Newts! New audio drama inspired by Karel Čapek’s famous science fiction novel

Karel Čapek’s War with the Newts, a darkly humorous dystopia about a super-breed of amphibians trying to conquer the world, was published more than 80 years ago. This week, a new ‘surf-rock audio drama’, inspired by Čapek’s pioneering science fiction novel, premiered in the United States, featuring some well-known Broadway actors.

I discussed the six-part show, simply called Newts!, with one of its creators, theatre artist and screenwriter Sam Jay Gold, and I started by asking him what inspired him to create it in the first place:

“The subject matter but also the way it’s told have never ceased to feel timely to me.”

“I have been thinking about War with the Newts and some sort of dramatic adaptation of the book pretty much ever since I first read it back in 2011.

“The subject matter, but also the way it’s told, the surprising characters, the winding paths it takes into pop-culture and politics and social observation, have never ceased to feel timely to me.

“I myself am more of a theatre and filmmaker, and it always felt like a story that, especially here in the United States, where fewer people are familiar with Karel Čapek, could captivate audiences.”

Would you say the text is still relevant today, more than 80 years since it was first published?

“I think absolutely. The thing that stands out to me in War with the Newts, maybe even more so than in his other books that I have read, is just how many different allegories, how many different observations exist within this one text.

“I think it’s clear to most readers today that there are serious grapplings with fascism and with the encroaching WWII and maybe even with colonialism. It speaks to larger societal struggles that come from increased globalisation.

Photo: Odeon

“And most of all I think it gets to something that is at the heart of the human nature. There are so many characters in this book who are presented with the unthinkable, seeing newts who can learn to talk and are highly intelligent.

“But instead of saying: wow, this expands my conception of what is possible in this world, they interpret this discovery through a worldview they have already solidified for themselves.

“I think we see a similar thing today. I think many people have very solidified perspective on how the world should be and all new information just gets filtered through that perspective instead of expanding our minds to what else is possible.”

To what extent is your show close to the original book written in 1936?

“We definitely say that this is a work inspired by War with the Newts and by Karel Čapek rather than an adaptation of the novel. We certainly hope that our show will stand on its own and maybe in conversation with the book.

“I think where we begin to deviate more is in the second half of the story. What we found was challenging in the dramatization of this work is that once the newts go global, so to speak, it ceases to be about individual characters and suddenly it is much more about countries.

Photo: repro Karel Čapek,  'Válka s mloky' / Československý spisovatel,  1986

“Finding a way to dramatize countries was a challenge. So we have, especially in the second half of the story, invented characters that could become figure heads or representatives of these countries. But at the same time, the story is still rooted in individual stories as opposed to the global responses to the newts.”

Music, especially rock music, plays an important role in your music. Why is that so?

“The co-creator of this show, Ian Coss, is a very talented musician and composer as well as being a podcast producer and artist. And I would say pretty much since we had been talking about it, music felt like an element that would be very exciting to include in the story.

“For me, it has always felt kind of like surf rock, like rock’n’roll music. I think it just the power of free association imagination. I was thinking a lot about the concert that The Beach Boys gave in Prague in 1969, which I learned about the first time I was living in the Czech Republic.

The Beach Boys | Photo: Capitol Records – Billboard,  page 73,  11 September 1965,  public domain

“I was really captivated by this image of the Beach Boys, the band I grew up loving here in the United States, coming to Prague in 1969 and playing their surf rock music, flipping in messages of protest.

“And when I thought about this story, it somehow merged together. And then Ian took it and ran with and he has written an album of beautiful music that comes and goes throughout the story.”

You managed to get together quite an impressive cast, including rock musicians. Can you mention at least some of the people starring in the radio drama?

“Actually, this goes back to your question of how does the show relate to the book. I think one of the other big questions we had was who would narrate the story.

“I think in some way, when you read War with the Newts, the main character ultimately reveals himself to be Karel Čapek. Especially at the end in the final chapter, when the author speaks to himself and he sort of zooms out of the story.

