Crebillon, Prosper Joliot De

, who has been called the Æsehvlus of France, was born at Dijon, Feb. 13, 1671, and was educated among the Jesuits, who are said to have recorded him in their registers “as a boy of parts, but remarkably graceless.” His family, long distinguished in the magistracy both on the father’s and mother’s side, wishing to preserve its acquired lustre, his father, who was chief register in the chamber of accounts at Dijon, recommended the law to him, without, it would appear, consulting his inclination. He studied it, | however, at Paris; was admitted advocate, and afterwards entered as pupil to a solicitor. His frequent attendance on public spectacles, appears to have early given him a relish for the stage, and he could not conceal it from his master, the solicitor, who, from the eloquence with which Crebillon spoke of the master-pieces of the drama, predicted that he would one day make a figure on the theatre. He even ventured to advise his pupil to renounce the bar, and follow the impulse of his genius. This, however, rather disheartened, than encouraged him, as he had a great diffidence of himself; but at length, daily urged by counsels, the sincerity of which he could not suspect, and still more by inclination, he hazarded a piece which he ventured to read to the players, but it was rejected, and he almost forswore the pursuit of dramatic fame.

Become, however, more calm, he wrote his tragedy of “Idomeneus,” the success of which consoled him for his former misfortune. Its action, indeed, was feeble, its style negligent, and the fable unpleasing, yet some particular beauties caused the faults, both of the plan and of the execution, to be pardoned. He made a single bound from “Idomeneus” to “Atreus and Thyestes,” a tragedy which left the former far behind it. The interest in the latter piece is not, perhaps, much more considerable than in “Idomeneus” but the action is more lively and attractive the style, without being much more correct, has more colour and strength and the beauties are more frequent and srnkiug. This tragedy long kept its place on the stage, but the horrid catastrophe by which it is terminated, has always injured the complete success of the piece at its revivals, as it did during its novelty.

The character of horror for which “Atreus” was reproached, was softened by the author, not without some regret, in his tragedy of “Electra,” which soon followed, and which obtained great and deserved success; and although the critics pointed out some defects in the management of the fable, the interesting nature of the subject, the warmth of the action, happy and impressive lines, the character of Electra, drawn with a firm and noble pencil, and the superior beauty of the part of Palamedes, united all suffrages.

After the success of “Electra,” it might have been supposed that Crebillon’s dramatic glory had been at its height, as he had already left behind him the whole swarm of | tragic poets who lingered on the scene after Corneille and Racine. He surpassed himself, however, in “Rhadamistus,” his master-piece; bold and lofty in its design, original and vigorous in its execution. The characters of Rhadamistus, Zenobia, and Pharasmanes, are drawn with equal energy and warmth; the action is interesting and animated; the situations striking and theatrical; the style is marked with a kind of savage dignity, which seems to be the characteristic quality of this tragedy, and to distinguish it from all others. The subject of “Rhadamistus” had wonderfully delighted Crebillon. The part of Pharasmanes, the implacable enemy of Roman ambition and arrogance, gave scope to the author to display in all its force the deep and lively hatred with which he was himself penetrated for “tyrants of the universe;” for this was the title he always gave to the Romans, whose annals awaken so many ideas of glory, and whose glory made so many wretched. He considered the conquests of this insolent and cruel nation, and the chains which it imposed upon so many nations, as one of the greatest calamities which had ever befallen the human race. We know not how far the English reader may understand the merits of this piece from Mr. Murphy’s tragedy of Zenobia, professedly taken from it, and which was at one time very popular. Of Crebillon’s “Rhadamistus,” two editions were printed in a week. It received the highest applause at Versailles, which in this instance agreed with Paris; and the author’s friends pressed him to shew himself at court, to enjoy his triumph, and to receive thence those favours which his narrow fortune rendered necessary. Full of those fallacious hopes, he repaired to Versailles, but was totally disregarded. After a considerable stay, he determined to depend upon his own resources, and flattered himself with obtaining fresh laurels, and with giving worthy successors to “Rhadamistus.” But to all writers, and especially to dramatic writers, there is an aera at which their success reaches the highest point which their measure of genius permits them to attain. This happened to Crebillon, who now produced “Xerxes,” and “Semiramis,” both of which had very small success. His “Pyrrhus” met with a better reception, yet its success was temporary, and the work has disappeared from the stage. In the interval between “Xerxes” and “Semiramis,” he commenced a tragedy of “Cromwell,” in which he gave the freest range to the sentiments | of liberty, and was prohibited from continuing the piece. But the tragedy of “Pyrrhus” may be considered as almost the limit of his dramatic labours. Alter this, becoming disgusted with the theatre, he went to an unknown retreat, where he adopted a simple, frugal, and almost rigid mode of living, surrounded by about thirty dogs and cats, whose attachment, as he said, consoled him for the injustice of men; and here he used to smoke tobacco to render his room bearable with such company. Crebillon, however, was not unjust to the world; he might have felt the disappointment of his ambition at court, but he imputed his theatrical disgraces to himself alone. Alter the first representation of “Xerxes,” which was not a favourable one, he asked the players for their parts, and having thrown them into the lire in their presence, he said, “I was mistaken, but the public has undeceived me.

