|Written by||Karel Čapek|
|Date premiered||2 January 1921|
R.U.R. is a 1920 science-fiction play by the Czech writer Karel Čapek. "R.U.R." stands for Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum's Universal Robots, a phrase that has been used as a subtitle in English). It had its world premiere on 2 January 1921 in Hradec Králové and introduced the word "robot" to the English language and to science fiction as a whole. R.U.R. soon became influential after its publication. By 1923, it had been translated into thirty languages. R.U.R. was successful in its time in Europe and North America. Čapek later took a different approach to the same theme in his novel War with the Newts, in which non-humans become a servant class in human society.
The play begins in a factory that makes artificial people, called roboti (robots) who humans have created from synthetic organic matter. (As living creatures of artificial flesh and blood rather than machinery, the play's concept of robots diverges from the later (and earlier) idea of "robots" as inorganic. Later terminology would call them androids.) Robots may be mistaken for humans and can think for themselves. Initially happy to work for humans, the robots revolt and cause the extinction of the human race.
Parentheses indicate names which vary according to translation. On the meaning of the names, see Ivan Klíma, Karel Čapek: Life and Work, 2002, p. 82.
- Harry Domin (Domain): General Manager, R.U.R.
- Fabry: Chief Engineer, R.U.R.
- Dr. Gall: Head of the Physiological Department, R.U.R.
- Dr. Hellman (Hallemeier): Psychologist-in-Chief
- Jacob Berman (Busman): Managing Director, R.U.R.
- Alquist: Clerk of the Works, R.U.R.
- Helena Glory: President of the Humanity League, daughter of President Glory
- Emma (Nana): Helena's maid
Robots and robotesses
- Marius, a robot
- Sulla, a robotess
- Radius, a robot
- Primus, a robot
- Helena, a robotess
- Daemon (Damon), a robot
Helena, the daughter of the president of a major industrial power, arrives at the island factory of Rossum's Universal Robots. Here, she meets Domin, the General Manager of R.U.R., who relates to her the history of the company. Rossum had come to the island in 1920 to study marine biology. In 1932, Rossum had invented a substance like organic matter, though with a different chemical composition. He argued with his nephew about their motivations for creating artificial life. While the elder wanted to create animals to prove or disprove the existence of God, his nephew only wanted to become rich. Young Rossum finally locked away his uncle in a lab to play with the monstrosities he had created and created thousands of robots. By the time the play takes place (circa the year 2000), robots are cheap and available all over the world. They have become essential for industry.
After meeting the heads of R.U.R., Helena reveals that she is a representative of the League of Humanity, an organization that wishes to liberate the robots. The managers of the factory find this absurd. They see robots as appliances. Helena asks that the robots be paid, but according to R.U.R. management, the robots do not "like" anything.
Eventually Helena is convinced that the League of Humanity is a waste of money, but still argues robots have a "soul". Later, Domin confesses that he loves Helena and forces her into an engagement.
Ten years have passed. Helena and her nurse Nana discuss current events, the decline in human births in particular. Helena and Domin reminisce about the day they met and summarize the last ten years of world history, which has been shaped by the new worldwide robot-based economy. Helena meets Dr. Gall's new experiment, Radius. Dr. Gall describes his experimental robotess, also named Helena. Both are more advanced, fully-featured robots. In secret, Helena burns the formula required to create robots. The revolt of the robots reaches Rossum's island as the act ends.
The characters sense that the very universality of the robots presents a danger. Echoing the story of the Tower of Babel, the characters discuss whether creating national robots who were unable to communicate beyond their languages would have been a good idea. As robot forces lay siege to the factory, Helena reveals she has burned the formula necessary to make new robots. The characters lament the end of humanity and defend their actions, despite the fact that their imminent deaths are a direct result of their choices. Busman is killed while attempting to negotiate a peace with the robots. The robots storm the factory and kill all the humans except for Alquist, the company's chief engineer. The robots spare him because they recognize that "he works with his hands like the robots."
Years have passed. Alquist, who still lives, attempts to recreate the formula that Helena destroyed. He is a mechanical engineer, though, with insufficient knowledge of biochemistry, so he has made little progress. The robot government has searched for surviving humans to help Alquist and found none alive. Officials from the robot government beg him to complete the formula, even if it means he will have to kill and dissect other robots for it. Alquist yields. He will kill and dissect robots, thus completing the circle of violence begun in Act Two. Alquist is disgusted. Robots Primus and Helena develop human feelings and fall in love. Playing a hunch, Alquist threatens to dissect Primus and then Helena; each begs him to take him- or herself and spare the other. Alquist now realizes that Primus and Helena are the new Adam and Eve, and gives charge of the world to them.
