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For the winter of 1897 to 1898, Chekhov sought a climate favorable to his health, resuming his writing in Nice on the French Riviera. In France at this time controversy was stirred by the Dreyfus affair, in which military officer Alfred Dreyfus was wrongly tried and imprisoned for treason against France; Chekhov took an interest in the case, particularly after the publication of Emile Zola's "J'accuse," a defense of the court-martialed Jewish lieutenant. Support for Dreyfus also earned Chekhov's partisanship, which led to a break with his friend Suvorin, whose was publishing vehemently anti-Semitic attacks on the Dreyfusards.

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The first real crisis in Chekhov's life occurred in 1875, when his father's business failed. Threatened with imprisonment for debt, Pavel left to find work in Moscow, where his two eldest sons were attending the university. Yevgeniya, left behind with Anton and the younger children, soon lost her house to a local bureaucrat who had posed as a family friend. She and the children departed for Moscow in July, 1876, leaving Anton in Taganrog to care for himself and finish school. The episode provided him with a theme--the loss of a home to a conniving middle-class upstart--that was to appear later in the short story ( 1882), and to mature in his last play, ( 1904). The family struggled financially while Pavel looked for work, and Chekhov helped by selling off household goods and tutoring younger schoolboys in Taganrog. In 1877 Pavel found a position in a clothing warehouse, and in 1879 Chekhov passed his final exams and joined his family in Moscow, where he had obtained a scholarship to study medicine at Moscow University.


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Chekhov divided his time between Melikhovo and Moscow during the spring and summer of 1899, helping the Maly Theater in its preparations for the Moscow premiere of which had been making the rounds of provincial theaters since its appearance two years before in Chekhov's collected plays. Except for its principal characters and central theme, is almost unrecognizable as a later version of The play focuses on the Voynitsky household, plunged into turmoil by the sudden appearance of the now nearly senile Professor Serebryakov, the intellectual brother-in-law for whose benefit "Uncle" Vanya Voynitsky, to manage the family estate, has sacrificed his adult life. In representing this situation Chekhov fulfilled the promise of : he created a perfectly orchestrated tragicomedy of nuanced pauses, significant breakdowns and cross-purposes in conversation, elusively symbolic objects, and farcical violence, all pointing up the unrecoverable loss of a whole and meaningful life.


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In May, quite near death, Chekhov left Russia on his doctor's orders for a spa at Badenweiler, Germany, taking Olga with him. Through most of June his health seemed to improve, but on June 29 he suffered a heart attack. He recovered, only to suffer another attack the next day. In the early morning hours of July 2, 1904, he awoke choking and delirious but had enough presence of mind to send for a doctor. While awaiting the physician Olga prepared some crushed ice to place on her husband's chest, but Chekhov protested, "You don't put ice on an empty heart." When the doctor arrived, Chekhov revealed, "Ich sterbe" ("I am dying"). Taking a sip of champagne, which at that time was considered salutary for heart victims, he remarked that he hadn't drunk champagne for ages, then turned on his side and closed his eyes. Moments later he was dead. In an ironic twist that he might have appreciated, Chekhov's body, sent back to Russia in a refrigerator car, was enclosed in a box marked "oysters."

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Indeed, represents the perfect embodiment of that exquisite balance of tragedy and farce with which Chekhov so skillfully imbued his mature plays. This portrait of the economic exploitation of the Ranevskaya family--doomed devotees of a humane and life-loving tradition--by the middle-class vulgarian Lopakhin conveys the major themes of Chekhov's career placed in unresolvable but organic tension: the intrinsic value of opening oneself up to the beauty of the world and the love of others, and the foolishness of such openness in the face of the inevitable destruction of beauty and love. When it premiered on January 17, 1904, as part of a "Jubilee Celebration" of its author's twenty-five years as a writer, was an immediate success. Later, back in Yalta, Chekhov was pleased by news of the play's successful opening in St. Petersburg on April 2, even though he remained convinced that the company did not really understand the play.