Not many plays introduce the vocabulary with a new phrase. Karel Čapek’s RUR: Rossum’s Universal Robots, which debuted 100 years ago this month in Prague, was one of them. Any time we use the word “robot” to refer to a humanoid computer, it is derived from the play by Čapek, which coined the term for forced labor from the Czech “robota”
But a play that was very successful in its day – Spencer Tracy and Pat O’Brien, among others, were featured as robots at the 1922 Broadway premiere – is now forgotten. It’s high time to take another look at the match, considering our obsession with artificial intelligence. But, anyway, what kind of play is it? A futuristic drama that threatens technology and science? Up to one point, but there’s a lot more than that.
It starts with a good-natured tourist, Lady Helen Glory, who shows up on an island where robots are made from synthetic matter, much like a shavy comedy.
She is shocked that what appears to be a human secretary is a computer, and is similarly amazed when the factory directors turn out to be flesh-and-blood humans, not machines. As time passes, as the robots prove stronger and more intelligent than their makers, the play becomes more sinister, ultimately wiping out almost all of humanity. Only a single engineer survives, which, somewhat unlikely, features two robots transformed by love. The late, great critic Eric Bentley called the play of Capek “a museum piece”
And it is true that it belongs to a genre of expressionist drama from the 1920s that deals with the challenge of dehumanizing technology: Elmer Rice wrote The Adding Machine in 1923 about a downtrodden employee who murders his employer when replaced by the titular unit. In her outstanding book Science on Stage, Kirsten Shepherd-Barr also indicates that RUR might have had its day as today’s theater accepts science and technology enthusiastically. But I don’t see Capek’s play as anti-science: first, it suggests that robots will free humanity from demeaning drudgery. What the play really attacks is capitalist greed, which, by overproduction, causes the crisis. “You know what caused this calamity? Sheer volume!” the marketing manager yells in Peter Majer and Cathy Porter’s new translation. When the idealistic engineer says, “The dividend will be the ruin of mankind.” the argument is reiterated. The objective of Capek is not technology as such, but its commercial exploitation.
If you search on the Internet today for artificial intelligence, you will find it marketed with the debunking expression, “Secure your competitive advantage. ” Karel Čapek, who worked closely with his brother Josef, was a prophetic vision of a witty writer, poet and playwright.
The RUR has had a major influence on popular culture through films such as “Blade Runner” and “Westworld” and television shows like “The Outer Limits,”
Interestingly, in 1948, it was also produced on BBC TV, starring Patrick Troughton, who would play Doctor Who later.
But apart from the radio output of 1998, today the play itself is overlooked. As Čapek aptly and satirically sums up the danger of enslaving modern technology to the profit motive, we could do much worse than revive it – if and when the theater returns.