Čapek’s Robots: Inspiration and Reflection

The term “robot”, ubiquitous today, exploded onto the European theater in 1921, creating an undying trope. Coined by Czech playwright Karel Čapek, the term first appeared in Rossum’s Universal Robots (R.U.R) and would later be introduced into thirty languages as the play gained popularity throughout post-war Europe. As a journalist holding a degree in philosophy, Čapek’s transition to play-writing paralleled his native Czechoslovakia’s transition to independence following the Great War. Later in 1921, Čapek’s good friend Tomáš Masaryk was elected the first president of Czechoslovakia, a country still unsure of its direction. During the communist era, Czechoslovakia would become a nation defined by its dissent culture. Václav Havel, the first post-communist president, began his political career as a dissent playwright (Remnick). While not dissident in nature, R.U.R arises from Čapek’s political ideology and warns his new republic against the treacheries of the modern world. While exploring national identity, R.U.R provides insight into the ongoing battle to utilize technological advancement for the common good and prevent its rapid militarization by warring states and domestic elite. Unsatisfied by the contemporary lexicon, Čapek, influenced by European society, invented and wielded the term “robot” to draw parallels in a dynamic, new age.

Out of Shakespearean ingenuity, Čapek’s classic robots appear identical to humans —antithetical to the metallic imagery associated with them today. In a factory, “machines produce pieces of bloody meat” (Čapek, Epilogue, 90) which are finely weaved together to form a robot.  While comically human-like in appearance, robots are chemically different from humans, but chemical nonetheless. Czechoslovakia, a country formed after the First World War, artificially encompassed five ethnic groups into a state which no longer exists today. Much like the cognitive dissonance created by Čapek’s robots, Czechoslovakia appeared like any other European country but on the inside, it did not conform to the pervasive mold of the single-nation state. Examining Čapek’s robots from a sole technology perspective fails to acknowledge their intention “to expose human qualities in their true light” (Bradbrook 44) by acting as human-like foils. By visually personifying his science fiction machines, Čapek enables his readers to draw parallels from the robots’ world and project themselves onto all his characters.

Čapek did not create his robots as blank slates for his audience to merely cast in their image.  Rather, from the etymology of robot, spectators observe and hear Čapek’s desire to frame his robots as contemporarily influenced metaphors. While having written of metallic automata in the past, Čapek sought out a new word believing the use of such imagery “misinterpreted the central polemic of the play” (Graham 115). The term “robot” instead balanced the medieval Frankenstein’s monster and lifeless “mechanical androids” (Bradbrook 44). Derived from the Slavic word robota, meaning work, the term carried with it “historical connotations of serfdom” (Graham 115). To Čapek and his contemporary audience, the word carried a new connotation — one associated with the industrial worker, oppressed by a new and burgeoning class of capitalists. While “nature has no idea of keeping pace with modern labor” (Čapek 22), the robots of R.U.R fulfill the needs of a world economy built on the backbone of production, manpower, and consumption. Once the robots become conscious though, they rise up by forming labor unions and seek to overthrow their creators, an appropriation of the Bolsheviks of Russia and the Marxist ideology spreading across Europe at the time (Belam). Yet, their revolution ends in the genocide of the human race, ironic considering the advocate for their consciousness (Helena) came from a league against their exploitation.  In the end, the revolution fails as the robots cannot discover how to reproduce. By inventing the term “robot”, Čapek incorporates an intrinsic allusion to capitalism and communism in his creations by drawing inspiration from contemporary attitudes. To his audience, an action of a robot no longer just represents a warning against human nature but also as a scrutiny of the ongoing debate concerning the political direction of Czechoslovakia and Europe.

The name of the original robot inventor, Rossum, derives from the Czech word for reason (i.e. rozum) alluding to Čapek’s intention to wield his robots to offer insight into human nature (Graham 117). While Čapek did not serve in the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War, he witnessed firsthand the cataclysmic upheaval that resulted. Beyond the death or injury of 38 million individuals, Europe lost three great empires and gained six new countries, creating a map which continues to shift to this day. Unchecked technological advances became militarized and collided with outdated military tactics. From serine gas and the machine gun to dynamite and tanks, the mass assimilation of technology in war served as a backdrop for the dying of imperialism and the emerging ideological conflicts of capitalism and communism (Where Robots Came From). The lost generation’s whispers can be heard through R.U.R. Today, audiences continue to see and fear a robotic trope first utilized by Čapek — the destruction of humanity by machines run amuck. As in the First World War, Čapek’s robots, the vanguard of technology in the future, become militarized to devastating effects (Graham 116). The unhampered progress eventually leads to the robots’ rebellion and the end of the world. For the first time in history, humanity had the capacity of self-annihilation. Influenced by such a possibility, the darkest moments of Čapek’s play build upon a growing skepticism of the ultimate virtue of scientific progress.

