R.U.R. asks, what makes you human?
Of course, R.U.R. is about robots. But the thing about robots is, well, they're not human—or, at best, they're only sort of human. Hmm, now that we think about it, maybe they are human after all. They look human, right? Is it human if it looks human? It can move and act and think like a human. Does it need something else, though? A soul? A social security card? Or then, is it better than humans because it can run faster, jump higher, score more points at Scrabble? If a robot could love, would it be human? If a human can't love, is it a robot?
So many confusing questions, Shmoopers—maybe that's why, in R.U.R., humans and robots are always getting confused for each other, and with each other. Even the universe seems to get confused, since humans in the play stop having babies as more and more robots get made. Humans and robots; they're interchangeable, which is why they hate each other, and love each other.
The love, the hate, and the confusion have all proved awfully appealing. R.U.R., with all its robots, was popular right away when it was first published in Czechoslovakia in 1920. The first performance was in 1921; by 1923, it had been translated into thirty languages, and the word "robot" became the English word for—any guesses out there?—what we call "robots."
R.U.R. has never been adapted to film, but in 1938, it became the first television science-fiction show ever broadcast when a section of it was performed over BBC radio. It continues to be performed and restaged occasionally—and, of course, the robot concept has continued to be wildly popular in sci-fi of all sorts. From Doctor Who's evil Daleks to Iron Man's computer butler Jarvis, robots clank and clamber everywhere about our screens, in our books, and through our brains. And always they ask in their tinny voices, "Are we human? Are you?" You can power them down, melt them for scrap, or dress them in tuxedos but thanks to Karel Čapek and R.U.R., you can't tune them out.
You should care about R.U.R. because… it's about robots. Go ask Data from Star Trek if you should care about robots. Ask C-3PO from Star Wars. Ask a Transformer—any Transformer, like the one disguised as your toaster oven. Ask Wall-E. You know what they'll say? They'll say, "We are the robots! Simulate the human emotion of caring, or we will be sad robots crying sad robot tears, and we will rust up and you will have piles of rusted robots all over your house, frightening your dogs and your house guests." That, folks, is the sad robot dystopian future. So tremble in fear, uncaring humans.
So… yes, first of all you should care so that you can avoid this sad robot dystopian future in which there are no human feelings and you can't get to your front door for all the rusted robot bits. But, in addition to that, you should care because… well, robots. They're everywhere. If they're not blocking access to your front door, they're wandering about your cerebral cortex and kicking over your hindbrain. Karel Čapek may have invented the robot, but everybody, it seems, has worked on building them, until you can barely find a science-fiction show without its friendly R2-D2, or its evil dangerous killer Terminator. The Rossums and Domin invented a more powerful industrial process than they knew; not only did their factory churn out robots, but all their sci-fi successors have as well.
So, what's so great about robots that everyone wants to have them? Part of it is just that reproducibility. The idea of creating new life has fascinated people for millennia. The Greek's had a myth of Pygmalion, an artist who created a statue and saw it come to life. And of course Mary Shelley made the Frankenstein monster—sure he was a lot fleshier than most robots, but he was a human invention nonetheless.
Artists and writers and other people are fascinated by the possibility of making new people out of their heads. It's empowering and exciting to wind these characters up and send them walking across the moon, or the page. And it's also frightening. What are these things you've set walking anyway? Are they really yours? What would happen if they had minds of their own?
These are old questions and concerns, but R.U.R. asks them in a new way. Dr. Frankenstein used semi-mystical alchemical science to make his monster, but the folks in R.U.R. use industrial factory processes. The robot isn't just a dream of new life; it's a dream of new life made routine. Robots are like cars, or computers, or iPods; they're interchangeable, reproducible, and everywhere.
And that's why people were, and remain, fascinated with robots. Human things are all around; buildings, roads, stores, monuments, even the little plastic tops on drink bottles. Are those things alive, since they came from human brains? Or are they dead, since they're inanimate asphalt or plastic? People have created images of themselves everywhere, but how human are those images, and how alive are they? Have people filled the world with human life, or have they clotted the earth with all their dead stuff? That's the question robots ask in their robotic voices, and it's why R.U.R. is still relevant today—almost 100 years after it first set its robots walking.
Karel Čapek, Automated
Here's a big Karel Čapek website, with biography, chronology, book excerpts, links, and a real robot Karel Čapek who writes plays and dances the two-step—okay, not that last one.
Dig this digital mini-opera based on R.U.R.
This website for the BBC program Tomorrow's Worlds is devoted to sci-fi history, including many robotic children of R.U.R.
This excerpt of the play—which ran on the BBC—was the first sci-fi television broadcast ever.
This was a television adaptation of the play, again on the BBC.
A History of Robots, Fake and Real
Check out this timeline of robots, in real life and fiction.
Karel Čapek: Man? or Robot?
Here's a biography which answers this burning question. (Hint: man)
"I Want to Be Master Over People"
Dig this trailer for a stage performance of R.U.R.
Act 1, With Robots
This performance is of the first act of R.U.R.
Okay, so maybe we just wanted an excuse to showcase a They Might Be Giants video.
R.U.R., the Audiobook
Enjoy this hour-and-45-minute reading of the play.
The Robot Lives!
Here's an image from the 1938 BBC broadcast of a section of R.U.R.
Robots During the Depression
Dig this poster for a 1939 performance of R.U.R., from the WPA.
Robots Still Robotting
Here are some images and a poster from a 2002 production of the play.