Karel Capek's R.U.R & The Robber: A collage by Voyen Koreis, made mainly from the lithographs of Josef Capek

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Čapek's R.U.R.

by Voyen Koreis

From the Introduction and Translation Notes to the new English translation of the two plays by Čapek - R.U.R (Rossum's Universal Robots) and The Robber, issued in 2008 by Booksplendour Publishing

R.U.R. - from a London review, 1923

Čapek began to work on what has turned out to be his most successful play, R.U.R., in 1920, and the play was published in the same year. The play had its first performance on the 2nd January 1921 as an amateur production. The amateur theatrical society “Klicpera” in Hradec Králové, where Čapek went to the high school, had the author’s permission to stage the play on this date, with the premiere at the National Theatre in Prague originally scheduled for an earlier date in December 1920. However, the Prague production was delayed, and a letter was sent to the amateurs in the provincial town asking them to also postpone the performance. The locals nevertheless ignored it, and regardless of consequences (in the end they were heavily fined by the national body) they seized upon their opportunity to stage the world premiere of the play, which even then was expected to be a success. And success it was! Still in the same year of 1921, R.U.R. was performed in Germany, and in the following year it was produced in Warsaw, Belgrade, New York and several other major cities. By the time of its London premiere in 1923, the play had already been translated into thirty languages.

From the London review, 1923

R.U.R. not only made Čapek internationally famous; it has also made him in a certain sense immortal. This is so because of what may be the 20th century’s most significant addition to the dictionaries, the word “Robot”, appears here for the first time. It stares on us even from the play’s subtitle – Rossum’s Universal Robots, and is repeated throughout the play. As Karel Čapek later admitted, the true inventor of the word “Robot” was his brother Josef. Karel Čapek originally wanted to call the artificial creatures “labors”, a version of the Latin word for labour, but did not like it much, so he consulted his brother Josef, who suggested robots. Just as well he did - imagine our modern world full or “labors”. It would not sound right, would it?

The word “robot” is derived from the Czech “robota”, meaning serf labour, or drudgery. Robota as such was outlawed in Bohemia as late as 1848, which means that in Čapek’s time there would still have been people around who remembered having to work compulsorily on the property of the local feudal lord. In the past centuries, recurrently there were uprisings of the serfs, which no doubt gave some of the ideas to the author. Another source of inspiration would inevitably have been the medieval legend of the Golem, the creation of the Prague rabbi Levi, a creature made of clay and animated by a Kabbalistic formula. Čapek (a Catholic, but demonstrably also a Freemason) denied that he had the Golem legend on his conscious mind when writing the play, but the Golem is such a strong archetype, and the legend is tied to the city where Čapek had spent most of his working life, which makes it hard to believe that there would not have been any influence, at least on the unconscious part of the author’s mind. Like the Golem (and also the Frankenstein monster), the Robots are created by a single man, an eccentric genius, and the formula he uses to make them come alive remains largely obscure, only outlined in the most general way. Old Rossum (from the Czech rozum, reason, intellect) is fanatical in his atheism. Čapek was a believer. The race of soulless creatures must die out, unless they acquire a soul.

Alquist from the Prague production of R.U.R. In Čapek's time, the literary style he used was known as Utopia.

R.U.R., particularly in its dramatic concluding stages, still comes much closer to the Gothic horror of Mary Shelley, than to science fiction, where some of the modern critics tend to slot Čapek. This author, as has H. G. Wells (whom Čapek knew personally) before him, and together with the next generation of writers that includes George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and several others, uses the utopian theme chiefly to aid his literary aims, and to make some substantive commentaries on the state of society. Today, nearly a century after its original publication, R.U.R. has withstood the test of time. The Robots‘ revolt and its consequences could for instance now be seen as a warning against giving the scientists a free hand in the pursuit of genetic research. The R.U.R. managers and scientists too, at every opportunity stress that their noble aims are designed to benefit mankind, but somewhere down the line perhaps there might be a heavy price to pay.

Left - Alquist in the original Prague production