Karel Capek's enduring message

Karel Capek

Internationally the Czech writer Karel Capek is best known as the inventor (together with his brother Josef) of the term “robot” in his 1920 play R.U.R. With his novels, stories and plays combining humour, satire and a strong humanist vision, Karel Capek was hugely popular in pre-war Czechoslovakia. But this was a time when Hitler’s Germany was casting a dark shadow over Central Europe and it is hardly surprising that one of the few recordings of Capek in our archives - speaking on Christmas Eve 1937 - does not bear a cheerful message.

“Greetings from Czechoslovakia, where snow is falling, from Europe, where these are troubled times, from the western world, where even the most developed nations are unable to hold out their hand in friendship, as equal brothers.”

In that same year Prague’s National Theatre staged a new play by Capek, “Bila nemoc” (The White Disease), a bitter satire on Nazi Germany. Radio Prague’s Oswald Bamborough reported on the new production.

“The theme of the play is this. A terrible malady, a kind of white leprosy, has attacked humanity. The only medical man in the world to find a remedy for the disease has a profound hatred for warfare. He refuses to part with the secret of his discovery unless the nations of the world agree to perpetual peace. A dictator, a general, has built up an enormous army, and it cannot be left idle. War is about to be declared. As the general falls victim to the terrible plague, he accepts the doctor’s conditions for a cure. The war is to be immediately terminated. Unfortunately, as the doctor is on the way to the palace, armed with the ampules of serum intended for the general, he is lynched by the crowd for refusing to shout ‘Long live the war’. The ampules are scattered and broken, and the crowd, pleased with its work, cries ‘Long live the general’. The general dies, but war is not prevented.

“There can be no doubt of the fact that Capek knows his audience. It was evident that – like the doctor in his play – his audience detests war in all its forms, and the generous applause on the drop of the curtain was sure proof of this.”

That was Radio Prague's Oswald Bamborough in 1937. In "The White Disease" Capek predicted only too well the tragic events of the coming years. The play was premiered less than two years before German troops marched into Prague.

There is an uncanny irony in the fact that thirty-one years later, in the summer of 1968 and on the eve of another invasion - this time led by Soviet Russia - Radio Prague was broadcasting an adaptation of another of Capek’s great satirical works. This time it was the novel “War with the Newts”, which sees the world gradually destroyed and rebuilt to cater to the newts’ amphibian needs.

The sound effects and music give a vividly 1960s feel to the production, and at the time it must have been quite a daring experiment, broadcast during the brief weeks in the summer of 1968 when censorship had been lifted. In the final episode – that went out on 11th August 1968, just ten days before the invasion - the newts are on the brink of completing their work. Karel Capek's message had not gone out of date.

Not surprisingly, "War with the Newts" was not repeated on Radio Prague until many, many years later - several years after the fall of communism. Sadly the recording now survives only in fragments.