R.U.R. by Karel Čapek
from Science Fact/Fiction, eds. Farrell, Gage, Pfordresher, Rodrigues
Scott, Foresman and Company, 1974
Originally published in 1920, Aventinum Publishing House, Prague
Translation by Paul Selver and Nigel Playfair
Originally published by Oxford University Press, 1923
Price I paid: $6.56
Here’s another neat new first: Let’s talk about a play!
This is a really notable play, and it’s one of those things where I kind of expect folks to be in much the same position I was until I finally read it. See, this play is one of those kinds of things that works its way into trivia contests and the like. Maybe you’ll see it referenced somehow, like with a character named Rossum or a planet named Čapek IV, which just happens to be overrun with, well
Because here’s the thing, this is where it all got started! Karel Čapek (pronounced Chapek) invented the very word robot in this play, and here we are. It’s a household word. It is so thoroughly embedded in our culture that it’s easy to forget that it’s a word that actually has a traceable origin and hasn’t been around forever.
This is not to say that Čapek invented the concept of robots. The idea of an automaton made of metal or stone or what have you has been around since various mythology times, and the word “android” dates to the 1700s. And it goes even further because it turns out that Čapek’s version of robots is almost nothing like what it became! I’ll describe them a bit more in a bit.
I’ve come to understand that Čapek based the word on the Czech word robota, which originally referred to serfs, corvée laborers, and other such types of forced workers dating back to feudal days. He also gave credit for adopting the word to his brother, Josef.
The play itself is in three acts, with an epilogue. The text ran for about fifty pages and I’m not entirely sure what that means for an actual runtime. I know with screenplays the rule of thumb is about one minute per page but with stage plays I have no idea.
Off the top we meet a fellow named Harry Domin, the general manager of Rossum’s Universal Robots. He’s dictating some memos to his secretary, a robot (actually the dramatis personae refers to her as a robotess) when he has a visitor, a woman named Helena Glory. She’s interested in robots. Domin states that lots of people are interested in robots, but that she’ll get the grand tour. See, she’s the daughter of “President Glory,” and the play never seems to establish what her father is the president of. At first I thought that he was the president of the company, but context eventually makes that unlikely. Since Domin and everybody else seem to be Americans, I eventually decided that he’s the president of the United States, but I was never quite clear on that. I think that, despite the story taking place in “the future,” that the politics within are roughly the same as the politics in the inter-War period, which is a fascinating span of time that I know very little about.
Domin invites in some of his cronies and together they explain robots to the woman. It’s all pretty paternalistic and I guess that’s hardly surprising but it was still pretty irritating to read. And it gets worse. Man, the 20s.
Anyway, robots. Robots were invented after a guy named Rossum discovered some chemicals that were capable of being turned into living matter and assembled into creatures. The text is pretty vague on how that works but whatever, it’s fine. As I’ve gotten older I’ve grown to appreciate handwavy technology more and more. Rossum devised a way to create humans and went mad with power, although that latter part isn’t mentioned to the public. His son took the reins and decided that the thing to do would be to make a whole lot of money. Not only could he create humans, he could improve them, and of course the way to improve humans would be to make them more economical workers. He removed silly things like “wanting to self-improve” and “caring about how food tastes” and “self-preservation” from their personalities, as well as simplifying them physically, and started mass producing robots.
It’s pretty interesting because while these robots are organic and therefore very different from what we’d think of as a robot today, they robots are nonetheless still assembled. Like, the captains of industry have all these devices spinning chemicals into nerve bundles and bones and stuff. It’s wild.
Also, the robots can’t create more of themselves and I think it’s solely because they lack the emotional interest in doing so? Like…I think they have the physical parts to do it, mostly due to something that happens at the end of the play.
Miss Glory is here on behalf of the robots. She’s concerned for them and believes that their lot in life is cruel. Domin and his lackeys all explain to her that this is not the case, that the robots have no wants or desires or, well, souls, so it’s impossible to be cruel to them. They are not human beings. They are merely organic machines. Helena doesn’t quite seem to get it.