Notwithstanding his repeated successes, he was unable in the most brilliant season of his reputation, to obtain a seat in the French academy, perhaps, for one reason, because he had written a severe satire against them. After, however, he had been long forgotten, he was elected into the academy, Sept. 27, 1731, and obtained favours from the court. He was also urged to finish the tragedy of “Cataline *,” which he had begun thirty years before, and which, from some passages he had read to his friends, was spoken of as a dramatic wonder. This piece had but a transient success, however, and even for this it was indebted to the interest inspired in the public by the advanced a;e of the author, and especially to the numerous and powerful cabal, whose object was to sacrifice his rival Voltaire f, who was now making an eminent figure in the drama. Crebillon himself was so little flattered by the

* The creditors of Crebillon would ceived him uncommonly well, being have stopped the profits of this tragedy; struck with his venerable and interestbut the spirited old bard appealed to ing figure; but she was in bed, and the king in council, and procured an ai the instant the old poet was kissing honourable decree in his favour, netting hc-r hand, the king entered the room, forth, that works of genius should not “Alas! ruadame!” exclaimed Crebi4be deemed effects that weie capable of Ion, “the king has surprised us: 1 am being seized. Warton’s Essay on undone.” This exclamation, fro:n the Pope. inouth of an old man of eighty, dif In order to remove Voltaire from verted Louis XV. exceedingly. The

court, Crebillon was recommended as monarch zealously patronized Crea superior poet to madame de Pompa- billon ever after, got his works printed

dour. Hearing that he was poor, this at the press of the Louvre, and, after

lady obtained for him a pension of his death, erected a marble monument

2400 French livres. When Crebillon to his memory in the church of St. Gerwent to thank his patroness, she re- vais, where his remains are interred. | indiscreet ardour of his friends, that he opposed, as much as he was able, all the means they wished to employ for his success. One of them having asked him for tickets for the first representation of “Cataline,” “You well know,” he replied, “that I would not have a single person in the pit who should think himself ohliged to applaud me.” * c Such applause,“returned his friend,” it is so far from my intention to procure, that, you may he assured, the persons to whom I shall give your tickets, will he the fir>t to hiss the piece, if it deserves to be hissed.“” In that case,“said Crebillon,” you shall have them."

The favours of the court, even when Crebillon was loaded with them, only incited him to justify them by new success, and therefore he undertook a tragedy on “The Triumvirate,” in which he thought he might introduce, with some slight alterations, several passages of that tragedy of Cromwell, formerly so dear to lain, and which he hud suppressed against his will. These passages he now, by the advice of his friends, so altered, as not to give offence to government; but the age of the author was too visible in this piece, and though it escaped being hissed, the crowd staid away. After a few representations, the tragedy disappeared, and the author thought only of finishing the remainder of his days in peace.

The memory of Crebillon was astonishing; and it continued so to the end of his life. He never wrote down his pieces till the moment of representation; and when more than seventy, he repeated by heart his tragedy of “Cataline” to the actors. When he recited a scene to his friends, and they made a criticism which appeared to him just, he recomposed the passage, and totally forgot the first manner, remembering only the last. In general, he was much more docile to criticism than many authors, to whom this docility would have been so useful. He once recited to a company of men of letters a tragedy he had just composed, and finding that they did not admire it, “There is no more to be said about it,” he cried, “you, have pronounced its sentence” and thenceforth he entirely forgot it.

About the time when Crebillon first devoted himself to the theatre, he fell in love, and married without the consent of his parents. His father was already greatly irritated against him for having preferred the glory of a celebrated writer to the consequence of a subaltern | magiatrate. But he thought his son entirely dishonoured by alliance with a family neither opulent nor noble; and he disinherited him for his ingratitude and rebellion. Some years afterward, however, when the brilliant ‘reputation Crebillon began to enjoy, came to the ears of his hitherto inexorable father, the old man’s vanity was flattered, and he began to think that his son had acted his part in life very prudently. In consequence he restored him to his rights. Crebillon, after his father’s death, went to receive the very moderate inheritance he had left him; but the fees of justice devoured a part, and the Mississippi bubble finished the rest. For some time he found a resource in the bounty of some opulent persons; but they were soon wearied with heaping favours upon one who would neither be their humble servant nor their dependent. Crebillon again became free and poor; and though, during the season of his transitory opulence, he had carried the love of expence to a taste for fancies and superfluities, he had no difficulty in accommodating himself to the kind of life his new situation required.

Crebillon died on June 17, 1762, aged eighty-eight, of a disease which the robustness of his constitution long resisted. The players caused a solemn service to be performed for him in the church of St. Jean de Latran, at which they all assisted with the most respectful decorum, and the ceremony was also graced by the presence of the academies, the most distinguished men of letters, and a great number of persons of the highest rank. From La Harpe’s Lectures, who is rather severe on Crebillon, we learn that the “Rhadamistus” and “Atreus” are the only pieces by him which still keep their place on the stage. His works, however, continue to be in demand in France, if we ’may judge from the numerous editions which have very lately issued from the press. 1

1 D’Alembert’s Euldjries, by Aikin, 2 vols. 8vo. —Dict. Hist. Month. Rer. vol. XXXVII and XLVIII, N. S. For a character of Cataiine, see Chesterfield’s Miscellanies^vol. II. p. 10*.