KAREL CAPEK 1921
When Karel Capek’s R.U.R. (the acronymic title is short for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”) was first performed in 1921, it became a major international success and made Capek an internationally known playwright. Although R.U.R. may appear slightly dated nearly eighty years later, the concerns expressed by the playwright are still interesting to modern audiences, and the play is still performed in regional theatres. Capek’s drama is also responsible for coining a new word, “robot,” which became an important fixture of Hollywood films, especially the B-films of the 1950s. The word “robot” is derived from the Czech word robota, meaning forced labor, but it was the topic of the play, that technology can imperil the world, that made the play controversial.
The problems this play deals with are not the realities of everyday life; instead Capek is exploring the larger issues of the human condition. With technology booming immediately after the end of World War I, R.U.R. touched on the concerns of many people. The idea of a utopian society to replace the one fractured by the horror of the first World War was especially appealing to audiences, some of whom were deeply disturbed by Capek’s vision of how technology might be misused. Capek’s concerns about the dehumanization of man through technology provides the central core of this play, and it is this motif that warns of the destructive force of technology.
Although contemporary assessments of Capek’s play frequently cite the stereotypical nature of the characters, there is enough depth to them to involve an audience, and this involvement is one of the play’s strengths. At performances of R.U.R., audiences and critics were both fascinated with the idea of non-humans that appeared human and terrified at the implications for human destruction at the hand of technology. These two reactions led to the play’s success.
Karel Capek was born in January, 1890, in Male Svatonovice, a small village in northeastern Bohemia, an area that is now Czechoslovakia. Capek, the youngest of three children, was a sickly child, but by all accounts, he had a happy childhood, largely because of the influence of his older brother, Josef, who was also his best friend. Capek began writing poetry and fiction in high school, and after graduation, Capek began publishing stories, illustrated by Josef, in Czech newspapers. After studying in Prague, Berlin, and Paris, Capek earned a doctorate at Prague’s Charles University in 1915. Even while at school, Capek and his brother continued to write, publishing their first book, a collection of tales, in 1916. Capek worked as a journalist and as a tutor, and he was intensely interested in the subject of Czech nationalism, often writing on that subject for his newspaper articles. His first play, The Outlaw, was produced in 1921. Capek fell in love with a young actress, who was an understudy in that play, but his poor health prevented them from marrying until 1935. R.U.R., Capek’s second play, was an enormous success, establishing Capek as an international playwright. During the next few years, Capek was very active, writing From the Insect World and The Makropoulous Secret in 1922. Adam the Creator was written with his brother, Josef, in 1927.
Although he was very successful as a playwright, Capek also turned his attention to novels. He published a succession of novels, including The Absolute at Large (1922), Krakatit (1924), Hordubal (1933), Meteor (1935), An Ordinary Life (1936), and War with the Newts (1937). Although he began his career as a successful playwright, it is as a science fiction writer that Capek is best known. His science fiction novels explore the possible misuse of technology, and while he did not oppose technology, Capek was concerned about man’s ability to consider all of the implications of such advances. Capek briefly turned again to theatre in 1937, with The White Plague and The Mother (1938).
Capek was opposed to Nazism, and both he and his brother were warned to leave Prague as the threat of World War II became a reality. Both declined, and Capek died of pneumonia just three months before the Nazis invaded Prague. Hitler’s troops did not know of Capek’s death when they came to his house to arrest him. Josef was arrested and sent to a concentration camp where he later died. Karel Capek is considered one of Czechoslovakia’s foremost writers. He not only championed freedom, but his contributions to literature are amongst the most important in Czech history.
The play opens with Domin dictating letters to his typist, Sulla. The setting is a small island, although its precise location is not clear. A visitor is announced, and Helena Glory enters. She claims to have come to inspect the facility and leads Domin to believe that she is there as a representative of her father, the president. She is introduced to Sulla and cannot believe that she is a robot. After careful questioning of the young female robot, Helena insists that Sulla must be human. Domin offers to dissect Sulla, and Helena is aghast that Sulla would be so readily sacrificed. Hearing that she is present, Busman, Hallemeier, Gall, Fabry, and Alquist rush in. At first, Helena mistakes them for robots and tells them that she is there to save them from exploitation. She is embarrassed to learn that they are managers and doctors at the site. A discussion about the manufacturing of robots ensues, and the audience learns that robots are extremely cheap to manufacture, that they can do any type of work more cheaply than man, and that R.U.R. envisions a world where robots will produce vast quantities of food and goods, thus replacing human workers. This society is meant to sound like another Eden, but it raises questions about slavery, especially when it is revealed that the robots occasionally suffer breakdowns, that they are soon to have pain receptors, and that their human creators see themselves as gods capable of replicating creation. The men all invite Helena to lunch with them and all but Domin exit to prepare the meal. He immediately professes his love and asks Helena to marry him. After a passionate kiss, she is assumed to have agreed.
It is ten years later and it is clear that Domin is very worried about the news from abroad. There have been no boats, mail, or telephone calls in several days. The last news was of revolts by the robots. All the men have brought gifts to Helena to celebrate the ten years that she has been on the island. Through conversations between Helena and her servant, Nana, the audience learns that both women are very afraid of the robots, that even the dog and other animals sense something unnatural. A robot, Radius, has rebelled. He was designed by Dr. Gall to have a better brain than most robots, and he is not satisfied to take orders any longer. After being examined by Dr. Gall it becomes clear that Radius has become human-like in many ways. Dr. Gall wants to have him destroyed, but Helena insists that he be spared. The audience learns from Dr. Gall that the plan for the future is to build robots who would be individually designed for each country, some black, some white, some Asian. Wanting to put an end to the robots’ manufacture, Helena and Nana burn old Rossum’s manufacturing notes. When the plant managers and doctors enter, it is revealed that they were saving Rossum’s notes as a trump card to control the robots. Before Helena can reveal that she burned them, a ship arrives in the harbor. Although, the men think it is the mail-boat, in reality it is the robots spreading word of a universal revolt. Before the human inhabitants can seek escape on a waiting gun boat, the robots seize control of the boat and surround the house.