Karel Čapek | Photo: Z. R. Nešpor,  Sociologický ústav AV ČR

“So we knew very early on that a good friend of mine, a Broadway actor called Lindsay Nicole Chambers, would make for an excellent narrator in our show.

“And then it began to grow from there, through recommendations and personal connections. One of the next people that quickly joined the show was Lindsey’s husband Chris Barron, the lead singer of the Spin Doctors.

“And as it continued to grow, we were getting more Broadway talents and rock musicians and then, towards the end, through connections we had especially in Public Radio, some really talented radio personalities and actors came on board.

“Mo Rocca is in our show, who will play a lawyer later in the piece, and also an actor named Joshua Malina, who is probably best known for his role as Will Bailey on The West Wing, joined us.

“We have been very humbled and grateful for all of these very talented people, who had agreed to give us some of their time and talent to help bring this story to life.”

It is interesting to point out that both you and Ian have Czech family ties. Was that also a factor in selecting Karel Čapek’s novel? Did that play a role?

“My ties are less direct than Ian’s. I am married to a Czech woman whose family left Prague in 1968, but I didn’t grow up with immediate Czech relatives.

“My family comes from what is now Dnipro in Ukraine, but that’s several generations back. The Czech Republic was actually the first non-Western European country ever I lived in.

The Newts,  1965 | Photo: SNKLU

“But Ian’s grandmother grew up in Prague. Her family is from Ostrava but they were living in Germany until the early 1930s, when they moved back to Prague because they were Jewish, and then ultimately they had to leave Prague once again after WWII.

“So it’s easier for Ian to claim a Czech lineage but I think we both have felt a personal connection not just with the idea, but with the larger events and history that Čapek finds himself within in the Czech Republic.”

War with the Newts is of course a Czech classic and a regular item on school reading lists, but to what extent is it known among the public in the US?

“In my experience is not that well-known. If Karel Čapek is known to American audiences, he is most likely known as the inventor of the word robot. That’s certainly how I first learned about him.

“When I was first living in Prague, I was reading RUR and a Czech friend of mine saw me reading it and said. Oh, that’s a fine story, but if you really want to know Čapek, then you should read War with the Newts, which at that time was certainly a story I was not familiar with.

“We certainly hope that this show can help expose more American listeners to Čapek.”

“So it seems like it exist as an interesting footnote in early science fiction and Čapek is known as this interesting person who invented the word Robot. We certainly hope that this show can help expose more American listeners to Čapek, and not just War with the Newts but his entire body of work.

“Every episode of our show includes a little bit at the very beginning of me speaking about Karel Čapek the man and the author. So we hope that in addition to entertaining audiences and introducing them to this story that they might also be inspired to read more of Karel Čapek’s work.”

Your show is part of The Truth podcast. Can you tell us a little bit more about the project?

“The Truth is a long-standing podcast here in the United States that creates mostly short-form original fiction work. So usually stories on The Truth will span one maybe two episodes in length.

“The Truth is created and still led by a man called Jonathan Mitchell and we met him early into our process of working on the Newts!. We were very excited and grateful that he responded well to the concept to our early attempt at adapting it.

“So we struck up a collaboration where Jonathan became a very essential member of our team giving us feedback on our script before we went to record and had continued to give us feedback on our edits as we put together the finished product.

“So his podcast The Truth will be premiering our first episode. We understood that our show, which has six episodes and takes probably about three hours to listen to, was too large for his podcast.

“So then there will be our own podcast feed Newts!, where people can go from The Truth to continue to listen to the rest of the story.”

Finally, where can people listen to your show?

“The first episode can be heard on The Truth’s feed on June 1 and then on our feed on June 7 and from then on, they can listen to it anywhere or anytime.

“We will be releasing one episode a week so the show will continue through all of June and to early July. They should be able to find it on just about any podcast app or website they want to use, just typing in Newts!.

“We also have a website, which is not live yet but should go live around the beginning of June, where you will also find all of the episodes available.”