Up-words - The Brothers Capek & Robotica

Up-words- The Best of the Paper Issues of This way up 2002-10

November 2003 (with amendments March 2012)
The Brothers Capek
by Oliver Wake

Josef and Karel Čapek were born the sons of a doctor in Bohemia, in 1887 and 1890 respectively. They both inherited their father’s keen intellect and from a young age harboured literary and artistic aspirations. Karel first demonstrated the political sensibility which would characterise all his work when only eleven years old, being expelled from school for writing for a secret student newspaper. He later completed his schooling in Prague before travelling to Munich with Josef to enjoy the city’s cultural highlights. Both started writing profusely at this time. Karel stayed on in Munich to study philosophy, enrolling on a university course that took him to Berlin and Paris. He graduated in 1915 and returned to Prague, narrowly avoiding conscription to fight in the Great War on medical grounds.

Having already published one collection of their work, Josef and Karel became joint editors of the cultural section of the Czech ‘National’ newspaper, though they would later resign in protest at the paper’s shifting political orientation. They also became involved with The Unafraid, a fledgling satirical weekly, and the Czech National Theatre. Karel continued publishing short stories, literary criticism and Czech translations of French poetry. Josef meanwhile was developing into a respected artist of the Cubist school and illustrated many of his brother’s books.

In 1920 Karel had his first two plays performed. The Robber, inspired by the true story of a fugitive outlaw, found moderate success but is little known now, while RUR was to prove a lasting hit. The play was a bleak allegory on the dangers of mechanisation and the age of the production-line, resulting in the destruction of mankind at the hands of the robots they had made to serve and fight for them. Accounts vary as to the exact origin of the word ‘robot’, but archaic Czech terms meaning slave or manual labour are at its heart. Although the play was Karel’s, it was Josef who furnished him with the word, thus securing his place – if he did not already merit one for his own writing and art – in cultural history.

1921 saw another success with The Insect Play, a collaboration of both Čapeks, in which a slumbering tramp is the only human character. The actions of butterflies, larvae, and insects of all kind are used to ridicule the behaviour of mankind, building to a suicidal war of total destruction raged by rival ant colonies. What starts as gentle satire ends as a brutal and obvious allegory of totalitarianism and militarism. The drama was popular and, like ‘RUR’, played internationally and was broadcast on the BBC’s fledging television service in the 1930s. Another success for Karel was 1923’s The Makropulos Affair which, in depicting a century long court case and life-weary 300-year old actress, questioned the benefits of prolonged life.

Karel went on to expand his prose repertoire in the 1920s, penning travel guides, children’s stories and a wry book about gardening. He also befriended TG Masary, Czechoslovakia’s first president, and would publish a number of conversations with him. Some of his novels of the period are particularly interesting, often echoing the themes of RUR. The Manufacture of the Absolute is about an invention causing religious turmoil and eventually all-out war, while ‘Krakatite’ is prophetic of the arms-race to come, depicting the struggle for possession of a devastating new weapon. Most of his early works were of a similar fantastical or allegorical nature, though Karel would later prove his ‘realist’ credentials with his highly regarded novel trilogy of 1932-4.

In the mid-1920s Karel began writing dozens of mystery stories, having absorbed popular examples of the genre in many languages. The 48 short stories (known collectively as The Pocket Tales) do anything but follow the rules of the genre, breaking with accepted structure and form. Karel’s personal development as a writer is evident in the stories, which he uses to debate notions of relative truth and justice, and the nature of crime itself. Although detectives often feature, intuition and fortune play as great a role as detection in the solving of crime. The Pocket Tales, originally published in newspapers, helped popularise an everyday colloquial style of Czech writing, and have been widely read and reprinted since.

In 1927 Josef collaborated with Karel on Adam the Creator, a play about the devastation and reconstruction of the world, which can be read as a partial sequel to RUR. Although it hasn’t had the lasting impact of RUR, the play was a success and won the brothers a major Czech drama award. Josef’s solo play of this period The Land of Many Names, sadly seem to be forgotten. Having enjoyed Czechoslovakia’s liberal climate, it was with growing despair that the Čapeks observed the rise of fascism in Germany and Spain in the 1930s. With the threat of totalitarianism as a background to their work, the Čapeks redoubled their efforts to promote common humanity in their writing.