It is later the same day. Domin, Helena, Gall, Hallemeier, Fabry, Busman, Alquist, and Nana are prisoners, surrounded by the robots who will attack at any moment. The group discusses using old Rossum’s formula to buy their escape, but then it is revealed that Helena burned it. Gall confesses that he has been building robots with souls for nearly three years, and Helena admits that she asked him to do so. He has built nearly 300 of the improved or changed robots, and it is presumed that these are the leaders of the rebellion. In making the robots like men, Gall has given them the ability to hate just as
men hate. Busman sits down to balance his accounts, seemingly in denial at the crisis that looms just outside, as the rest of them discuss the morality of what they have created and discuss possible ways to escape. Finally, Busman runs outside to negotiate with the robot leader, Radius. Busman thinks that he can buy escape with a bribe of billions of dollars in profits. He dies when he touches the electrified fence. Domin takes Helena to another room as the house is attacked. As this act ends, Gall, Hallemeier, and Fabry are murdered, and Alquist is sentenced to a lifetime as a slave to the robots.
It is one year later. Alquist is hard at work trying to recreate the formula that will make more robots. He has had no success. There are no more humans alive on the earth, and robots, who have only a short life span, are dying off. Soon the earth will be devoid of life. Radius and a group of robots enter and threaten Alquist, but he still cannot create more robots. Radius is so desperate that he is willing to sacrifice himself to dissection if Alquist could learn something from it. After explaining that he is not a scientist and refusing to dissect the robots, Alquist collapses. Two robots enter, Primus and Helena. Their conversation reveals that each is capable of great emotion and desire. Animals are no longer afraid of them and both have an appreciation for beauty that other robots lack. When Alquist awakens, he realizes that the two are different. Helena begins to cry when she thinks Primus is in danger and Primus attempts to defend Helena. Alquist sees in the two robots a possible future for the world, and calling them the new Adam and Eve, he dismisses them and tells them to go forth into the world. The play ends on this note of hope.
Alquist is an architect and the Head of the Works Department at R.U.R. He is older and a traditionalist. He reveals in Act II that he prays that the manufacture of robots will cease and that the world will return to the way it once was. Alquist sees the manufacture of robots as a profitable venture that is evil at its core. He escapes death because Radius pronounces a sentence that Alquist should finish out his life as a laborer, a slave for the robots. In the Epilogue, Alquist tries unsuccessfully to recreate the formula to create more robots. At the play’s conclusion, he finds that there are two robots who have become humans and Alquist sends them out to repopulate the earth.
As the General Business Manager at R.U.R., Busman is concerned with the bottom line. When Miss Glory asks about giving the robots a soul, Busman replies with estimates of increased cost. He anticipates that eventually robots will replace all workers and that the cost of manufacturing goods will decrease steadily. When the robots attack, Busman continues working on his accounts, almost in denial. Busman decides that he can buy the humans’ freedom, but when he goes to speak to the robots, he touches the fence and is electrocuted.
Domin is the General Manager at R.U.R. Domin is an idealist who envisions that robots will help create a paradise on earth for man, who will have robots to do the work and free man to simply enjoy life. He envisions men as the new gods with a world to rule and robots as the servant class. At their first meeting, Domin claims to have instantly fallen in love with Helena Glory and asks her to marry him. In the end, Domin is murdered by the robots.
Fabry is the Engineer General, Technical Controller of R.U.R. Like almost everyone else, Fabry is murdered during the robot rebellion.
This robot is one of the group in the Epilogue who demands that Alquist create more robots.
Dr. Gall is head of the Physiological and Experimental Department at R.U.R. When the play opens, he is working on giving the robots pain receptors so that they will be more careful and less likely to damage themselves. When the robots revolt, Dr. Gall reveals that he changed the robots, made them more human he actually made them better than human. During the revolt, Gall, too, is murdered by the robots.
Helena is the daughter of the President. She initially meets Harry when she comes to inspect the R.U.R. factory. On her first visit to the factory, Helena is aghast to discover that the robots, which appear so human to her, are treated as mindless drones. Even ten years after her marriage to Domin, Helena cannot be at ease amongst the robots. She pleads with Gall to make them more human, to give then each a soul. In the rebellion that follows, she is murdered by the robots.
Dr. Hallemeier is head of the Institute for Psychological Training of Robots. Hallemeier tells Miss Glory that the robots are not capable of love. According to him, they have no soul or passion or will of their own. He tells Miss Glory that occasionally the robots suffer from something called “robot’s cramp,” a breakdown in their mechanism that resembles rebellion. In the revolt, Hallemeier is murdered by the robots.
Helena is a robot. Dr. Gall created her in Helena Glory’s image, but she is only a poor copy of the original. In the Epilogue, Helena the robot is revealed to be human-like. She is one of the last robots created by Gall, and she is capable of love and emotions. Alquist sees her as the next Eve.
Marius is a robot. He works at the plant office for Domin.
Nana is Miss Glory’s servant. She has come to the island to take care of Helena, who wants a human being to be close to her and not a robot. She helps Helena burn the formulas and is murdered with everyone else.
