Karel Čapek’s robots took on a life of their own

The Czech playwright’s invention perfectly distilled twentieth-century anxieties about modernity, science, and technology.

One of the cast from Karel Čapek's science fiction play of 1921, 'R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)'.
One of the cast from Karel Čapek's science fiction play of 1921, 'R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)'. Credit: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

In a theatre in a Czech provincial town on 2 January 1921 a velvet curtain lifted, revealing a backdrop painted with bold geometric shapes and a stage full of scientific instruments scaled-up in size. The actors stepped into the glare of the stage lights; the world premier of Karel Čapek’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots (R.U.R) had begun. It was not supposed to. The Czech National Theatre in Prague had planned to put R.U.R.  on first, with stagings in local theatres following, but had been forced to delay by 27 days. Led by the zealous director Bedřich Stein, the members of Hradec Králové’s amateur dramatic society could not resist the opportunity to host the play’s premiere. They ignored instructions to wait and went ahead, much to the consternation of the National Theatre’s administrators, who issued them with a heavy fine as punishment. This meant that the first review of R.U.R.  was published not in a national broadsheet, but in a local paper, Kraj královéhradecký, which delivered a deliciously understated verdict: ‘Both the author’s fiction and its dramatic performance are quite impressive.’

From this chaotic beginning, R.U.R. went on to be an international sensation, staged across the world and translated into over 30 languages. Its legacy was the introduction of the word ‘robot’— an artificially-created person invented to replace human effort — into the global lingua franca. Robot was based on the Czech term robota, meaning forced labour, and synonymous with drudgery. It is worth noting that, for Czechs, feudal slavery was not part of some distant medieval history, but was in living memory — serfdom was officially abolished in Bohemia only in 1848. Čapek had initially favoured the word laboří (workers), but, as he liked to recall in an oft-repeated anecdote, his artist brother and life-long collaborator Josef Čapek — his paintbrush poised on his canvas — advised him that robot was a more straightforward term.

Automata were by no means a novel invention. Medieval sacred statues designed to cry, move and bleed, Jacques de Vaucanson’s digesting duck, and Frankenstein all came before R.U.R. But, it was the robot that became an indisputable icon of the twentieth century. In the 1920s and 1930s, cartoons, skits, and adverts featuring robots appeared across Europe and America, and cultural commentators devoted themselves to debating robots’ merits and demerits, their opportunities and dangers. The term lodged itself in our language because Čapek’s robots perfectly distilled twentieth-century anxieties about modernity, science, and technology.

R.U.R. takes place on a remote island where the Rossum Corporation has set up a manufacturing base. Dr. Rossum (whose name translates as ‘Dr. Reason’) has discovered how to make robots out of an organic ‘paste’ or ‘proto-plasm’. They look just like humans, except they are designed only for labour. As an employee explains, Dr. Rossum decided to ‘chuck’ anything ‘not directly related to work, and in so doing he pretty much discarded the human being and created the Robot’. The robots are strong and highly intelligent — they can ‘memorise entire encyclopaedia’ — but cannot feel emotion or reproduce. After 20 years their bodies ‘wear out’ and they are sent to the ‘scrapyard’ to be destroyed. The plan is for the robots to replace workers in factories, fields, and on the front lines, allowing humans to devote themselves to leisure and self-perfection. The only snag is that, without the ability to feel pain, the robots do not notice when their limbs are crushed by factory machinery. A scientist named Dr. Gall comes up with a solution. He gives the robots the capacity to suffer, thinking that this will help them to avoid accidents.

Ten years later, robots now do the jobs of human workers, who, robbed of their purpose, stop reproducing. The global birth rate is in free fall. By contrast, the robots’ ability to suffer means that they grow in strength, and gradually they become aware of their exploitation. First they form unions, then they rise up and kill humankind. The play is neatly tied up when two robots, Primus and Helena, realise they are now capable of reproducing because they have fallen in love. In the epilogue, Helena imagines living with Primus in a cottage with a garden and two dogs. International critics were divided by the play’s rapid shifts between comedy, melodrama, and social commentary: the American magazine Catholic World said it was ‘unpleasantly stirring’ and called the final scene an ‘insipid icing to an otherwise spicy cake’.

The play’s sentimentality aside, spectators may have found R.U.R. ‘unpleasantly stirring’ because Čapek’s work tapped into the most sensitive parts of the interwar psyche; it is this that explains why the word robot stuck.

