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Čapek and R.U.R.

Karel Čapek (1890-1938)

Information and questions for reading R.U.R.

The edition I have from last time has a very nice introduction by Ivan Klíma  (and Klíma himself is well worth reading) - let me know if you'd like me to scan it and post on Moodle. Note that Čapek himself was a biology major. (This wasn't planned, but so far all our authors seem to have had a scientific or technical education.) (Except Briusov...)

Czech was first used as a literary language in the 13th century (before that, in Bohemia as elsewhere in Western Europe, most writing was in Latin), and Czech writing flourished in the 14th century. Czech theological writing was represented by Jan Hus (and others less well-known in the West); the important late Renaissance author Comenius (1592-1670) was born Jan Amos Komenský but had to leave Bohemia in 1628 - Protestantism was banned there after 1620. (The Austro-Hungarian Empire had descended from the Holy Roman Empire, and "Holy Roman" sums up their religious preferences very nicely.) Under the Austrians, people in cities spoke mostly German, and Czech was preserved in the countryside (though probably every family who could afford a wet nurse knew a LITTLE bit of Czech). After Czechs decided to revive their own language as an instrument for literary and public discourse, it took many years to work out the balance between the elite literary language that was stamped out in the 17th century and the folksy tongue of the villages.

Čapek is one of the central cultural figures of interwar Czechoslovakia, a "new" country that was created in 1918 in the aftermath of World War I. By all accounts, the interwar Czechoslovak democracy functioned pretty admirably, though it was dominated by the more populous and wealthy Czech parts of the country, Bohemia and Moravia, which some Slovaks did not appreciate. Before 1914, Slovakia had spent several decades under Hungarian rule, while the Czechs under Austrian governance had not really faced the German equivalent of energetic Magyarization. (And Hungarian, as you may already know, is very different from the Slavic languages, much harder for a Slavic speaker to learn than German.)

The word "robot" comes from the Czech word "robota," meaning 'heavy work' or 'labor' (and stressed, like all Czech words, on the first syllable). It has a flavor of the obligations placed on serfs in the feudal system.

Why, you may ask, is the word "Czech" spelled in that odd way? In Czech, it's spelled "Čeh" with the same economical use of diacritical marks as in "Čapek." "Czech" is the way Czech is spelled in Polish, which uses digraphs (cz, ch) to spell some of the sounds Czech spells with the diacritical mark called a haček (č, š, ž).

Questions for reading Rossum's Universal Robots (1920):

  1. What earlier literary robots (or robot-like things) do you know of?
  2. How plausible is the action and the technology, given that it was supposed to be set in 2000 (an apocalyptic date, as you may recall)?
  3. Would you say that the play is science fiction? (There's disagreement among some readers.)
  4. What's the effect of reading a play - a genre that's meant to be performed?
  5. Large parts of this play are supposed to be comic - does the humor work for you?
  6. What about Domin's comment about the robots that "they never think up anything original. They'd make fine university professors"?
  7. Where is the robot factory located? (How and when do we discover that?)
  8. How would you compare Robotic Palsy to Briusov's Mania contradicens?
  9. How does this author, who is not a socialist, present the human need to work? (Capek himself refers to Alquist as a Tolstoyan; we can talk about that a bit if you'd like: Tolstoy died in 1910, but his influence as a moral thinker lingered.)
  10. How might the plan to produce National Robots (towards the end) recall the story of the Tower of Babel?
  11. Why does Radius declare Alquist a robot, rather than saying he is equal to a robot? Has "robot" just become a synonym for "worker?"
  12. How does the play define humanity?
  13. What's the effect of seeing robots made of protoplasm, etc. - as chemical or biological, rather than mechanical creations? (Besides the fact that they could be played by human actors.)
  14. Is the ending satisfying?
  15. What potential problems do you see in reading a work that's intended for performance?


Sibelan Forrester

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