Primus is a robot, created on the same day as the robot Helena. When Alquist threatens to dissect Helena, Primus comes to her defense. Alquist realizes that Primus is human and thinks that he has discovered the next Adam, who with his Eve will repopulate the earth.
Radius is a robot in charge of the library. In Act II, he appears to be the latest victim of “robot cramp.” Radius has a better brain than most other robots and he does not want to take orders. He tells Helena Glory that he wants to be a master and give orders. After an examination by Dr. Gall, it is revealed that Radius’s attack is not the typical “robot cramp.” Instead, it appears that he has become more human. When all the robots rebel, it is Radius who leads them. In the Epilogue, Radius realizes his folly in murdering his creators. He demands that Alquist create a formula to make more robots, and is willing to sacrifice himself to aid in the research.
This robot is one of the group in the Epilogue who demands that Alquist create more robots.
In the Epilogue, the servant waits upon Alquist, who has been trying to recreate the formula.
Sulla is a robot; she functions primarily as Domin’s secretary or typist. She appears like any other young woman, and is so convincing that Helena Glory cannot, at first, accept that Sulla is not human.
This robot is one of the group in the Epilogue who demands that Alquist create more robots.
Anger and Hatred
When the robots rebel and attack, it is revealed that at Helena’s suggestion, Dr. Gall has given the robots a soul and has given them the ability to appreciate their condition. But in making them more human-like, Gall has also given them the ability to hate, just as humans are capable of hating. Since the robots are treated like insignificant and expendable creations, they soon learn to hate their creators and all humans. They are without a conscience and can hate and kill at will.
With the creation of robots, the earth is divided into two classes: those who have control and those who are controlled. The robots form this latter class, which is designed to be exploited. The robots are little more than slaves who are expected to work until they can work no longer, a period of about twenty years. They are designed and treated as though they have no feelings, no needs, and no expectations. The robots’ builders envision the humans as a kind of aristocracy, superior to the robots they control. As is the case in all feudal societies, eventually the peasants or slaves revolt and murder their masters.
Duty and Responsibility
As the creators of a new life form, the robot creators have a responsibility for how their creations are used, but in this case, the builders see the robots only in terms of exploitation and greed. The builders will sell their robots to whomever orders them and has the cash to pay. They ignore the moral implications of what they have done, preferring to isolate themselves on the island. When the robots rebel, rather than stop selling the robots and explore possible solutions, the manufacturers continue to sell robots. When it becomes clear that humanity is in real danger, their only thought is for their own escape.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Discuss the ending of the play. Do the new Adam and Eve signify a hopeful ending? Why or why not?
- Capek clearly had concerns about the possible misuse of technology. Discuss whether you think his concerns were justified.
- Capek’s robots created a new idea that has spawned many robots since these early creations. Trace the evolution of robots in Hollywood films.
- Cloning raises many of the same questions that Capek was concerned about in this play. Investigate the ethical concerns that modern scientists and religious leaders have about creating life.
This play explores the human condition and envisions a scenario where man destroys himself through greed. Technology, which offers the opportunities to solve many of the world’s problems, is used to create a slave race, who will perform all the labor while another group becomes richer. In response, humans become expendable and cease to reproduce. Evolutionary theory argues that survival is a function of the species best able to adapt. In the New World order, it is the humans who serve no purpose. This bleak vision of humanity is off-set at the play’s ending when two of the robots offer the opportunity to create a new human race.
Individual vs. Machine
In this play, the conflict focuses on who will survive, the humans or the robots. In a real sense, when the manufacturers give the robots souls and the ability to feel, they create individuals where machines previously stood. This leads to thinking as individuals, including the desire to have control. In a sense, this play proves that the individual is superior to the machine, since as machines, the robots could be controlled. But given the ability to think, they become individuals and superior beings.
One of the plans to control the robots involves creating robots to fit national or local standards instead of universal models. When discussing how this plan will work, the manufacturers reveal their own prejudices, since they see that certain “races” of robots will be built to hate other “races” of robots. The ensuing conflict will prevent the robots from uniting against humans. It is a plan to build in racial prejudice in a creation that would naturally not have that ability.
The robots are a downtrodden group, who when they finally understand that they are slaves, seek revenge against their builders. They envision themselves as superior to humans and become so caught up in their revenge that they forget that humans hold the key to their existence. It is a symbiotic relationship, one that is forgotten by the robots. Revenge becomes more important than survival.
Capek’s play focuses on the dangers of technology. While new discoveries offer the best hope for curing disease and easing human existence, it also presents risks if not used correctly. The greed of those who use technology without regard for the consequences is at the center of this play. At the play’s conclusion, two robots have become human and offer hope for the continuation of mankind on earth. But Primus and Helena also illustrate that it is not technology that offers the answers (Alquist cannot make new robots or modify the old), but it is human survival that matters if man is to succeed.
Authors usually write with an audience in mind. Capek intended R.U.R. as a way to awaken audiences to the possible threat of technology. His concern about the fate of humanity is transmitted to the audience as they watch and listen to the drama unfold.
The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular individual’s morality. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multi-faceted ones. Characters may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. “Characterization” is the process of creating a life-like person from an author’s imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation. Domin is an idealist. The audience learns this through speeches that he makes, especially his visions of an utopian society.
A drama is often defined as any work designed to be presented on the stage. It consists of a story, of actors portraying characters, and of action. But historically, drama can also consist of tragedy, comedy, religious pageant, and spectacle. In modern usage, drama explores serious topics and themes but does not achieve the same level as tragedy.