Karel Čapek was born in 1890 and spent his life working as a writer, journalist, and translator. He suffered from the spinal disease spondylitis, which caused joint inflammation, pain, and severe fatigue. Given the limits of his own body, it’s easy to understand Čapek’s fascination with androids. His own experiences might have inspired ‘Robot Cramp’, an affliction that the robots suffer in R.U.R., which causes them to seize up and stop working. Čapek’s ill health meant he did not fight in the First World War, but the echoes of total war reverberate through the play. Czechs fought on both sides during the war – the majority for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and a minority for the Czechoslovak Legion, who supported the Allies. Altogether, 150,000 Czech soldiers died and 200,000 were maimed. Enlisted soldiers were reduced to compliant killing machines put to work in service of the government. ‘I’m going to fight, destroy the enemy, but I don’t feel any hatred,’ wrote the soldier Karel Vaněk in his diary in 1915, ‘but that huge, complicated machine called “the state” is at work and I’m just a small, unimportant cog driven by the sprockets of the others.’ After the war concluded, European states had to rehabilitate the injured and reintroduce them into society — the Czech state, for example, introduced a mass programme designed to get disabled soldiers back to work. Amputees were suddenly everywhere on the streets and in the factories, and rapid innovations in prosthetic technology furnished them with fake limbs. R.U.R.  was a product of a world in which the boundary between person and machine seemed dangerously thin.

After the collapse of Austro-Hungary following the end of war in 1918, the First Czechoslovak Republic was carved out of its carcass. R.U.R. was written in the midst of a national regeneration movement led by artists and writers. Germanification over centuries of Habsburg rule meant that few spoke Czech outside of villages. In this context, Čapek’s decision to use a Czech word, robota, was political — it was an attempt to give the Czech language the artistic status it had been denied. The regeneration movement was connected to culture, but also to eugenics. Like the humans in R.U.R., the Czechs were facing a population crisis caused by a declining birthrate following the First World War, sparking concern that humans were not fit enough to survive the modern world. Eugenicists had been warning of the risk of becoming a ‘feeble’ nation since the late 1800s. In 1862, a Czech nationalist named Miroslav Tyrš established the Sokol, an organisation that combined gymnastics with improving lectures. He envisioned ‘a new race, stouter than its predecessors’. The Sokol enjoyed enormous success in the interwar period, and had as many as 630,000 members — all diligently improving the nation’s stock through regular workouts — by 1930.

Given the contemporary obsession with evolution, it’s fitting that we’re told that R.U.R.’s Dr. Rossum began his career as a marine biologist. The sea is the origin of primordial life, the place from which beings first crawled. Dr. Rossum is an expert on the place where the evolutionary lineage first forked; his experiments with the robots initiate a second, radical divergence — exactly what interwar eugenicists feared.

Technology was also considered a threat to the national body. Čapek wrote R.U.R.  at the high-point of an industrial boom. While new efficiencies promised vast profits for industrialists, there was widespread concern that the demands of mass manufacturing would turn individuals into drones. In R.U.R., the robots are created on a factory production line. Kneading-troughs are used for robot skin, vats hold livers and brains, and industrial bobbins spin their nerve fibres, arteries, and intestines together. Finally, they are assembled piece by piece, like a car. The robots in R.U.R. reflect contemporary worries that the efficiency movement would reduce workers to ‘machine men’ who worked through mindless repetition, without creativity or skill. In 1911, the American engineer Frederick Taylor, the pioneer of ‘task allocation’, the subdivision of labour, had stated that workers were not necessary to create an efficient shop floor. In his disembodied vision, all that was required was ‘hands.’ In R.U.R., when the robots rebel, they save only one person: a builder called Alquist, who they respect because ‘he works with his hands like a robot’. The proponents of the efficiency movement didn’t always help themselves. Henry Ford’s My Philosophy of Industry (1929) had a section called ‘Repairing Men Like Boilers’, in which he suggested humans would be better workers if they led healthy lives, just like a rust-proofer could be used to lengthen the life of an engine.

Scientific and technological innovation even influenced R.U.R.’s staging as the play travelled across Europe and America. In Berlin in 1922, the avant-garde designer Frederick Kiesler used projection for the first time in theatre’s history to cast a window onto the stage through which the actors watched robot accountants and bricklayers at work. In New York in 1923, miniature robot models — fresh from the production line — were on sale for theatre-goers to take home to their children, a high-culture version of a Happy Meal toy. As R.U.R.  moved from theatre to theatre over the decade, representations of the robots morphed. In early productions, like in 1923 New York, the robots wore human clothes. This fitted with the play’s content — in R.U.R.  comedy ensues when Helena, a visitor to the island, cannot tell the robots apart from humans. By 1929, however, a New York production had the robot performers wearing shiny metallic breast plates and riveted helmets that clearly set them apart from their human counterparts. Writing in the Czech newspaper Lidové noviny in 1935,  Čapek observed that his robots, which he had conceived of as organic beings, had become machines: ‘the notion that robots have limbs of metal and innards of wire and cogwheels (or the like) has become current’. He complained that he had not meant to ‘furnish the world with plate-metal dummies studded with cogwheels, photovoltaic cells, and other mechanical gizmos’. This change mattered; it altered Čapek’s vision. His commentary on the dehumanising effects of war, industry, and mechanisation was transforming into a fear of robots themselves, which were presented as machines with minds of their own — rather than products of the human world, mirrors of its anxieties and failures. Like the many creators of automata before him, Čapek found he had lost control of his invention. The robots had taken on lives of their own.


Anna Parker