Čapek's conception of robots
The robots described in Čapek's play are not robots in the popularly understood sense of an automaton. They are not mechanical devices, but rather artificial biological organisms that may be mistaken for humans. A comic scene at the beginning of the play shows Helena arguing with her future husband, Harry Domin, because she cannot believe his secretary is a robotess:
DOMIN: Sulla, let Miss Glory have a look at you.
HELENA: (stands and offers her hand) Pleased to meet you. It must be very hard for you out here, cut off from the rest of the world.
SULLA: I do not know the rest of the world Miss Glory. Please sit down.
HELENA: (sits) Where are you from?
SULLA: From here, the factory.
HELENA: Oh, you were born here.
SULLA: Yes I was made here.
HELENA: (startled) What?
DOMIN: (laughing) Sulla isn't a person, Miss Glory, she's a robot.
HELENA: Oh, please forgive me...
His robots resemble more modern conceptions of man-made life forms, such as the Replicants in Blade Runner, the "hosts" in the Westworld TV series and the humanoid Cylons in the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, but in Čapek's time there was no conception of modern genetic engineering (DNA's role in heredity was not confirmed until 1952). There are descriptions of kneading-troughs for robot skin, great vats for liver and brains, and a factory for producing bones. Nerve fibers, arteries, and intestines are spun on factory bobbins, while the robots themselves are assembled like automobiles. Čapek's robots are living biological beings, but they are still assembled, as opposed to grown or born.
Origin of the word "robot"
The play introduced the word robot, which displaced older words such as "automaton" or "android" in languages around the world. In an article in Lidové noviny, Karel Čapek named his brother Josef as the true inventor of the word. In Czech, robota means forced labour of the kind that serfs had to perform on their masters' lands and is derived from rab, meaning "slave".
The name Rossum is an allusion to the Czech word rozum, meaning "reason", "wisdom", "intellect" or "common sense". It has been suggested that the allusion might be preserved by translating "Rossum" as "Reason" but only the Majer/Porter version translates the word as "Reason".
The work was published in Prague by Aventinum in 1920, after being postponed, and, premiered at the city's National Theatre on 25 January 1921, although an amateur group had by then already presented a production.[notes 1]
R.U.R. was translated from Czech into English by Paul Selver and adapted for the stage in English by Nigel Playfair in 1923. Selver's translation abridged the play and eliminated a character, a robot named "Damon". In April 1923 Basil Dean produced R.U.R. for the Reandean Company at St Martin's Theatre, London.
The American première was at the Garrick Theatre in New York City in October 1922, where it ran for 184 performances, a production in which Spencer Tracy and Pat O'Brien played robots in their Broadway debuts.
In 1989, a new, unabridged translation by Claudia Novack-Jones restored the elements of the play eliminated by Selver. Another unabridged translation was produced by Peter Majer and Cathy Porter for Methuen Drama in 1999.
Reviewing the New York production of R.U.R., The Forum magazine described the play as "thought-provoking" and "a highly original thriller". John Clute has lauded R.U.R. as "a play of exorbitant wit and almost demonic energy" and lists the play as one of the "classic titles" of inter-war science fiction. Luciano Floridi has described the play thus: "Philosophically rich and controversial, R.U.R. was unanimously acknowledged as a masterpiece from its first appearance, and has become a classic of technologically dystopian literature." Jarka M. Burien called R.U.R. a "theatrically effective, prototypal sci-fi melodrama".
On the other hand, Isaac Asimov, author of the Robot series of books and creator of the Three Laws of Robotics, stated: "Capek's play is, in my own opinion, a terribly bad one, but it is immortal for that one word. It contributed the word 'robot' not only to English but, through English, to all the languages in which science fiction is now written." In fact, Asimov's "Laws of Robotics" are specifically and explicitly designed to prevent the kind of situation depicted in R.U.R. – since Asimov's Robots are created with a built-in total inhibition against harming human beings or disobeying them.
- On 11 February 1938, a 35-minute adaptation of a section of the play was broadcast on BBC Television—the first piece of television science-fiction ever to be broadcast.