Genres are a way of categorizing literature. Genre is a French term that means “kind” or “type.” Genre can refer to both the category of literature such as tragedy, comedy, epic, poetry, or pastoral. It can also include modern forms of literature such as drama novels, or short stories. This term can also refer to types of literature such as mystery, science fiction, comedy or romance. R.U.R. is science fiction.
Generally plots should have a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, but they may also sometimes be a series of episodes connected together. Basically, the plot provides the author with the means to explore primary themes. Students are often confused between the two terms; but themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner. Thus the plot of R.U.R. is the story of the creation of robots and the robot revolt that destroys almost all of mankind. But the theme is that of greed and technology out of control.
The time, place, and culture in which the action of the play takes place is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The locations for R.U.R. are on an island. They include the offices of the plant, Domin and Helena’s home, and the plant laboratory. The action occurs over a period of eleven years.
The end of World War I brought many changes to Europe, Russia, and the United States. The years of war had been hard on many countries. Because of severe famine, Russia had signed a peace treaty and withdrawn from the war earlier than other countries. The Russian Revolution and the assassinations of the Romanovs did little to improve life for its citizens. Life was not much better in post-war Europe or America. The Spanish flu of 1918 left more than twenty million dead, and the war had been responsible for another eight and a half million deaths. The war had inflicted more than one hundred billion dollars worth of damage, and many countries were in serious debt. A year after the war ended a scientist finally succeeded in splitting an atom, opening the way for greater, more dangerous discoveries. Technology was allowing faster automobiles, new highways, and faster transportation. The first non-stop flight from North America to Ireland was completed in June 1919, and airplanes, which had proved very efficient during the war, were promising to provide a way to make the world smaller. Thus, when Capek began writing R.U.R., the world seemed a dangerous and destructive place.
If technology was offering the promise of a better life, it was also promising a new level of destructiveness. The war effort had led to larger bombs and the development of gas weapons. The
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1921: The first aircraft carrier is commissioned.
Today: During periods of threatened conflict, aircraft carriers supply off-sea staging areas for bombing runs. They greatly add to a country’s ability to wage war.
- 1921: The Russian economy collapses, and Russian sailors attempt a bloody and unsuccessful mutiny.
Today: The economy of what was once the Soviet Union is in disarray, creating increased risk from an unpaid military establishment.
- 1921: Poliomyelitis (polio) is widespread in North America; it attacks U.S. Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and will leave him crippled for life.
Today: Polio is almost completely eradicated due to immunizations, but as each disease is cured, new ones appear to take its place.
- 1921 : Famine kills 3 million Russians, and corpses are piled twenty feet high waiting for burial.
Today: Famine continues to be a leading cause of death in the world as a result of weather disasters, such as hurricane Mitch, which destroyed much of Central America, and droughts which leave many starving in Africa.
- 1921: The Autobahn opens in Germany, and thousands of miles of new surfaced highways are built in the United States to accommodate the increase in automobiles since the end of the war.
Today: Citizens in both Europe and the United States take for granted the ready availability of automobiles and easy transportation that a major highway system offers.
Germans had developed a weapon so efficient that it could be used against a city from a distance of more than seventy-five miles. They used “Big Bertha” on Paris, and within three months, the bombardment had killed more than a thousand people. The weapon was inaccurate, but Paris was a large city and hard to miss. This new weapon showed that technology could be used to kill and from a distance, thus depersonalizing the process. War casualties, as a result of all this new technology, demonstrated just how fragile the human body really was. The sheer number of deaths and the severity of wounds shocked citizens, soldiers, and governments on both sides. In addition, soldiers fell victim to disease. The flu epidemic was so severe it was compared to the fourteenth-century plagues that killed one third of Europe’s population. More importantly, the flu epidemic illustrated that while technology had made advances in killing people more efficiently, it had still not found a way to save their lives. It was a sobering lesson for human beings to learn.
If the war had horrified men, the need to find a way to prevent another war motivated leaders to seek other solutions. After five months of work, a treaty was forced upon the Germans that resulted in severe penalties and terrible financial hardship. Boundaries were redrawn and new countries created. The League of Nations was formed to settle disputes, but famine, poverty, and a decaying economic picture led to a shaky peace. This atmosphere forms the backdrop of R.U.R. Wars continue to be fought, but now robots sustain the casualties, which makes it even easier to continue the fighting. Leaders continue to look to better technologies to use against their enemies, and robots provide that technology. But just as the flu epidemic proved that technology and science had limits, R.U.R. proves that technology can create new and greater problems even as it makes life easier. Domin’s desire to see robot labor eliminate famine with a plentiful harvest reflects the hunger that gripped much of the world in the years following the war. R.U.R. looks
to the future and finds that answers may not be found easily in a laboratory.
Although printed reviews of R.U.R. are not readily available, there are a number of indications that the play was well received and that it enjoyed international success when it opened in the Czech National Theatre in 1921. It was equally successful when produced in Europe, Asia, and North America, opening on Broadway in 1922. At its premiere, audiences were both fascinated at the promises offered by technology and horrified at its potential for destruction. The play’s success stemmed from the public’s current interest in technology. Technological advances promised an easier life, one filled with more leisure time. The image on stage, of robots engaged in menial, mindless work, was appealing. Capek’s lead character, Domin, suggests a utopian dream is possible. He envisions a world without hunger and with enough free labor to provide for all man’s needs. Domin tells the audience of a future filled with freedom and a cornucopia of plenty, and then, the play’s last three acts shatter that hope. For the audience, this turn of events is a graphic reminder that while technology may make man’s life easier, it presents incredible risks far beyond what man can imagine or foresee. The play leaves the audience feeling conflicted between optimistic hopes for the future and pessimistic fears for that same future’s troublesome potential.