In an attempt to extend society’s short memory and prevent a repeat of the First World War,  Čapek warns against ambition and the militarization of the elite by drawing parallels between ancient historical figures and the robots of his play. Again, Čapek encodes his influences and messages in the names of his characters: Helena, Sulla, and Domin. Helena Glory, the woman who comes to the island factory in the prologue of the play, alludes to “Helen of Troy, men no sooner see her, then they fall in love with her” (Cornell 105). As is the case, all the employees of the island worship her for ten years, even after her marriage to Domin. Čapek’s use of Helena as both the cause of humanity’s ends and its failed savior invoke the stories of the Trojan War in listeners. To break his audiences’ historical amnesia, Čapek points out the desire to wage war is not a modern phenomenon, but rather one so intrinsic that if not actively opposed it will win the day. If Europeans could recognize the First World War was merely one in a long line of wars, Čapek believed the next one could be prevented. The first robot to appear in the play is named Sulla, after a Roman general. While Domin believed “Marius and Sulla were lovers” ( Čapek Act 1, 15), Sulla was the first Roman to raise and march an army on Rome as the two generals battled for glory and power in a bloody civil war. Through this reference, Čapek provides an “example of the cost of ambition” (Cornell 104) and foreshadows the eventual uprising of the robots. Sulla and Marcus’s petty fight parallels the pointlessness of the First World War in the eyes of history and acts as a warning against providing ambitious leaders the means to wage war at will. In the name Domin, Čapek demonstrates his fear of ambitious elites misusing technological advancements. “Domin” — deriving from the word dominance — echoes “Victor Frankenstein’s lofty ambitions” (Cornell 105) and Mary Shelly’s reference to Prometheus’s linkage of technological advancement with ambition and destruction. Domin, head of the factory, increases the output of the robots in order to create a world where man is the master of all things, including labor. Yet, the few who can afford his robots turn them into weapons while the common man devolves into laziness and infertility. In Domin, Čapek symbolizes that technology can be created with an altruistic intention but the ambition of the few can corrupt any good. Through these names, Čapek forces his readers to draw parallels between their modern day and history in order to warn against the dangers of centralized technological progress.

Through the shared memory of World War One, Čapek discusses the dangers of unheeded technological advance and ambitious leaders for his new country, but Čapek also infuses his own political ideology into his play. The industrialization of Europe led to mass urbanization and gave rise to a new class of labor but also a new middle class (Where Robots Come From). Čapek uses his robots to represent the exploitation of labor by rampant capitalism. “A worker’s soul is not a machine, therefore it must be removed,” (Graham 119) Čapek wrote in a 1908 short story. R.U.R contains many references and subsequent critiques of Fordism and Taylorism — the bedrock of contemporary capitalism. The factory assembly line turns robots “out at such a cheap rate” (Čapek, Act 1, p. 25) with an ultimate focus on efficiency. “For industrial reasons” (Čapek, Act 1, 25), these robots feel no pain and are not easily damaged. Even if damaged, they are the pinnacle of Fordism’s ideal of an expendable labor force serving only the means of production. Taylorism, the popular scientific management theory of the day, sought to incorporate scientific precision into the management of industry. Čapek’s robots evolve Taylorism to a new level — by eliminating the soul of the laborer, they justify capitalists’ ambivalence towards the common worker in their drive for production and wealth. The capitalist system found in R.U.R devolves into chaos. Reminiscent of the First World War, robots become utilized for war, but instead of halting production of robots, Domin and his factory speed up production. Capitalism without morality becomes not a tool for national prosperity but rather destruction, oppression and greed Čapek warns by extrapolating contemporary capitalist themes.

While warning against the greed and oppression of capitalism, Čapek also highlights the totalitarian potential of its opposing economic theory — communism. Alquist, the only man not killed by the robots, is the laborer of the factory. While the robots represent oppressed workers, Alquist argues that humans forced out of work were also disrespected by the capitalist. He says there is a “virtue in [the] toil and weariness” (Čapek, Act 1, 26) of labor, reflecting a Tolstoyan school of thought (Graham 120). Undoubtedly, audiences saw communist principles portrayed in R.U.R. Oppressed workers (here robots) rise up in the form of labor unions to demand political power mirroring the ideology of socialists revolting in neighboring Hungary (Graham 133). While opposed to capitalism, Čapek was not a communist; R.U.R warns of the “dangers of revolutionary totalitarianism” (Belam) resulting from an uprising of the proletariat. In R.U.R, the robots lose the means of reproduction after committing the genocide of the human race, revealing the shortsightedness of their revolt. In the young Czechoslovakia, the army was forced to defend the country’s territorial integrity and stability from Hungarian communists. While the common man and laborers must be respected to prevent such a rebellion, Čapek argues, communism is a sight-shorted solution — one which fails to recognize human individuality, as much as the capitalist. By saving only one man and expecting him to be able to ensure their reproduction, the robotic central committee fails to secure stability and elevate the laborer — an omen for a communist Czechoslovakia.

