Character Names in Čapek’s R.U.R.
In plays and short stories, there is not a significant deal of literary room for character development. As such, the naming of characters, places, and ideas with their associated meanings is an important literary tool. Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. is a preeminent example of this naming requirement. The prologue introduces readers to several characters in a whirlwind of dialogue including a marriage proposal made without any seeming basis in the plot. By the end of the work, each character’s behavior in the play can be attributed to his or her core personality, accessible to the audience through his or her very name.
Often noted when referencing either R.U.R. or Čapek is the coining of the name Robot. In fact, Karel gives credit for this infamous term to his brother Josef; the name stems from the Czech words robota meaning “drudgery” or “servitude,” and robotnik referring to a serf/peasant (Jerz). Čapek’s Robots are not made of metal and circuitry as modern connotations have inscribed in our minds; they are a physiological construct created through mass production: “mixing vats for the batter. In each one we mix enough batter for a thousand Robots at a time. Next come the vats for livers, brains, et cetera. Then you’ll see the bone factory” (44-45). The Robots entire reason for being is labor, as soon as they are produced they immediately begin working (45) to fabricate goods and serve humans; added to this function, Domin clearly states that they don’t have a will to live for they are without soul or any instinctual desire of the kind (44). Even after they become the masters, eliminating nearly all of the humans their function is still to produce materials: “We have increased productivity. There is nowhere left to put all we have produced” (98). Despite the Robots’ claim it is all for future generations they are unable to realize these progeny because they are still Robots, their sole purpose is to fabricate, creating technological materials. Only Primus and Helena go beyond this integral Robot purpose of labor and service finding love, and in the end there is an allusion to their being able to reproduce (108).
R.U.R. stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots; the name Rossum in this abbreviation comes from the inventor of the robots, and his son who proceeds with their manufacture. The name Rossum’s etymon is the Czech word rozum meaning reason, intellect, and understanding (Trnka 169). Old Rossum who discovered the formulae for creating Robots is called “An ingenious mind … The old atheist” (40). This reference lends itself to forming Rossum’s character as all about reason and scientific understanding at the cost of faith. It taps into the idea that reason and faith are at opposing ends of a spectrum: “You see, he wanted somehow to scientifically dethrone God” (39). Young Rossum’s character is also born from the connotations associated with his family name. He is just as brilliant, but in a different vein as an engineer, as his father and he wanted to create life better then nature, “When he took a look at human anatomy he saw immediately that it was too complex and that a good engineer could simplify” (40). The young Rossum saw organisms that have joy, music, imagination as being “superfluous” (41), and thus not needed for perfect Robots; a very logical and reasonable assumption. In effect, the Rossums are reason and intellect taken to their logical extreme; and in Čapek’s works this path has very negative associations, i.e. the downfall of mankind.
Harry Domin, sometimes translated as Domain (About.com), is the governing force in this play; he is the central director of R.U.R. (34). Harry, a form of the name Henry whose etymon is the Germanic word heimerich meaning “home ruler” (Campbell). Heimerich is derived from heim meaning “home” and ric meaning “power/rule” (Campbell), both meanings fitting the character Domin well. He is the one to marry Helena but he also has a clear view of what the future will bring, and how he and the factory are to bring that new world to fruition.
DOMIN: There . . . O Adam, Adam! no longer will you have to earn your bread by the sweat of your brow; you will return to Paradise where you were nourished by the hand of God. You will be free and supreme; you will have no other task, no other work, no other cares than to perfect your own being. You will be the master of creation. (52)
Indeed even after the Robot revolt but before the takeover of the factory he states his plans to continue building even more Robots (74). “I wanted man to become a master! … I wanted there to be nothing, nothing, nothing left of that damned social mess! … I wanted a new generation of mankind! … I wanted to transform all of humanity into a world-wide aristocracy. Unrestricted, free, and supreme people. Something even greater than people” (81). Fundamental to his personality is his assurances to the others of control and power. He speaks over Helena especially in the prologue, and later he placates to her about what is really going on through not answering her or directly misleading her (60).
Helena Glory was called Helena Gloryovā in the Czech version (Čapek 1). The last name Glory has bound within it connotations including magnificence, beauty, splendor, fame. These meanings coincide with the name Helena, which stems from Helen of Troy in Homer’s Iliad. Helen of Troy is a woman whose beauty indirectly sowed the seeds of destruction (Meagher ix). She has become an idealized version of “woman” who has been described as the epitome of beauty and harbinger of doom. In a way “The story of Helen is the story of woman” (Meagher 1). The character of Helena is also beautiful, so beautiful that all six of the men at R.U.R. are deeply in love with her immediately and will do anything for her. For example, per Helena’s request, Dr. Gall changes the Robots: “HELENA: Oh, Gall, that’s not true. I knew in advance that you couldn’t refuse me. DOMIN: Why? HELENA: Well, you know, Harry. DOMIN: Yes. Because he loves you — like everyone else” (85). The men also forgive her, despite the fact that in a way she brings about both their doom and the end of humankind. Helena instigates events by her arrival at the factory, and subsequently asking Dr. Gall to change the Robots to give them souls (84). She also requests that Radius, the most brilliant of the Robots to be put in the library so he can read (66). From his time there he learned that he wants to be the master “I want to be the master of people” (67). Later she burns the Rossum papers, the supposed last chance for humanity to survive (87).
HELENA: That … that people had become sterile flowers!