With the play’s success, Capek also found himself acclaimed an international success. This added to the reputation of the newly created Czech Republic. Although the play helped to establish Capek’s reputation, he was disappointed that audiences and critics focused on the robots and not the social commentary their actions were intended to suggest. When Helena sees a robot for the first time, she cannot accept that it is real. The audience reacts just as strongly to the idea that robots might appear alive, function as humans, but need no subsistence or money to live. That they feel no pain and can express no opinions or desires also made them unique from mankind. But then the audience receives an abrupt reminder that slave labor has its price, and the horror of war is revisited in the theatre. The audience is also reminded that humanity comes with a price after all, it is the robots infusion with human-like traits that leads to the annihilation of mankind. Capek was so disappointed in the critics and audience’s focus on robots instead of his social ideology that he later refused to see the play in performance. That R.U.R. is best remembered as the source of the word “robot” would only demonstrate to Capek that his play was a failure with regard to achieving the effect he had intended.
R.U.R. is considered the most successful of Capek’s dramas. Its themes, the fate of man and the loss of man’s humanity to technology, became a staple of his other works. The move from drama to fiction was a successful one for him, and Capek is best known for his science fiction novels. He did not oppose technology, but he was concerned that men had not given enough consideration to its potential misuse. For example, scientists succeeded in splitting the atom in 1919, and Capek, understanding the negative and dangerous potential of atomic energy, uses that destructive potential in The Absolute at Large (1922) and Krakatit (1924). He was not a realist focusing on man’s ordinary dilemmas; instead Capek found expression in archetypal characters thrust into extraordinary situations. Capek’s novels and dramas are important as a contribution to Czech’s literary reputation, but more importantly, they are important as an expression of Capek’s concern for the survival of humanity. His work had relatively little influence on the future development of Czech theatre, since Capek’s greatest focus was on fiction and not drama. In fact, his brother Josef's theatre designs had a more lasting influence, but R.U.R. continues to be performed in regional theatres where it persists in provoking discussions about technology, humanity, and greed.
Sheri E. Metzger
Metzger is a Ph.D., specializing in literature and drama at the University of New Mexico. In this essay, she discusses the theme of creation and the responsibility of the creator in R.U.R.
In R.U.R., Karel Capek comes very close to echoing the ideas first explored by Mary Shelley a hundred years earlier in Frankenstein (1818). Like Shelley, Capek is also asking man to consider the ramifications of science. It is not simply whether man can achieve something through technology, but whether he should that interested Shelley. It is the question with which Capek struggled as well. The creature that Victor Frankenstein builds is meant to prove that its creator can supplant God, that God has become redundant. The creature is bigger than man, and illustrates Frankenstein’s belief that he can create a man who is superior to that which God has created. Old Rossum has a similar goal. His robots are tireless workers, demanding little, but with the capacity to be stronger and faster, more efficient than the model created by God. But as both authors prove, creation is not without responsibility.
Even before Dr. Gall humanizes the robots, there were problems that signaled the failure of Rossum’s creation. The robots appeared to be prone to suffering some sort of breakdown, which the plant has labeled “robot cramp.” There is no acknowledged awareness that this may prove serious, and in fact, the breakdowns are dismissed as insignificant. Rossum has created something that appears human, feels human, and sounds human, but he stops short of creating humanity. However, on the surface, his creations seem to prove that man can conquer science. Rossum apparently never considers the potential for misuse, nor does he foresee that in the future man might modify his creation and create a new kind of robot. Greed motivates mass-production of the robots and their sale to any outlet with enough money. The goal of creating a labor saving substitute for man leads to the creation of quasi-men with orders to kill. And still, those who manufacture this new weapon accept no responsibility for its use. But the real creator of the robots is Dr. Gall who, through love, is motivated to create robots with souls. It never occurs to either Dr. Gall or Helena that they are creating life and that when life is created, someone has to assume responsibility for assimilating that life into society. It is the point that Old Rossum missed as well.
In a similar fashion, Victor Frankenstein misses that point when he creates his creature. He envisions himself as a replacement for God, as with his creation of a life, that God has been rendered unnecessary. As the robot’s creators will learn a hundred years later, a new creation needs someone to acculturate this new life into the world. Frankenstein’s creature is abandoned to find his own way, and left alone, he finds that murder is the only way to force his creator into assuming a responsible role. Of course even murder does not shock Victor, who escapes into fainting spells, illness, and sleep, rather than face what he has created. Of course, none of the plant managers at Rossum’s Universal Robots feign illness when the first reports begin to surface of the robots’ murderous spree; instead they continue to mass-produce their robots and accept orders and collect money. Still, they recognize the danger as they plot their escape on a waiting gun ship. Even as the robots besiege their last refuge, Busman escapes into his accounts, and the managers and scientists escape into a celebration of Helena’s ten years on the island. None of the robot’s creators appears willing to deal with the tragedy that is unfolding, and none will take responsibility to end it. Even when it has become clear that they may be the last of the humans to exist in the world, their only thought is to their own personal survival.
Frankenstein’s creature is different from the robots in that he does not appear ordinary. He is human, but not human enough to be mistaken as such, as are the robots in Capek’s play. James Naughton points out that Frankenstein’s creature is really an ancestor to the robots. The purpose of the robots is different than that of the creature. Frankenstein has no role planned for his creature;
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) evokes many of the same issues about human responsibility as does R.U.R. This novel also deals with questions about the future of humanity and asks serious questions about man’s humanity to man.
