The world’s first robots: R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), by Karel Čapek

January 29, 2021 Adam Sell

The world’s first robots
By Adam Sell


The Bot Book Review is an occasional series of short reviews of robot-themed books as written by White Ops team members.

In my theatrical career (which has been going on substantially longer than my technology or marketing careers), I’ve been a part of some strange productions. There was the version of Hairspray, the John Waters musical, in which the cast was face painted in Roy Liechtenstein-esque dots in an approximation of pop art. There was the “funked up” version of an 18th century Irish farce in which half the cast was cast in drag or against gender (sadly, I was not, though I got to mimic Thurston Howell III for a couple hours every night). And there was the seminal 1960 musical The Fantasticks, which carries some Brechtian characteristics through a chipper yet cliched plot.

Were I ever to be a part of a production of R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), that might be near the top of the list for out-there stories to tell.

The play, which celebrated its 100th anniversary of its first production just last week, follows a familiar plotline found in a lot of the fiction surrounding robots: genius humans create robots to aid in daily existence, they upgrade these robots to near-human capacities and imbue them with phenomenal intelligence, the robots discover their own servitude mimics slavery, the robots rebel against their creators and overthrow human hegemony.

Bearing in mind I’m far from a science fiction aficionado, I would be reluctant to call this an original concept, even for the time in which it was published. Consider: Frankenstein predates R.U.R. by more than a century. But the novel concept of the theatrical approach is bifold. For one thing, this play is the reason the word “robot” exists in the English language at all. The word is based on the Czech words for “forced labor” or “serfs”.

Which brings me to the other novel introduction that Čapek makes: allusions to socialism and automation. While Shelley may have pioneered the theme of a scientific creation’s rebellion, Čapek incorporates the forced labor aspect. These creations were built to take over in the factory, on the battlefield, or in the home. The scientists/industrialists who develop the robots perceive and treat them as entirely replaceable, literally soulless beings (which, conveniently, have an expiry date of ~30 years).

Indeed, the beginning of the third act of the play features the powers-that-be realizing they’re at a dramatic numerical disadvantage and only beginning to contemplate negotiations with the workers of the world when backed into a literal and figurative corner.

A big portion of what makes this story strange—at least to my 21st century perspective—is how presentational the script seems. The timing of R.U.R. fits in nicely with the earliest examples of epic theatre, led by the aforementioned Bertolt Brecht, who lived just one country over. R.U.R. doesn’t fit into that category; it doesn’t serve to remind the audience that they’re in the theater. But neither does it truly seem to subscribe to the theory of realism that evolved around the same time: the protagonist of the play proposes to a visitor to the factory within the first half hour of their relationship, and she accepts largely under duress. She later destroys the “formula” for robots impulsively and regrets the action as it destroys the human negotiating position during the conflict.

I suspect that COVID-19 robbed us of modern interpretations and celebrations of the work on its centenary. The idea that the word “robot” is so contemporary is odd, even if the concept of automatons and synthetic humans predates the play by a fair amount. I’m looking forward to theater’s return not just because I’m eager to get back on stage, but also because opportunities for modernization of plays like R.U.R.  are so interesting.

I’d recommend R.U.R. for anybody interested in social commentary that resonates today but in unexpected ways.

R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots)
By Karel Čapek

Bot Book Review Rating: 4/5 stars

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