of culture and a want of care which displays itself even in the mechanism of his verse, though fine isolated passages are not infrequent.
There are numerous editions of his works, among which may be noticed: Œuvres (1772), with preface and “éloge,” by Joseph de la Porte; Œuvres (1828), containing D’Alembert’s Éloge de Crébillon (1775); and Théâtre complet (1885) with a notice by Auguste Vitu. A complete bibliography is given by Maurice Dutrait, in his Étude sur la vie et le théâtre de Crébillon (1895).
His only son, Claude Prosper Jolyot Crébillon (1707–1777), French novelist, was born at Paris on the 14th of February 1707. His life was spent almost entirely in Paris, but the publication of L’Écumoire, ou Tanzaï et Neadarné, histoire japonaise (1734), which contained veiled attacks on the bull Unigenitus, the cardinal de Rohan and the duchesse du Maine, brought Crébillon into disgrace. He was first imprisoned and afterwards forced to live in exile for five years at Sens and elsewhere. With Alexis Piron and Charles Collé he founded in 1752 the gay society which met regularly to dine at the famous “Caveau,” where many good stories were elaborated. From 1759 onwards he was to be found at the Wednesday dinners of the Pelletier, at which Garrick, Sterne and Wilkes were sometimes guests. He married in 1748 an English lady of noble family, Lady Henrietta Maria Stafford, who had been his mistress from 1744. Their life is said to have been passed in much affection and mutual fidelity; and there could be no greater contrast than that between Crébillon’s private life and the tone of his novels, the immorality of which lent irony to the author’s tenure of the office of censor, bestowed on him in 1759 through the favour of Mme de Pompadour. He died in Paris on the 12th of April 1777. The most famous of his numerous novels are: Les Amours de Zéokinizul, roi des Kofirans (1740), in which “Zéokinizul” and “Kofirans” may be translated Louis XIV. and the French respectively; and Le Sopha, conte moral (1740), where the moral is supplied in the title only. This last novel is given by some authorities as the reason for his imprisonment.
His Œuvres were collected and printed in 1772. See a notice of Crébillon prefixed to O. Uzanne’s edition of his Contes dialogués in the series of Conteurs du XVIII e siècle. Crébillon’s novels might be pronounced immoral to the last degree if it were not that two writers slightly later in date surpassed even his achievements in this particular. André Robert de Nerciat (1739–1800) produced under a false name a number of licentious tales, and was followed by Donatien, marquis de Sade.