Right as the first act ends, Domin sends his lackeys out of the room and then proposes marriage to Helena. It’s kind of weird! He says that if she doesn’t marry him, she’ll have to marry one of those other guys, because they’re all in love with her. I’m sitting here thinking so fricking what but I guess to somebody from 1920s Czechoslovakia that’s all that it takes. I still don’t think she ever actually consents, but nevertheless, wedding bells chime to end the act.
Act II begins ten years later and takes place in Helena’s drawing room. I don’t know if her ignorance of world events is her own doing or if they’ve been kept from her by her husband, or what. Part of me thinks that it happened just to serve as a narrative device. Helena gets word that strange and tumultuous things are happening across the globe, and that robots are involved, and so she gets more and more information as the act goes on.
In the meantime, one of her household robots, named Radius, is on the fritz. Specifically, he’s decided that he hates humans. This is apparently just a thing that happens occasionally with robots, but with Radius, it’s a bit odd. Radius was built to be just a bit smarter than most other robots, and usually when a robot goes on the fritz it just shuts down and refuses to work. Radius not only refuses to work, he’s outright shouting about his own superiority to humans. Normally the solution to this is to send the robot to get destroyed and recycled, but Helena can’t stand the idea of doing that.
If you’re anything like me you’re already starting to get a bad feeling about how this play treats its single human female character. It’s not great! More than a little of this play is egged on by the soft pretty lady and her icky emotions and her panicky thoughtless actions. One thing she does at about this point is to start a fire in the fireplace and put all of the instructions for creating robots into the fire. Just…kind of…impulsively? I think her thought was something like “if we can’t make any more robots then maybe this whole thing will be averted” but I’m not sure. The decision has pretty terrible consequences.
Domin shows up with the same lackeys from the start of the play and they sit around and discuss the fact that the robots are in a complete worldwide uprising. There seem to be several things contributing to the cause for it. Partially it’s that the old European powers are at it again (remember that this play was written not long after World War I ended!) and this time they decided to conduct their wars with robots. Each nation ordered lots and lots of robots, who got armed and taught how to use those arms. Whoops! Now all the robots have seized everything!
There’s a moment when things start to look up for the human race because a mail boat has arrived. One of the lackeys has this whole thing about the “timetable” and how you know that the timetable is the ultimate marker of civilization. It’s pretty funny, I thought. Now that things are looking better, the guys all start talking about how they’ll prevent this from happening again, and the solution they present is that they’ll stop making “universal robots” and instead create “national robots.” The national robots will all hate and distrust one another so that there can’t ever be a general action against the humans again.
Oh boy, does that sound familiar! Of course that’s one of the tactics long since used by bosses to keep workers from uniting against them. Foment whatever hatreds you can find to make sure that the different workers are all more concerned with one another rather than their real enemies, and keep going to the bank.
This play has got a lot of anti-capitalist sentiment to it, but from what I’ve read, Čapek spent much of his short life also quite critical of the Marxist ideologies. This play seems to echo that to a degree, where it seems that everybody in the play has their own goals as regards the robots, and none of them seem to actually be beneficial to anyone else or the world in general. Domin, for example, seems to be a real idealist. Whether he’s speaking from good faith or not is another question we can ask, but he spends several monologues talking about how his entire goal with the robots is to help end human drudgery and bring about a utopia where folks can cease worrying about survival and focus on self-improvement. My guy wants Full Automated Luxury Communism! A post-scarcity society!
I’m absolutely here for that and will pray for it until my dying day, but I guess Čapek and I aren’t on the same side of that fight.
But there’s also the fact that Domin’s dream might actually have been possible if not for his wife’s interference, which is, again, kinda gross.
But then as the act comes to a close, we find out that the mail ship or whatever is actually full of robots, and now the cast is surrounded.
Act III begins there and our folks are under siege. The leader of this gang of robots turns out to be the very same one that was on the fritz earlier, Radius. Time is ticking down and it’s not looking good for our humans.
I’m kind of critical of a lot of this play but there’s one brilliant exchange that gave me chills. It’s between Domin and Alquist, one of the employees of R.U.R. who is an engineer, mostly quiet, but turns out to be the conscience of the group.