- Prometheus Bound, written by Aeschylus in the fifth century B.C., is an example from classical literature that explores how man deals with fate and with man’s inhumanity toward man.
- In The Insect Play, written in 1922, Capek uses insects to represent man’s vices and weaknesses.
- War With the Newts (1937) is often considered to be Capek’s best novel. In this novel, man is challenged by that which he has created, just as in R.U.R.
- Eugene O’Neill’s Dynamo (1929) examines a man’s obsession with technology and a machine he has created.
there is no purpose to its formation, except to prove that it can be done. In contrast, Rossum has an idealistic purpose: the robots can be used to serve mankind. But, as Naughton observes, both creations are biological and not mechanical. This renders their creators god-like, since only God can create man. And while the creators have formed a biological being, they have themselves become mechanical and less human. Naughton states that “man is mocked, victimised and degraded by depersonalised, mechanistic man-made civilisation.” But it is not the robots that have mocked man and mechanized his world; it is man who creates and then abandons responsibility that mocks himself and transforms humanity into machinery. When Busman attempts to use all the money the company has accumulated to pay for his escape and the others hope to buy their freedom by selling the robot formula, their actions demonstrate how dehumanized the creators have become. Similarly, when Victor Frankenstein allows his family to be murdered rather than speak
“IN R. U.R., KAREL CAPEK COMES VERY CLOSE TO ECHOING THE IDEAS FIRST EXPLORED BY MARY SHELLEY A HUNDRED YEARS EARLIER IN FRANKENSTEIN”
out, he gives voice to the dehumanization of his actions.
Another creation, from the sixteenth century, designed to serve man was the Golem of Jewish legends. Although his purpose was intended to be noble (the Golem was to save the Jews from pogroms), like the robots, the Golem proved difficult to control. The Golem was also human in appearance and made from earth and other biological components. He was not mechanical; thus, once again, the creator, Rabbi Loew, is supplanting God to form a man. Loew’s intent was worthy, but, as is the case with Frankenstein and Rossum, he failed to accept responsibility for his creation. Norma Comrada argues that there are many similarities between the Golem and Rossum’s robots, and she points that these similarities include elements of Adam’s creation. This reminder of man’s creation by God suggests “a challenge to and competition with a higher power.” But Comrada argues that there is another, more significant connection between robots and Golem. She quotes a Capek interview from 1935, where the playwright stated that “the Robot is the Golem made flesh by mass production.” And yet, the robots are very different from the Golem: they never make claims to spiritual purpose and they are not designed to protect man, only to do his work. And they come to represent man’s greed at its most offensive.
In this respect, the purpose of robots differs significantly from the other two earlier creation stories. Rabbi Loew never seeks any money for his creation, and Frankenstein never seeks to profit from his creature, in fact disclaiming knowledge of its existence. Only the robot’s creators realize that capitalism and economic profit are the important by-products of supplanting God. This changes the emphasis of the play back to the actions of the humans and away from the robots. And there is every reason to think that is what Capek intended. The robots proved to be both frightening and captivating when first introduced. They also provided the genesis for hundreds of robots and films that followed. The robots were so successful that their original purpose was forgotten. Capek is often quoted as saying that he wanted the play to focus on humanity, but, instead, it spawned an industry of robotic clones. William Harkins quotes Capek as saying that R.U.R. was “the worst of all his plays, one which he no longer wished to see on the stage.” And Comrada says that Capek, “had become increasingly alarmed by the manner in which robots were perceived and portrayed in plays, films, and stories in various parts of the world.” Naughton also quotes Capek as stating that R.U.R. “was concerned, ‘not with Robots, but with people.” He wanted to be able to say, “It was a great thing to be a man.” But instead, his play questions the goodness of man. At the conclusion of Merritt Abrash’s comparison between the 1923 translation of R.U.R. and a 1989 translation, Abrash points out that the new translation provides a clearer understanding of the role Capek intended for the robots. Abrash says that by restoring nearly twenty-five percent of preciously deleted text, the robots are diminished into just another plot device. Instead, the plot shifts its focus back to the humans, as Capek intended. The play then becomes a study in human behavior, since Abrash points out that the play becomes important when readers understand that it is not about how robots behave as robots, but about how robots behave when they become human that matters. In fact, the play is also about how humans behave when they abdicate responsibility for humanity. It is in their role as creators of men that humans fail. Capek was not opposed to science, but he was concerned with man’s ability to control what he had created. His modern day creation story illustrates that responsibility for science continues to be as important as scientific discoveries it unearths.
Source : Sheri E. Metzger, for Drama For Students, Gale Group, 2000.
Lewisohn reviews the 1922 London production of R.U.R., terming the production a success as both a work of ideas and an entertaining evening of theatre.
There are two kinds of notions in the world. There is the kind that hits you between the eyes; there is the kind that irradiates the soul. Thus there are two kinds of art. There is the art that dazzles and grows dark; there is the art that shines calmly and forever. It would be a sorry sort of affectation to deny one’s natural interest in the merely striking and merely dazzling, especially when it is implicated with powerful forces beyond itself. But it is healthy and necessary to keep the difference in mind. I do not at all blame the Theater Guild for producing “R.U.R.” by the Czechish playwright Karel Capek, especially in view of the quality of the production; I think it well for both the directors of the Guild and for ourselves to remember and, for a space, to realize the precise quality of the drama in question. The central idea has violence rather than creative energy. Punch is not power any more than a pine torch is a star. Punch, indeed, commonly goes with a lack of power. And the lack of authentic power in the central idea of “R.U.R.” is borne out by the execution, which is a strange mixture of wavering brilliance and mere confusion.