Karel published his most famous novel, War with the Newts, in 1936, resulting in his nomination for a Nobel Prize for Literature. The novel tells a similar story to ‘RUR’, but instead of robots it features giant intelligent lizards, discovered on a remote Pacific island. The Salamander-like creatures are taken back to Europe and taught to speak. Once the novelty of their presence wears off, they are exploited, imprisoned and made to serve man. Ultimately they violently rebel and a war of survival begins. The Nobel prize was not given to Karel, however, for fear that awarding it to such a renowned liberal would antagonise Hitler at a politically sensitive time. The power of some of the brothers’ political plays was also recognised, being banned in several countries.

Karel continued to write viciously allegorical drama, including 1937’s The White Plague, about the destruction caused by power mad dictators. With Nazi Germany poised to invade Czechoslovakia, Karel’s urge to defy the appeasers was courageous, if suicidal. It made him few friends and antagonised many who had previously admired him. His last play was The Mother, an appropriately grim, doom-laden drama about death and war.
In 1938, with German forces occupying the Czech borderlands in preparation for the full annexation, it was revealed to Karel that he was high on the Gestapo’s arrest list. He stubbornly refused to flee the country, preferring to remain until the bitter end. The Nazis were not to have him, however. Karel Čapek died of pneumonia on the evening of Christmas day 1938. His premature death was perhaps fortuitous in saving him from a worse fate at the hands of the invading Germans. Josef Čapek was no so lucky; he was sent to a concentration camp, where he died in 1945.

The Čapeks’ plays were staged again after the war, and have remained popular, and their prose is still read. In the Czech Republic the brothers are known as literary stars of the pre-war period and are considered heroes for their opposition to totalitarianism. It is, however, for the word ‘robot’ that they are best known, and will be remembered. It’s a horrible irony that Josef, the man who invented ‘robot’, such an important term in our vocabulary for the ‘brave new world’ of the future, was killed in the worst barbarism of our recent past. Perhaps next time a tacky plastic robot lumbers across our television screens in the name of entertainment, we should consider its origins, sparing a thought for Josef and Karel.

Robotica by Matt Salusbury

The recent movie Terminator 3 was something of a disappointment. Radio 4’s ‘arts’ critic charitably said of it that there may be a serious film in there trying to get out. If this were true, such a film would look very much like the big daddy of all modern science fiction, Karel Capek’s ‘futuristic melodrama’ stage play RUR .

 The play opened in Prague way back in 1921, back when film was still a silent medium, and arrived in London eighty years ago this year. RUR is now remembered as the obscure 1920s Czech play that coined the word ‘robot’. But it was far from obscure in its day and was regarded as revolutionary -   in fact, RUR is arguably one of the most important works of the 1920s. At a time when even Henry Ford’s mass production techniques were frighteningly new, and new technology meant cars and telephones, RUR foresaw the current ethical crisis in genetics and cloning – the ethics of science and the fear of humanity being taken over by nanotechnology and GM crops.  While in many ways quaintly outdated, RUR remains a timeless classic, bringing the terror of Frankenstein into the modern age. Some of its predictions turned out to be unexpectedly accurate. Modern sci-fi owes an awful lot to this play.

The word ‘robot’
“Robot" comes from the Czech word "robota", meaning "forced labour”, specifically an obligation by the serfs to work several days a week on their lord’s land. The idea appeared in one of Karel Capek’s earlier works but the word was in fact invented by his brother Josef.
Not yet having a familiar word to describe Kapek’s creation, critics contemporary critics called them ‘the mechanism.’  By the time the BBC radio adaptation of R.U.R had come around in 1926, ‘robot’ – now lower case – had entered the English language.