DOMIN. Alquist, this is our last hour. We are already speaking half in the other world. It was not an evil dream to shatter the servitude of labor—the dreadful and humiliating labor that man had to undergo. Work was too hard. Life was too hard. and to overcome that—
ALQUIST. Was not what the two Rossums dreamed of. Old Rossum only thought of his godless tricks and the young one of his milliards. And that’s not what your R.U.R. shareholders dream of either. They dream of dividends, and their dividends are the ruin of mankind.
There’s got to be some kind of a phrase to describe something that was relevant in one way at the time it was written, but is still relevant now but in a bit of a different way. I think when Čapek wrote those words a hundred years ago, he was perhaps thinking of weapons manufacturers selling their tools of war to both sides of the Great War, earning their pounds and Deutschmarks and dollars off of the wholesale slaughter of humanity. Today we still get to see ads for Raytheon on TV while they’re selling bombs to kill Yemeni schoolchildren, but we get so many more examples, too! Eliminating fossil fuel dependency to mitigate catastrophic climate change? Oh, but the shareholders! What if we kept people at home for the duration of this pandemic and made sure they couldn’t spread it? Oh, right, the stocks! How could I have forgotten the stocks?
As the act progresses, somebody gets an idea. They realize that they’re the only people who have the recipe to make more robots! Of course! They’ll hold that over the insurrectionists’ heads and surely we’ll be able to come to some kind of an agreement!
Whoops, you mean those same plans that Helena threw in the fire? The only copy of them that we kept for some damn reason? Backup your data, people! Jeez!
One of Domin’s cronies admits to changing the way that some robots are made and suggests that maybe he was able to add a soul? Or something like that? Either way, it definitely made the robots hate people more. So that’s a thing too. Also, he did it because Helena asked him to. Greeeeeaaaat.
Anyway the robots break in and kill everybody except Alquist, because he “works with his hands.”
The epilogue features Alquist, who is trying to find a new formula to create more robots. He is the last human, and without a formula, the robots will also die off before too long and everything will have been a waste. The problem is that Alquist has absolutely no idea what he’s doing. He builds bridges and stuff, not humans.
He’s about to give up hope and start dissecting specimens when two robots arrive. The robots are totally in love with one another, and after a bit, Alquist comes to realize that. They are willing to sacrifice their lives for one another, and also there’s, like, smooches. Alquist declares them a new Adam and Eve and that’s where the play ends.
Oh my god this was literally the finale of [oh man it would be cool if I had spoiler tags on this platform].
This play had a lot to it. I think maybe that was its biggest flaw? Maybe if Čapek had picked one thing to be the point of the play it would have been a bit more cohesive. As it is, it seems like a critique of war, and of capitalism (or at least consumerism), and of self-interest, and of, uh, not-self-interest, and of women acting on their ovary whims or whatever. There are probably a few other things I could pick out if I felt like it.
But I’m not gonna say the whole thing was bad, by any means. Where it shined, it shined, and where I could understand what Čapek was trying to get it, I definitely thought he had a good point. But at the same time I’m not going to herald it as a masterwork just because it gave us the word robot.
I do imagine that I’d feel differently, probably better, if I’d seen the play instead of read it. I would really enjoy seeing this play in some form or another.
Another thing to mention, though, is that the play is pretty funny. The characters are pretty larger-than-life and generally are the source of the satire. That’s another thing that I think would come out better in seeing the play instead of reading it. I can’t think of any good examples because I feel like maybe they were only funny because of the way my imaginary cast was speaking in my head.
From what I’ve heard, this is an earlier one of Čapek’s works. I’d be interested in seeing what his later stuff has to say. He even has a novel, War with the Newts, that is apparently a sort of response to or inversion of this play, and I’m interested in that. Guy was nominated for a Nobel Prize for Literature seven times and is considered a major influence on Czech literature and language, so it seems almost silly for me to sit here and criticize it.
Still, I’m gonna criticize it, and largely because of the weird gender relations stuff. I’d be curious to see how modern productions of the play handle Helena. To me she seemed airheaded, wanting to be helpful but unable to do so in a useful way. It came off as fairly misogynistic in that way. But who knows? Maybe a modern director and/or actress can figure out how to give the character some real agency instead of bumbling the plot along by virtue of ignorance and silliness.
I think that’s about all I’ve got for this one, but I’d be interested in hearing if anybody else has read this one or, more importantly, seen it. Any good recordings I should be on the lookout for?