What is Capek after? What, in plain language—everything worth saying can be said thus—does he want to tell? Something like this: An industrial civilization with its power concentrated in the persons of the captains of industry and war wants hands not minds, helots not men. It is secure and powerful in the measure in which the proletariat is degraded, insensitive, supine. That is obviously true and was worked out long ago in a melodramatic but quite telling way by Jack London in one of his not altogether deservedly forgotten books. Now, Capek’s argument runs on, if ever this industrial civilization does succeed in reducing the proletariat to the level of mere mechanical helots, then the death of civilization will be upon us. For when these helots revolt they will destroy all things and values that represent the spirit of man. The squint at Russia is obvious; the complete absurdity of the argument equally so. For on the one hand we have the assumption that men can be reduced to the level of mere machines which, in the nature of things, would not revolt at all; on the other hand we are told that these helots will revolt against slavery, oppression, their own soulless estate, which at once reinvests them with all the passions, powers, and thoughts from which the triumphs of civilization—St. Peter’s and the Divine Comedy and the Ninth Symphony—draw their origin.
In order to project his argument pictorially and dramatically Capek uses what may be called the Golem-Frankenstein device. Rossum, a great physiological chemist, invents a method of manufacturing man-like creatures who make good workers and soldiers but are without passions or self-originating
“CAPEK’S ARGUMENT RUNS ON, IF EVER THIS INDUSTRIAL CIVILIZATION DOES SUCCEED IN REDUCING THE PROLETARIAT TO THE LEVEL OF MERE MECHANICAL HELOTS, THEN THE DEATH OF CIVILIZATION WILL BE UPON US.”
thoughts. These “robots” are manufactured, bought, and sold as workers and, finally; as cannon-fodder. They soon vastly outnumber mankind whose birthrate declines to nothing since men cannot compete in cheapness or usefulness with the robots. They revolt—this is the central absurdity—slaughter all men left, but are doomed to extinction in their turn since the secret of their manufacture is lost. This ending, which might be called logical were not the whole thing the reverse, is furthermore stultified by an epilogue in which a male and female robot suddenly become human and enter, a queer Adam and Eve, the dusty paradise left them.
There can be no question but that behind the play, as well as in a hundred details of the execution, a high and powerful passion, a far from ignoble imagination have been at work. “R.U.R.” is no ordinary work, Capek’s no ordinary talent or intelligence. I have been at some pains to point out the brittleness of the argument, the confusion of the symbolism, because this brittleness and this confusion are very characteristic of a good deal of the minor serious drama of the hour. These plays come with an intellectual and poetic gesture which, upon analysis, is seen to be merely a gesture. Their turbid symbolism and specious arguments are in danger of making many people undervalue the literature which is humbler and truer, more concrete, and for that very reason more significant; not spectacular but sound.
Whatever the play has of imagination, weirdness, beauty, horror is fully expressed if not indeed heightened by the settings, costumes, acting, directing at the Garrick. As an example of the art of the theater the production is exquisite in skill, sensitiveness, in the unemphatic completeness of its command of all the resources of that art. It deserves the utmost admiration and the closest attention; the play deserves the nine days’ wonder of the proverb.
Source: Ludwig Lewisohn, “Helots” in the Nation, Vol. 115, no. 2991, November 1, 1922, p. 478.
In this review of the London debut of Capek’s play, the critic finds the dystopian drama to be “an exciting, thrilling play, which everyone will enjoy.”
R.U.R. can hardly be better described than by its own subtitle, “A Fantastic Melodrama.” Here and there the fact of its projection into the future, its touches of genuine satire, its digressions into speculation, make one mistake it for a play of ideas. Then it seems disappointing, and we perceive the thin places in plot and characterization. Especially did it seem a “let down” to me, for I have had the pleasure of watching some of the rehearsals of Mr. Karel Capek’s other piece, The Insect Play, which Mr. Playfair produces at the Regent on May 5th. Here the satire is vivid, and the humour light and delicate. In fine, it is in comparison with The Insect Play that we see what is wrong with R. U.R., though it may be that R.U.R. will be esteemed the more taking piece. R.U.R. has much of the character of an early work. Its whole attitude is tentative and it takes obvious refuge in action and excitement from the difficulties both of sustained characterization and reflection. There is little character drawing in it. All the people are types, somewhat hazily conceived. The exasperating ingeénue. Helena Glory, is the least successful, and they range up to Dr. Gall (head of the psychological department of Rossum’s Universal Robots) and Emma, Helena Glory’s servant, and Jacob Berman, the chief cashier. But really it is a quibble to draw attention to these faults of the play, for once grant that it is to be melodrama, and not a play of ideas, it is extraordinarily good, and holds the spectators from beginning to end. The actual story also is a genuine effort of the imagination.
