I say: I was watching a rerun of QI the other day and came across the episode where the glorious host Stephen Fry explains that the word “robot” comes from the play R.U.R. by Karel Čapek. Being the knowledge-hungry nerd that I am, I just had to read the play.
And so I did.
The play consists of an introduction, three scenes and a short epilogue. In the introduction, we are introduced to Helena Glory, the daughter of the president, and also the president of the Humanity League, who visits the factory that makes the robots, Rossum’s Universal Robots, in order to convince them to shut down their operation. She believes that the robots should be treated like people. While there, all the six humans that run the factory fall in love with her, and she finally agrees to marry one of them, Harry Domain, the general manager.
In the following acts it is ten years later and Helena has just found out that one of the experimental robots, Radius, is apparently malfunctioning. However, it turns out that he is revolting. In her desire to humanise the robots, Helena has convinced one of the scientists to secretly give the new robots souls, and now they have realised that they are better than humans and are in process to extinct them. Out in the world (the factory is located on an island) the revolt has already begun, and the scientists are considering giving the robots different races and languages to keep them from further rebellion. Unfortunately this idea has come to them too late and the island is invaded by more robots.
I realise now that I kind of had to give away more of the plot so that I can give a little side eye to Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (and the film) for not giving a nod to Čapek since he wrote the plot 30 years earlier. In fact, I cannot believe that this isn’t more known – it has been translated into 30 languages and should therefore be all over the place.
Or maybe it’s just me who’s never heard of it.
Either way, even though I knew what was going to happen I really liked this play, mostly because of the sheer brilliance of Čapek’s imagination. The way he described the robots and how the scientists thought them up was very convincing, as well as the expected revolt – they always have to revolt. The pictures from the production that I’ve seen online are a bit comical. They’re also from 1921 and I would love to see this in a modern production.
The only problem I had with this play was the end and its religious overtones. I can understand what Čapek was going for, what with man considering himself God and ultimately being destroyed by his own creation, but it was a bit over the top.