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Karel Čapek and his Robot

February 26th, 2007

R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) is a science fiction play by Karel Čapek. It premiered in 1921 and is famous for having introduced and popularized the term robot.

The play begins in a factory that makes ‘artificial people’ - they are called Robots, but are closer to the modern idea of androids or even clones, creatures who can be mistaken for humans. They can plainly think for themselves, though they seem happy to serve. At issue is whether the “Robots” are being exploited and, if so, what follows?

The play premiered in Prague in 1921. It was translated from Czech into English by Paul Selver, and adapted for the English stage by Nigel Playfair in 1923. Basil Dean produced it in April 1923 for the Reandean Company at St. Martin’s Theatre, London.

After having finished the manuscript, Čapek realized that he had created a modern version of the old Golem legend. He later took a different approach to the same theme in War with the Newts, in which non-humans become a servant class in human society.

R.U.R is dark, but not hopeless, and was successful in its day in both Europe and the United States.

A more modern (1990) translation in English is available in Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Čapek Reader, published by Catbird Press.

In February 1938, a thirty-five minute adaptation of a section of the play was broadcast on BBC Television—the first piece of television science-fiction ever to be produced. In 1948, another adaptation - this time of the entire play and running to ninety minutes - was screened by the BBC, and in between in 1941 BBC radio had also produced a radio play version. None of these three productions survive in the BBC’s archives.

The Hollywood Theater of the Ear dramatized an unabridged audio version of R.U.R. which is available on the collection 2000x: Tales of the Next Millenia

The play introduced the word Robot, which displaced older words such as “automaton” or “android” in languages around the world. (In an article in Lidové noviny, Karel Čapek named his brother Josef as the true inventor of the word.) It is noteworthy that, in Čapek’s text, “Robot” is always capitalized, which suggests that Čapek envisioned them to be a distinct race of nationality in the world of his play. In its original Czech, robota means drudgery or servitude. The name Rossum is an allusion to the Czech word rozum, meaning “reason”, “wisdom”, or “intellect”. (It has been suggested that the allusion might be preserved by translating “Rossum” as “Reason”, but all published translations to date have left the name untouched.)

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