Rhadamistus and Zenobia, for all its static presentation of background material in the first act, is successful at creating the tragic sense, the realization of the self-defeating character of human passion. Few members of a modern-day audience would tolerate Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon’s play on the stage; it has many weaknesses, including lengthy expository passages, unmotivated antipathies, and an awkward and precipitous close. For readers, however, the play still offers passages of quiet force and power, and within the whole there are parts to be remembered.
Eighteenth century French tragedy became weighted down with philosophical speculations and undramatic, polemical material. Some dramas were nearly unactable, despite attempts to pour life into them with melodramatic horrors. Crébillon, in his attempts to startle and in his efforts to fill his plays with stately speeches, fits this pattern. Crébillon’s tragedies were modeled after those of the Roman tragic writer Seneca and, like them, specialize in horror; however, Seneca’s tragedies were meant only to be read, while Crébillon’s plays were intended for the stage. Crébillon said that he aimed to move his audience to pity through terror, but his tragedies are at times merely sensational, depending less on psychological analysis than on violent and unnatural crimes.
Rhadamistus and Zenobia is considered Crébillon’s finest play, although the plot is so...
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