Karel Čapek’s ‘robots’ at 100 – new exhibition highlights foreign productions of R.U.R.

Photo: archive of Karel Čapek Memorial

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of R.U.R., the dystopian theatre play by Karel Čapek that introduced the word ‘robot’ into English – and to science fiction as a whole. A new exhibition called A Journey into the Depths of the Robot’s Soul focuses on how Čapek’s ground-breaking play was received and staged abroad.

R.U.R. (or ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’) was Karel Čapek’s most popular work during his lifetime, both in Czechoslovakia and abroad. By 1923, a couple of years after its premiere in Prague, the dystopian play had been translated into 30 languages and been staged in major theatres in Europe and across the Atlantic.

Zdeněk Vacek,  photo: Jana Myslivečková / Czech Radio

Exhibition curator Zdeněk Vacek is director of the Karel Čapek Memorial, a museum housed in the writer’s summer residence in Stará Huť, south of Prague. For the centennial anniversary, he says, they decided to focus on the history of R.U.R.’s early foreign performances and influence on writers around the world.

“Special attention is given to the first of production in Berlin in 1923 because the stage designer, the young artist Friedrich Kiesler, went on to have such an exceptional international career. His staging was quite avant-garde. For example, he distorted the robots’ voices, projected images onto canvases and flowing water.

Karel and Josef Čapek | Photo: archive of Karel Čapek Memorial

“In fact, the careers of many celebrated theatrical figures began with productions of R.U.R. In New York, also in 1923, the young acting student Spencer Tracy, who went on to become a big Hollywood star, played one of the robots [in his Broadway debut]. And in London at St. Martin’s Theatre, so did Sir Michael Caine – another Oscar-winning actor.”

Audiences worldwide were fascinated by the philosophical and moral concepts that Čapek explored in R.U.R., against the backdrop of technology gone horribly wrong in blind pursuit of profit – a theme he would develop fully in his 1936 novel War with the Newts.

Čapek’s ‘robots’ are artificial people assembled from synthetic organic matter in the titular Mr Rossum’s factory to do forced labour with little thought given to the implications of scientists playing god, creating sentient beings. In time, the robots – like Čapek’s newts – rebel against the exploitation of their human overlords.

Photo: archive of Karel Čapek Memorial

Karel Čapek Memorial director Zdeněk Vacek notes that not only did R.U.R. introduce the word ‘robot’ to the world, its staging marked two historical firsts for the BBC in London.

“The BBC presented a radio play of R.U.R. in 1926 that aired in 85-minute segments. It was the first play which the BBC presented in its entirety. Till then, they had only broadcast excerpts from plays along with commentary.

“And then in early 1938, the BBC broadcast R.U.R. on television – the world’s first broadcast sci-fi production. It was a live, half-hour programme that aired twice. Because at the time there was no recording technology, the entire ensemble of actors had to return to the studio for a reprise of R.U.R.

The exhibition A Journey into the Depths of the Robot’s Soul is at the Karel Čapek Memorial through February 2021. Apart from theatre and other memorabilia, visitors can see an original robot figurine owned by the family of Čapek’s brother Josef, whom he credited with inventing the word, derived from the Czech for ‘serf’ or ‘forced labourer’.

Authors: Brian Kenety , Václav Müller
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