The plot

For a sci-fi philosophical melodrama, RUR  opening has a remarkably realistic feel – we are in an office, with a Domin, the company’s director dictating letters to clients about liability insurance claims for goods – robots ­– damaged in transit. The audience becomes only gradually aware that he is dictating to a not altogether human secretary. The action of the play takes place at the island factory complex of Rossum’s Universal Robots (R.U.R  for short), where  employees recall how ‘old Rossum’ invented robots back in 1920 and how ‘young Rossum’ has improved them. In a foreshadowing of Blade Runner, the play opens with one of the R,U,R staff being unable to tell whether or not a secretary called Sulla is a girl or a robot. (She’s a robot.) The word ‘Robotess’  – coined in the play to describe female robots – did not catch on. While they were sexless, they were designed to resemble males or females as that was what consumers were used to. Helena Glory, the wife of the plant manager, has idealistic ambitions for the robots and tries to improve their lot.

The robots are outwardly identical to humans, come fully dressed at £25 each, and wear out in twenty years. By their fourth generation, RUR’s Physiologial Department has developed a ‘Super-Robot’ - given the power to suffer fear, pain and discontent to stop them damaging themselves. But defects creep in – some robots are observed gnashing their teeth and generally acting weird, which earns them a trip to the ‘stamping mill’ for recycling. Rather like the recipe for Coca Cola or KFC, the secret formula for the robots’ manufacture is kept in a safe and brought out whenever a batch is made.

Robots have strongly affected society. Humans are becoming sterile, refusing to bring children into a life of unemployment, while Luddite mobs turn on the robots and smash them up. Human technology has stagnated. War – fought by robots armies – is widespread.
Eventually, the robots become animated with human hate, pride and scorn and rise in rebellion. It is the robots’ rebellion at the end of Act 3 which is by far the strongest element of the play, when the humans, in Capek’s words “face their doom with heads held high.”
In the final scene, ten years later, robots have killed off all the world’s humans except Dr Alquist, kept alive in the belief that he has the secret formula which can produce more robots. Helena, it turned out, had burnt the ‘recipe for the robot’s manufacture’. Two ‘Adam and Eve’ robots, however, develop sympathy and love and the ability to reproduce.

The curtain comes down on the last surviving human sinking to his knees and saying a prayer. The idea that mankind was made in the image of God was still popular in those days, and the censors at the Lord Chancellor’s Office only just let the British version of RUR through, uneasy as they were at any controversial depiction of religion on stage.


RUR  – A Fantastic Melodrama was first performed by the South Bohemian Amateurs before transferring to the Prague National Theatre in 1921. The patriotic playwright Capek gave the copyright to the National Theatre. The impressive laboratory sets designed by the futurist Bedrich Feurerstein were to influence productions around the world.

The play was a great success when it opened in Germany, France, Japan, the US and Britain. It was also a success in the avant garde world of early Soviet theatre, just at a time when the cult of  the ‘robotnik’  (worker)  was starting. It’s critique of business and the wasted opportunities of capitalism, and its scenes of the ‘Bolshevitic outbursts’ of the robots’ rebellion resonated with Western audiences so soon after the Russian Revolution. By the late 1930s, RUR  had been around for nearly twenty years and become popular all over the world. The BBC’s fledgling television service chose to adapt it for broadcast.

Its English translation by Paul Selver was a Broadway smash hit before being  ‘adapted for the English stage’ by Nigel Playfair and opening at the West End’s St. Martin’s Theatre. A young Basil Rathbone, later to achieve fame in the Sherlock Holmes movies, won accolades for his portrayal of the youthful factory director Henry Domin, as did the actor Leslie Banks for his strong portrayal of Radius the Robot.  Critics found it a “marvellous play” but disliked the ending “the sentimentality of the servant’s hall…..in contrast to the magnificent austerity of the opening scene” was how the Manchester Guardian described it. The saccharine ending in the British production came complete with a salmon pink sunrise lighting effect. Later academics claimed that the ending was mutilated in translation and was somewhat bleaker in the original Czech.

RUR  saw the first use of sirens for dramatic effect, with factory sirens screaming to announce the robots’ rebellion at the end of Act 3. The latest high-tech General Electric experimental lab equipment was on loan as a prop in the factory scene, and the London production saw the debut of a revolutionary new theatre lighting system.
As befitted a cutting edge avant garde futurisitic play, it became one of the first plays to be transmitted on brand new BBC radio – a medium so new that the station was known as ‘Daventry Experimental’. Previous radio plays had had breaks in the action for a narrator to explain the plot, but the 1926 adaptation of RUR by Cecil Lewis was the first radio play to have uninterrupted action. The play opened with a ‘picture in sound’ of the robot factory. The wartime BBC Home Service broadcast another radio adaptation of RUR in September 1941.