Čapek’s critiques of capitalism and communism can be viewed through a technological lens but also through a nationalist lens. Nationalism helped create the entangling alliances which led to the devastation of the First World War. Not unlike his critique of capitalism and communism, Čapek finds and portrays how nationalism brings out dangerous aspects of human nature. The play features a plan to create robots of different “races”, so “every Robot will hate every other Robot of a different factory mark”(Čapek Act 2, 59) to prevent unity and rebellion. After his experience of the First World War, Čapek took a “deeply cynical view of postwar European nationalism” (Graham 134). Čapek distaste for nationalism is found in his characters’ idea for nationalist robots but his cosmopolitanism can be found in the play’s performance and characters. Domin speaks four languages, the play was translated into over thirty languages, and its cast was consistently multi-ethnic — similar to the play’s characters: a Jewish businessman, a German psychologist, an English engineer, a French physiologist, and a Latin-named manager (Bradbrook 49). In the end, nationalism both facilitated the Čapek’s robots’ militarization and would plague Europe with another world war.

By critiquing capitalism, communism, and extreme nationalism as political ideologies, Čapek advocates his audience a middle-way for the new Czechoslovakia. While Čapek’s robots struggle to define their apparent humanity, Čapek’s audience struggled to construct a new national identity. Čapek offers his optimism for Czechoslovakia in the Epilogue of his play. While the robot race seems doomed to perish, two robots fall in love and carry on the race as a de-facto Adam and Eve. Humanity lives on in their creation which retains a core human quality — the will to survive (Bradbrook 46). The reconciliation of the robots with their humanity at the end of the play displays Čapek’s prediction that the nation of Czechoslovakia would form a national identity and navigate the treacherous economic ideologies and technologies of the future.

While Čapek’s R.U.R may have fallen out of modern memory, the impact of his introduction of the word “robot” has not. The invention of the term incorporated intrinsic mechanisms for the critique of capitalism and communism. While his robots were scientific marvels, they revealed qualities in their human counterparts. One such quality was ambition which led to the shattering of the belief technology was entirely under the control of its creator — a belief mirrored in the aftermath of the First World War. Writing in the new Czechoslovakian country, Čapek contributes his play to the debate on the direction of the country. He wields his robots to critique the greed of capitalism but also the demagoguery of communism. A cosmopolitan himself, Čapek warns against extreme nationalism which would lead Europe down the path to another war. Yet, Čapek maintains an awareness in his play’s message that nationalism will be important for the unity of his new nation. As with economic ideologies, Čapek uses his robots to demonstrate the best path for the new country is one that values laborers but does not eliminate innovation, one that values nationalism but does not advocate for isolation from the world, and one that checks ambition in order to ensure technological progress benefits the nation. Čapek’s R.U.R continues to ripple through the ages because Čapek’s human-like, contemporarily-influenced robots continue to act as a foil for humanity and offer a medium for the examination of modern-day debates.

Works Cited

Belam, Martin . “Rebooting ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ for the 21st century.” Currybetdotnet. N.p., 12 July 2011. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.

Bradbrook, B. R. Karel Čapek: In Pursuit of Truth, Tolerance, and Trust. Brighton; Portland, Or: Sussex Academic Press, 1998. Web.

Čapek, Karel. R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Trans. Paul Selver and Nigel Playfair. Studio City, CA: Players Press, 2002. Web.

Cornell, Christine. “Remembering the Ancients: Observations on Technoscience in Čapek’s R.U.R.” Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, vol. 31, no. 2, 04/01/2011, pp. 103-112. EBSCOhost.

Graham, James. “An Audience of the Scientific Age: Rossum’s the Production of an Economic Conscience.” Grey Room, no. 50, Winter 2013, pp. 113-142. Remnick, David. “Václav Havel in Jerusalem.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 25 Nov. 2014. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.

“Where the Robots Came From: Historical Notes on Karel Capek’s R.U.R.” Theatre Free Radical. N.p., 07 Apr. 2014. Web. 26 Mar. 2017.


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