Karel Capek, R.U.R.

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University



Čapek, Karel. R.U.R. 1920. Trans. Paul Selver and Nigel Playfair. Mineola, NY: Dover Pub. Inc., 2001.

Topics for Writing:

R.U.R. in the post-Futurism, post-WWI context.
Modern love.
Alquist vs. (?) Nana.
“Oh, good gracious, another murder!” (24).
Why the Robots hate humans (see 42).
Creating pain.
The state of Information culture in the play.

Influences and Contexts:

Earlier in the century, Western culture in general can be characterized as subscribing to optimistic rationalism, a faith in human achievement and steady progress. Recent inventions such as the railway, electric lighting, the airplane, the motorcar, and advances in communications, plumbing, hygiene, and medicine all promised a new century of peace and prosperity. World War I changed the world not just externally with the redrawing of European map; faith in humanity and civilization was also shaken by the “brutal impersonality of modern machine warfare” (Morgan 2) and the technological boom after WWI met with much ambivalence. The potential abuses of technology overshadowed the utopian notions that science and technology had inspired before the war.

Czechoslovakian author and playwright Čapek (1890-1938) commented on R.U.R., written in 1920, in a later London Saturday Review interview:

I wished to write a comedy, partly of science, partly of truth. The odd inventor, Mr. Rossum (whose name translated into English signifies “Mr. Intellectual” or “Mr. Brain”), is a typical representative of the scientific materialism of the last century. His desire to create an artificial man — in the chemical and biological, not the mechanical sense — is inspired by a foolish and obstinate wish to prove God unnecessary and absurd. Young Rossum is the young scientist, untroubled by metaphysical ideas; scientific experiment to him is the road to industrial production. He is not concerned to prove but to manufacture. . . . Those who think to master the industry are themselves mastered by it; Robots must be produced although they are a war industry, or rather because they are a war industry. The product of the human brain has escaped the control of human hands. This is the comedy of science.

Čapek “became an increasingly outspoken antifascist” in the 1930s. “It is said that he would have been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in those years, had not the Nobel committee been fearful of offending Hitler” (Silver iii-iv).

The Characters:

Domin (often translated appropriately as Domain) is a hyper capitalist manufacturer, blind to morality or consequences. He’s the mad scientist type without the science.

Helena, because of her Classical Greek namesake, we may expect to serve as the catalyst to the apocalyptic war here. Does she?

Alquist, probably due to his cynicism, is later the only survivor from among the humans at the factory. The rest function as a collective entity.

Literary Innovations:

The word “robot” comes from the Czech word robota, meaning drudgery, servitude, or forced labor. Čapek’s brother and occasional collaborator Josef supplied this influential feature of the work.

Act I is set at the factory office where Domin dictates business letters to his secretary Sulla, who will turn out to be a robot. Damaged robots are considered “spoiled freight” (1). The daughter of the “President” visits; Helena Glory gets to say very little, and nothing that isn’t already anticipated by the hyper Domin who interrupts her repeatedly. It’s interesting that the backstory “info-dump” takes place without Domin’s interest or attention, even while he’s delivering it. Instead, we are supposed to understand that he is immediately smitten with Helena. 1920 is long ago in this play, when old Rossum messed around with synthetic protoplasm and invented, in 1932, a substance with which he could create life forms. “He could have produced a Medusa with the brain of a Socrates or a worm fifty yards long. But being without a grain of humor, he took it into his head to make a vertibrate or perhaps a man” (4). Rossum’s efficient son turned the process industrial, and it’s an interesting aside that we learn “The school books are full of paid advertisements” (5). Helena’s intention is to rabble-rouse, to preach “human rights” to the robots, but she is astounded that Sulla is a robot and that the other managers are not. The robots seem to have no self-interest, nor any instinct for self-preservation, as they speak dispassionately about being sent to the “stamping-mill.” Domin and company have no worries about Helena’s initial intentions; obviously many such attempts have been made before: “Every ship brings us more. Missionaries, anarchists, Salvation Army, all sorts. It’s astonishing what a number of churches and idiots there are in the world” (12). Dr. Gall wants to include pain in the creation of the robots, for purely and blindly industrial reasons. With robots flooding the labor force, the managers rhapsodize about a utopian future: “Everyone will be free from worry and liberated from the degradation of labor. Everyone will live only to perfect himself” (15), this despite warnings from Alquist (16). Ironically, the managers jump at the chance to cook their own lunch. With farcical abruptness, Domin asks Helena to marry him (17). She offers some over-the-top melodramatic reluctance, but soon the others are congratulating the engaged couple as the curtain rings down. Obviously we can’t really take these characters seriously. We end up with piles of melodramatic clichés mixing inappropriately with the science-fiction socioecomic commentary. It’s satire for now, but remaining acts change the mood.

Act II is set ten years later at Helena and Domin’s home. All are preparing to celebrate the couple’s anniversary and are obviously shielding Helena from troubling world news regarding the Robots in rebellion. The human maid Nana is superstitiously disdainful of the Robots, but is also a semi-literate pain in the ass. How romantic! Domin bought his wife a gunboat for their anniversary. Radius, the librarian Robot, has gone berserk, but Helena excuses him from the stamping-mill (27). We also learn that the human race has gone reproductively sterile (so the work is not so bleak after all). By the end of the act, the Robots, obeying a manifesto insisting on the elimination of humans, have surrounded the house.

The pressures of being surrounded by menacing and presumably murderous Robots in Act III bring about some desperate behavior but very little regret over manufacturing decisions of the past. Domin hopes to negotiate with Rossum’s plans so that the Robots can create more of their species, but Helena has recently burnt all useful documents. Busman idiotically thinks half a billion dollars will buy their freedom, but he electrocutes himself at the fence. Eventually the power goes down, the Robots enter, and they kill all the humans except for Alquist who “works with his hands like the Robots” (49).

In an Epilogue, Alquist agonizes over indecipherable documents and his inability to reconstruct the method for creating the Robots. Radius promises anything and is even willing to sacrifice himself to the dissecting room, but Alquist is powerless. He witnesses, however, the self-sacrificing love between a Robot named Primus and the Robot Helena that Dr. Gall had made. Rather than dissect either, Alquist calls them Adam and Eve and sends them on their way (58).

Final Commentary:

From the “freight” they are at the opening of the play to the inheritors of the planet in the end, these are not your rattling metal machines conjured by the word Robot. It’s a rigorous experience to be taken from the character-dismissing farce of the first act to the apocalyptic third act and beyond. Although the early 1920s may have abandoned the Futuristic zeal for industry and machinery, particularly having seen how it chews up humanity in war, but anthropocentrism still went largely unquestioned, and so the end of childbirth and the annihilation of the species would have been chilling. Although it’s not always clear how we’re expected to take the scenes in this play, that the Robots indeed shoot nearly all the characters to death certainly creates the appropriate theatrical frisson accompanying a violent elimination of the cast.

For more on the Czech names and their significance, see this sample paper.

Works Cited

Čapek, Karel. R.U.R. 1920. Trans. Paul Selver and Nigel Playfair. Mineola, NY: Dover Pub. Inc., 2001.

Morgan, Robert P., ed. Music and Society: Modern Times. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc., 1993.

Silver, Drew. Note. R.U.R. By Karel Čapek. Mineola, NY: Dover Pub. Inc., 2001. iii-iv.