DOMIN: I don’t understand.
HELENA: You know … that children had stopped being born…. Harry, it’s so awful! If you kept on making Robots there would never be any children again — Nana said that this is the punishment — Everyone, everyone’s been saying that people can’t be born because too many Robots are being made — And that’s why — that’s the reason, can you understand?
DOMIN: You were thinking about that, Helena?
HELENA: Yes. Oh, Harry, I really meant’ well! (91)
The meaning associated with Helena’s name bespeaks of the behavior of her character as a destructive driving force in the play, however unintentional it may be, while still remaining a sympathetic character as prescribed my modern understanding of her namesake.
The Stavitel Alquist, also known as Mr. Alquist, character is the only one who lives through the Robot revolt, his first name means “builder” (Trnka 193). Alquist lives as a direct result of who he is, derived from his name: builder (95). Discussing why women no longer bear children with Helena, he says the reason is that because people don’t work for anything any longer, don’t do anything, or struggle for anything and that is why women won’t bear the children of these men any longer (65). “Lord God, I thank you for having shown me fatigue. God, enlighten Domin and all those who err. Destroy their work and help people return to their former worries and labor…. Rid us of the Robots” (64).
Konzul Busman’s character references the term for a bus driver, i.e. busman (Čapek 1). This name alludes to the term, Busman’s holiday, which is where someone has time off and does what he or she would normally do at work on a day off (Wilton). After the house is surrounded by the Robots, Busman takes out work to do “Ledgers, friends. I’d rather do the accounts than — than — Well, this year I’m not going to let the accounts wait until New Year’s” (79-80). Indeed, while the others argue and lament over the end he counts and carries numbers (80-81). In this way his intriguing behavior during a time of crisis seems plausible but very satirical.
Nana in some translations has been called Emma (About.com) which is derived from the Germanic word ermen meaning “universal/whole” (Campbell). Helena argues with Harry about her importance: “Nana is the voice of the people. They’ve spoken through her for thousands of years and through you only for a day. This is something you don’t understand–” (84). The Robots Marius’ and Sulla’s names are interesting because they were named to be lovers, but were in fact opposing generals (44); a mistake about the Robots good relationship that was in reality negative, is played out on a larger scale in R.U.R. The Robot Radius stems from the Czech name Rados which is short for Radoslav or Radiomir (Campbell). Rad means happy, slav glory, and mir peace (Campbell). The contrary meaning of his name with his behavior is an interesting use of the literary tool of naming by Čapek since Radius’ name implies a happy goodness to him, and in the play he partakes in the destruction of mankind. In this way the audiences would start out perceiving the Robots as nice if dull, and find their turn around as they become more human: “You have to kill and rule if you want to be like people” (99), even more of a shock.
In translations from Czech to English much of the meaning was lost for English audiences, but for a period of time an entire character was lost, the Robot Damon. The name Damon derives from Damian which is in turn is from the Greek name Damianos whose etymon is damao meaning “to tame” (Campbell). This Robot was the best of Dr. Gall’s Robots (68), who shares a name with St. Damian, the martyred patron saint of physicians (Campbell). Damon offers himself up as a subject for Alquist to dissect in order to discover how to make more Robots, thereby planning becoming a martyr for his own people (101). The Robot Primus refers to primary or first which correlates with his later naming by Alquist as Adam the first man (108). The Robotess Helena name derives from the same as Helena Glory since that is for whom she is modeled. Robotess Helena too is supremely beautiful but she is also useless until finding love with Primus Alquist who renames her Eve (108).
The behaviors of the R.U.R. characters seem less unexpected when the connotations of their names are taken into account. Even with the Robot names, which for some such as Radius seem at odds with his later behavior, it was in fact a literary tool to alter the audience’s perceptions and communicate Čapek’s theme for R.U.R. The three character interactions between the humans, the Robots, and the humans and Robots is more layered then the satire. While the satire is important to the social commentary that the play revolves around, the meaning of names and the assignments of said names is just as important, however indirectly. While some of the meaning of words and names is lost in language translations, languages themselves carry a wealth of subtle information and connotations for names so that even if name meanings are unknown to the play-goer, an understanding of the qualities of a character is still present.
About.com. 1 Jan. 2006. About, Inc. 6 February 2006. http://experts.about.com/e/r/r/R.U.R._(Rossum’s_Universal_Robots).htm.
Campbell, Mike. 18 Jan. 2006. Behind the Name: the Etymology and History of First Names. 12 February 2006. http://www.behindthename.com.
Čapek, Karel. R.U.R. 1921. Project Gutenberg: Online Book Catalog. 2 Aug. 2004. Project Gutenberg. 7 February 2006.http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=85821.
Čapek, Karel. “R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots).” Trans. Claudia Novack-Jones. Toward the Radical Center a Karel Čapek Reader. Ed. Peter Kussi. Highland Park: Catbird Press, 1990. 34-109.
Jerz, Dennis G. 13 June 1999. “R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots).” Home Page. 6 February 2006. http://jerz.setonhill.edu/resources/RUR/.
Meagher, Robert E. Helen: Myth, Legend, and the Culture of Misogyny. New York: Continuum, 1995.
Trnka, Nina. Czech-English English-Czech Dictionary. 1984. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1991.
Wilton, David. 22 Jan. 2006. Wordorigins. 6 Feb. 2006. http://www.wordorigins.org.