An old scientist has found out not merely how to produce life, but how to make tissues which can be infused with the life that he has made. He tries to imitate nature and makes an artificial dog. “That took him several years,” explains one of the characters, sarcastically, “and resulted in a sort of stunted calf which died in a few days.” Then he tried to make a man. But his nephew was a man of very different ideals. He saw that there was money in the idea. He saw that, given a slight twist, the formula would produce not men, but “Robots,” living, intelligent, working machines. Young Rossum goes over the human anatomy and cuts out everything that is “unnecessary.” A weaver does not need to play the piano and feel joy or sorrow; or love or hate. Young Rossum, then, produces Robots. The factory is a going concern. Helena Glory comes to the island where the R.U.R. factory is situated on behalf of a sentimental “League of Humanity,” who are shocked at the material way in which Robots are looked upon. She sentimentalizes over their hard lot (they are sent back to the stamping mills and ground if they show any signs of inefficiency) and ends by marrying the General Manager, Harry Domain. But Dr. Gall is a scientist and missionary, and carries on the tradition of old Rossum rather than young Rossum. He pushes forward. He endows the Robots with pain, so that they shall not be careless and break their limbs. This is the beginning of the end. Pain proves the beginning of some sort of consciousness. Ten years after the opening scene of the play the Robots are turning upon the men who have made them and conquering the world, for men have ceased to be born, and the Robots now outnumber the human beings by a hundred to one. A thrilling scene ensues in which the humans are besieged by the Robots, and finally overwhelmed, only one man surviving. But the secret of making Robots has been lost through the sentimental action of Helena Glory, who, before the catastrophe, has burned the formula.
Power has made the Robots still more like human beings. They only last twenty years, and their leaders are in agony lest the race of Robots should die out. They are machines and the formula has gone. But the anxiety, in its turn, has had its effect upon them, and the play ends with a young Robot and Robotess going out into the world suffering from new and unaccountable symptoms, such as inability to live without each other, willingness to sacrifice everything for the other’s welfare, laughter and a quickened heart-beat. A new Adam and Eve have come back to the world.
An exciting, thrilling play, which everyone will enjoy. But the glamour over, to return to its faults. The part, played by old Rossum’s formula is ludicrously like that of the “marriage lines” in the old fashioned Lyceum melodrama. The tragedy is made to turn on their burning by the impulsive sentimental young wife, who has got them out of the strong box where they are kept. Now, Robots are supposed to be turned out by the hundred-thousand. Imagine a play in which the tragedy depends on Mr. Ford losing the formula for his motors! Manufacture in bulk would so patently involve at least some hundred printed copies of the formula that this flaw is worrying, and gives far more sense of unreality than a mere synthetic man. The second drawback is the extremely tiresome character of Helena Glory, played by Miss Frances Carson, whose pretty looks could do no more than make her bearable. The men characters all have a certain touch of imaginative largeness about them. Harry Domain, the manager, wants to make Robots so as to free the human race from the grind of monotonous labour. Dr. Gall is a scientist with enthusiasms. The half-comic cashier is yet a man not without grandeur and a sense of the hugeness of the machine for which he works. But Helena Glory is of the past; she is told nothing about the revolution, and her ten-year anniversary is being celebrated with pearl necklaces, cyclamens and so forth all through the exciting part. Her characteristic speech is, “Oh, Harry, I don’t understand!” She would seem out of place in modern London, she is two or three centuries behind the life of the factory between 1950 and 1960. She interrupts the adventure story in the most exasperating way. The adult playgoer will feel almost a schoolboy irritation at the way in which she interferes with our enjoyment of the revolution scene, and in the way in which she is always on the stage. In exasperation we remember that she does not even fulfil the one function of the harem woman; she is childless. All this would be bearable if she were not so constantly in evidence.
Mr. Basil Rathbone looked very handsome as Harry Domain, but acted stiffly. Mr. Brember Wills’s acting as Alquist, in the last act was too much reminiscent of his performance in Heartbreak House. Mr. Leslie Banks as a Robot, and Miss Beatrix Thomson as a Robotess, were admirable, and the entrance of the Robots at the end was most striking; indeed, I wish we could see more of them—they are really alarming and convincing monsters. I am sorry that Miss Olga Lindo, as Helena II., the Robotess through whom love comes back into the world, should have modelled her costume on the tradition of the opera stage, hair down, backward tilted pose and white nightgown. The result is that to most people she does not look nearly so attractive as Sulla, the unemotional Robotess.
May I compliment the Reandean management on their news-sheet and programme, of which I had not previously seen a number? The cover of it is delightful, with its harmonious printing, and the contents are quite amusing.
Source: Anonymous, review of R.U.R. in the Spectator, Vol. 130, no. 4949, May 5, 1923, pp. 755-56.
“POWER HAS MADE THE ROBOTS STILL MORE LIKE HUMAN BEINGS.”
Comrada, Norma, “Golem and Robot: A Search for Connections” in the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Vol. 7, nos. 2-3, 1996, pp. 244-54.
Day, Barbara. “R.U.R” in the International Dictionary of Theatre Volume 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 695-96.
Day, Barbara. “Karel Capek” in the International Dictionary of Theatre Volume 2: Playwrights, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 162-65.
Drake, William, “Karel Capek,” in Contemporary European Writers, John Day, 1928, pp. 310-16.
Harkins, William E. “The Real Legacy of Karel Capek” in The Czechoslovak Contribution to World Culture, edited by Miloslav Rechcigl, Jr., Mouton & Co., 1964, pp. 60-67.
Naughton, James D., “Futurology and Robots: Karel Capek’s R.U.R.” in Renaissance and Modern Studies, Vol. XXVIII, 1984, pp. 72-86.
Abrash, Merritt, “R.U.R. Restored and Reconsidered” in Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Vol. 32, no. 2, Summer 1991, pp. 184-92.
This article offers a comparison between translations and suggests that in early translations as much as twenty-five percent of the text was censored to removed suggestive sexual or political content.
Harkins, William E., Karel Capek, Columbia University Press, 1962.
This is the only book-length biography of Capek in English. It contains a lengthy discussion of his works as well.
Kussi, Peter, editor. Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Capek Reader, Catbird Press, 1990.
This is a collection of essays about Capek’s work and also contains a new translation of the play.
Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, Yale University Press, 1979.
This book discusses the development of science fiction as a genre and Capek’s place within the genre.