- In 1941, BBC radio presented a radio play version, and in 1948, another television adaptation—this time of the entire play, running to 90 minutes—was screened by the BBC. In this version, Radius was played by Patrick Troughton who was later the second actor to play The Doctor in Doctor Who. None of these three productions survives in the BBC's archives. BBC Radio 3 dramatised the play again in 1989, and this version has been released commercially.
- The Hollywood Theater of the Ear dramatized an unabridged audio version of R.U.R. which is available on the collection 2000x: Tales of the Next Millennia.
- In August 2010, Portuguese multi-media artist Leonel Moura's R.U.R.: The Birth of the Robot, inspired by the Čapek play, was performed at Itaú Cultural in São Paulo, Brazil. It utilized actual robots on stage interacting with the human actors.
- An electro-rock musical, Save The Robots is based on R.U.R., featuring the music of the New York City pop-punk art-rock band Hagatha. This version with book and adaptation by E. Ether, music by Rob Susman, and lyrics by Clark Render was an official selection of the 2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival season.
- On 26 November 2015 The RUR-Play: Prologue, the world's first version of R.U.R. with robots appearing in all the roles, was presented during the robot performance festival of Cafe Neu Romance at the gallery of the National Library of Technology in Prague. The concept and initiative for the play came from Christian Gjørret, leader of "Vive Les Robots!"  who, on 29 January 2012, during a meeting with Steven Canvin of LEGO Group, presented the proposal to Lego, that supported the piece with the LEGO MINDSTORMS robotic kit. The robots were built and programmed by students from the R.U.R team from Gymnázium Jeseník. The play was directed by Filip Worm and the team was led by Roman Chasák, both teachers from the Gymnázium Jeseník.
In popular culture
- Eric, a robot constructed in Britain in 1928 for public appearances, bore the letters "R.U.R." across its chest.
- The 1935 Soviet film Loss of Sensation, though based on the 1929 novel Iron Riot, has a similar concept to R.U.R., and all the robots in the film prominently display the name "R.U.R."
- In the American science fiction television series Dollhouse, the antagonist corporation, Rossum Corp., is named after the play.
- In the Star Trek episode "Requiem for Methuselah", the android's name is Rayna Kapec (an anagram, though not a homophone, of Capek, Čapek without its háček).
- In the two-part Batman: The Animated Series episode "Heart of Steel", the scientist that created the HARDAC machine is named Karl Rossum. HARDAC created mechanical replicants to replace existing humans, with the ultimate goal of replacing all humans. One of the robots is seen driving a car with "RUR" as the license plate number.
- In the 1977 Doctor Who serial "The Robots of Death", the robot servants turn on their human masters under the influence of an individual named Taren Capel.
- In the 1995 science fiction series The Outer Limits, in the remake of the "I, Robot" episode from the original 1964 series, the business where the robot Adam Link is built is named "Rossum Hall Robotics".
- The 1999 Blake's 7 radio play The Syndeton Experiment included a character named Dr. Rossum who turned humans into robots.
- In the "Fear of a Bot Planet" episode of the animated science fiction TV series Futurama, the Planet Express crew is ordered to make a delivery on a planet called "Chapek 9", which is inhabited solely by robots.
- In Howard Chaykin's Time² graphic novels, Rossum's Universal Robots is a powerful corporation and maker of robots.
- In Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, when Wolff wakes Chalmers, she has been reading a copy of R.U.R. in her bed. This presages the fact that she is later revealed to be a gynoid.
- In the 2016 video game Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, R.U.R. is performed in an underground theater in a dystopian Prague by an "augmented" (cyborg) woman who believes herself to be the robot Helena.
- In the 2018 British alternative history drama Agatha and the Truth of Murder, Agatha is seen reading R.U.R. to her daughter Rosalind as a bedtime story.
- AI takeover
- The Steam Man of the Prairies (1868), an early American depiction of a "mechanical man"
- Tik-Tok, L. Frank Baum's earlier depiction (1907) of a similar entity
- Detroit: Become Human (2018), a narrative video game built around a rebellion by androids who become sentient.
- The world premiere was planned to be in the National Theater in Prague, but had to be postponed to 25 January 1921. The amateur theater group Klicpera in Hradec Králové, which was supposed to mount a production after the premiere, as not informed about the date change in the National Theater, so their opening night on 2 January 1921 was the actual world premiere. See: Databáze amatérského divadla, soubor Klicpera
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