RUR  also became the first ever science fiction TV programme. A 35-minute adaptation, not of the full play but merely a section of it (full adaptations being rare at the time) was transmitted live from the BBC’s tiny  Alexandra Palace television studios on 11th February 1938. There were around 12,000 TV sets in use in Britain at the time. The BBC then had no facility for recording live programmes, so once shown, this version of RUR was lost forever. It was probably a condensed version of the whole play. The costumes gave the robots an obviously mechanical form – ignoring the script’s insistence that the robots were identical to humans. The same BBC production team ran a 90-minute live TV version of RUR in March 1948 – also lost to posterity.

The science of RUR

   DOMIN:  Have you ever seen what a Robot looks like inside?
   HELENA:  Good gracious, no!
   DOMIN:  Very neat, very simple. Really a beautiful piece of work.
(R.U.R, Act 1, Scene 1)
Karel Capek  was deliberately vague about what his robots are made of. He later referred to them as ‘metal contraptions’ with ‘wires’.  The script describes them as ‘factory-made men of steel, leather and other dry matter’ but there is a formula which has to be precisely mixed whenever a batch is made, which suggests a  ‘synthetic chemistry ‘ origin which biotechnologists of  today would  recognise. There is also mention of engineering ‘souls’ into the R.U.R. formula used to make robots.

While we tend to see robots today as clunking steel-constructed machines, RUR s vision of what’s on the inside of robots eerily predicts the controversial genetics experiments of today. The original proto-robot life forms were manufactured from the living ‘protoplasm’ of sea creatures by ‘old Rossum’, until his nephew realised that the process was so slow and imperfect. The steel and leather manufactured elements of robots were a cheapo production shortcut that was hit upon later. Strictly speaking, RUR robots are ‘biots’ – biological robots, half human and half living.

Karel Capek never believed that his idea could ever become a reality. He said of himself that
"It is with horror, frankly that he rejects all responsibility for the idea that they could awaken something like life, love or rebellion.”
While robotics in Capek’s retro-future of the 1960s is advanced, the people of 1960 still use clumsy candlestick telephones and wear tweed suits. The robots eat – but they can be ‘fed on hay, pineapples, anything’ which suggests some kind of fermentation-driven bio fuel engine powering them. R.U.R.’s factory turns out 10,000 robots a day.

80 years  later
RUR  robots would now be in their forth generation. The play is still a popular production in student drama companies in America’s West Coast. It’s a dialogue –driven play in which the action takes place in a small space, making it relatively easy to stage. But the play’s language  has given it a reputation for being difficult – even impossible – to produce. It was written in a style that now seems hopelessly outdated and it’s usually performed with an adapted script these days. People who study Czech as a foreign language today say you can’t  get far without coming across an extract from RUR  as a reading passage in a text book. The themes of RUR  have meanwhile even permeated into crackpot conspiracy theories – former professional goalie and conspiracist David Icke probably didn’t realise his debt to Karel Capek when he called one of his books – on how shape-shifting alien lizards rule the world – The Robot’s Rebellion.


RUR predicted the dominance of three-letter acronyms (TLAs) in this post-industrial age of transnational corporate globalisation. When the play was written in 1921, tariff walls surrounded nations, and ‘imported’ meant ‘luxury goods’. The play’s title is an abbreviation for Rossum’s Universal Robots, and Rossum was perhaps the first truly global multinational corporation. Theatre critics in 1923 detected ‘no sign s of nationality’ in the characters. RUR  is the world’s first truly global company, its monopoly of robot production even extending to the supply of robot soldiers by the million to rival governments at war.

RUR.’s corporate identity was its initials. In an age when GM was still General Motors, BP was still British Petroleum and IBM was still International Business Machines, initials were the preserve of avant garde art collectives. It’s telling that over 80 years after R.U.R, recent sci-fi films that retell the R.U.R. story all over again are known by acronyms, just as R.U.R. was – Kubrick and Spielberg’s A.I. (short for Artificial Intelligence) and Terminator 3, branded as T3 – The Rise of The Machines.

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