Pictures from the Insects' Life

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Pictures from the Insects' Life
Written by Karel Čapek
Josef Čapek
Date premiered 1922
Original language Czech
Genre satire

Pictures from the Insects' Life (in Czech: Ze života hmyzu) – also known as The Insect Play, The Life of the Insects, The Insect Comedy, The World We Live In and From Insect Life – is a satirical play that was written in the Czech language by the brothers Karel Čapek and Josef Čapek, who collaborated on some 20 stage works, of which this is the most famous. It was published in 1921 and premiered in 1922.

In the play, a tramp/narrator falls asleep in the woods and dreams of observing a range of insects that stand in for various human characteristics in terms of their lifestyle and morality: the flighty, vain butterfly, the obsequious, self-serving dung beetle, the ants, whose increasingly mechanized behaviour leads to a militaristic society. The anthropomorphized insects allow the writers to comment allegorically on life in post-World War I Czechoslovakia.[1]


The first English version of the play was The Insect Play or And So Ad Infinitium, translated by Paul Selver, and adapted by Nigel Playfair and Clifford Bax published in 1923.[2][3] Another English version of Selver's text was "The World We Live In" by Owen Davis in 1933; both of these adaptations are incomplete.[2] Act II of the play was translated by Robert T. Jones and Tatiana Firkušnỷ in 1990 for the book Towards the Radical Center:A Karel Čapek Reader.[2] Peter Majer and Cathy Porter published a complete English translation, titled The Insect Play for Methuen Drama in 1999.[4]

Production history[edit]

The play premiered in 1922 at the National Theatre in Brno, Czechoslovakia. Successful American (1922) and British (5 May 1923) premieres followed.[3][5] BBC Television has presented the play three times, to varying critical response: first 30 May 1939, in a production by Stephen Thomas;[6] then 28 May 1950 (Selver translation adapted and produced by Michael Barry, with Bernard Miles as the tramp);[7] then 19 June 1960 directed by Hal Burton.[8][9] It was adapted for radio by Ian Cotterell and broadcast on 1 Sep 1975 on the BBC Home Service.[10]

Critical Reception[edit]

The Insect Play was often invoked in political discussions in the 1930s. E. M. Forster likened the conflict between the British Union of Fascists and the Communist Party of Great Britain to "a scene from The Insect Play".[11] Ethel Mannin, writing in the anti-Stalinist magazine New Leader of July 6, 1936, described life in Stalin's Russia as resembling The Insect Play.[12]

Discussing The Insect Play, Jarka M. Burien stated "Capek imbued the play with a vitality and color that made it a more fully entertaining theatrical experience than R.U.R.".[5]

However, the 1960 BBC TV production was damningly reviewed fifty years later, by a critic who called the text "pretentious and incoherent".[9]


Several works have been inspired by Čapek's play. Flann O'Brien produced a version of the play set in Ireland, Rhapsody in Stephen's Green. This version was thought lost, but a copy of the play was discovered in 1994.[13] Finnish composer Kalevi Aho composed an opera Hyönteiselämää (Insect Life) in 1987, which was submitted to a competition for the Savonlinna Opera Festival. Aho's opera lost to Paavo Heininen's Veitsi, and was not performed until 1996 with the Finnish National Opera (for which it received great acclaim). Aho also adapted material from his opera into a symphony, Hyönteissinfonia (Insect Symphony), which premiered in 1988. This work, Aho's Seventh Symphony, features six movements, each a portrait of a different species of insect and reflecting the satirical characterizations of the play.

Another opera Zo života hmyzu (From the Insects' Life) based on the play was written by Ján Cikker and premiered in Bratislava in 1987.

A film version with the title Insects is under development by the Czech director Jan Švankmajer, and has a preliminary release set to 2015. According to Švankmajer, the film "will combine dark comedy, grotesque, classic horror genre, and both animation and feature acting."[14]


  1. ^ "The Insect Play", Everything the Traffic Will Allow, 27 February 2009.
  2. ^ a b c Peter Kussi, Toward the Radical Center: a Karel Čapek reader. Highland Park, NJ: Catbird Press, 1990. (pp. 410–411) ISBN 0945774079.
  3. ^ a b The Brothers Čapek (1961) "R.U.R and the Insect Play" Oxford Paperbacks, p 106
  4. ^ Ivan Klíma Karel Čapek:Life and Work. Catbird Press, 2002 ISBN 0945774532, (p. 260-61).
  5. ^ a b Jarka M. Burien, "Čapek, Karel" in Gabrielle H. Cody, Evert Sprinchorn (eds.) The Columbia Encyclopedia of Modern Drama, Volume One. Columbia University Press, 2007. ISBN 0231144229, (pp. 224–5).
  6. ^ Radio Times 26 May 1939, issue 817 p14
  7. ^ Radio Times 26 May 1950, Issue 1389 p44
  8. ^ Radio Times 17 June 1960 Issue 1910, p3, pp8-9
  9. ^ a b John Wyver, "Twentieth Century Theatre: The Insect Play (BBC, 1960), 14 June 2011.
  10. ^ Radio Times 28 Aug 1975 Issue 2703 p31
  11. ^ E. M. Forster, "Notes on the Way", 10 June 1934. Reprinted in P. N. Furbank (ed.), The Prince's Tale and Other Uncollected Writings. London : Andre Deutsch, 1998. ISBN 0233991689 (p. 280)
  12. ^ Andy Croft, "Ethel Mannin: The Red Rose of Love and the Red Flower of Liberty" in Angela Ingram and Daphne Patai, (ed.),Rediscovering Forgotten Radicals : British Women Writers, 1889-1939.Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 1993. ISBN 0807820873 (p. 225).
  13. ^ Neil Cornwell, The Absurd in Literature, Manchester University Press, 2006 ISBN 071907410X (p. 253).
  14. ^ Zemanová, Irena (2011-05-06). "Švankmajer in Preproduction on Čapek's Insects". Film New Europe. Retrieved 2011-05-06.