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ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE is a controversial topic these days. Will its advancement be to mankind’s good or detriment? Czech author Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. predicted the latter in 1920, though, in a way, with a happy ending. The play is also memorable for giving us the word “robot.”

Karel Čapek, 1890–1938, Czech author, playwright, publisher, ardent anti-fascist, anti-communist.

In the 1910s, Čapek studied at Prague’s Charles University, Berlin’s Friedrich Wilhelm University, and Paris’s Sorbonne. He was graduated with a doctor of philosophy in 1915 and began employment as a journalist. However, during a 21-year career curtailed prematurely by a spinal disease, Čapek wrote seven novels, five travel books, seven plays and seven other works ranging from children’s books to detective stories. He is best remembered for his 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossumovi universálni roboti).

Čapek credits his brother Josef, a successful artist and work colleague, with suggesting the word roboti to describe the non-human characters in the play. The Czech words robata, plural robati, trace back in Proto-Slavic meaning “slave work.” The anglicized “robot” has cognates around the world.

Note, Čapek’s robots are not mechanical, they’re organic beings synthetically assembled by their masters, akin to the modern idea of clones.

An early production of R.U.R.

Act I begins in the future, around the year 2000, by which time Robots are abundant and absolutely necessary to society. In particular, their work allows products to be made at a fifth of previous costs.

Helena, a human and member of the League of Humanity, wants to free the Robots, although she is dissuaded by their makers: Robots are fine, thanks; the League is a waste of time, effort, and money.

Acts II and III take place ten years later. Helena secretly burns the formula required to create Robots. Other humans are wishing their Universal Robots weren’t quite so universal: Robots would better know their place had they been unable to communicate beyond their language groups.

Robots storm their assembly plants and kill the humans except for Alquist, the chief engineer, whom they admire and spare because he too “works with his hands….”

This human evidently doesn’t do manual labor. Or, soon, it seems, anything else.

In the Epilogue, years later, Robots have eliminated the human race—except for Alquist. The Robot government begs the engineer to recreate the formula, even if he has to dissect Robots to do so.

Alquist is disgusted by this inhuman suggestion, but devises a solution: Advanced Robots, one named Primus and the other Helena, are capable of human feelings and fall in love. When Alquist threatens to dissect them, each begs him to spare the other. Alquist recognizes the pair as a new Adam and Eve, and gives them control of the world.

Mankind is over; but, in a way, it’s a happy ending.

R.U.R was first produced, in Czech, in Prague on January 25, 1921. Within two years, the play was translated into 30 languages. Its American premiere, in English, was in New York City in October 1922. R.U.R ran there for 184 performances. Two actors making their Broadway debuts were Robots Spencer Tracy and Pat O’Brien.

In February 1938, the fledgling BBC Television aired a 35-minute adaptation of R.U.R., recognized as the first televised sci-fi. In 1939, the U.S. Federal Theatre Project’s Marionette Theatre staged R.U.R. in New York City.

Over the years, R.U.R. has been favorably received by critics, though there were exceptions. Isaac Asimov, author of the Robot series, wrote, “Čapek’s play is, in my own opinion, a terribly bad one, but it is immortal for that one word.”

Consider this criticism in light of the fact that Asimov also wrote the Laws of Robotics, including the one prohibiting harm to humans. Adherence to Asimov’s Laws of Robotics would have precluded the whole premise of Čapek’s play.

R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), by Karel Čapek, Penguin Classics, 2004.

By contrast, playwright Arthur Miller wrote, “I read Karel Čapek for the first time when I was a college student long ago in the Thirties. There was no writer like him… prophetic assurance mixed with surrealistic humour and hard-edged social satire: a unique combination… he is a joy to read.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017

One comment on “ČAPEK’S ROBOTS

  1. Jack Albrecht
    September 21, 2017

    Lots of food for thought in both the play, and Asimov’s laws. Thus nearly 100 years of robot/clone/replicant stories. Sentient beings created by humans are confronted with the conflicted human race that at times appears to desire our own extinction if we are not saved from ourselves.

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