Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Capek Reader


Capek's best plays, stories, and columns take us from the social contributions of clumsy people to dramatic meditations on mortality and commitment. The Reader includes a new and, at last, complete English translation of R.U.R., the play that introduced the literary robot.

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Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Capek Reader

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Capek's best plays, stories, and columns take us from the social contributions of clumsy people to dramatic meditations on mortality and commitment. The Reader includes a new and, at last, complete English translation of R.U.R., the play that introduced the literary robot.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780945774075
  • Publisher: Catbird Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/1990
  • Series: Garrigue Bks.
  • Edition description: 1st ed
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 1990 Peter Kussi and Catbird Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0945774079

Chapter One

Part I


R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) The Makropulos Secret Inventions

Karel Capek gained international attention in the early nineteen-twenties with R.U.R. and other plays with science-fantasy themes, and he is remembered abroad mainly as a prophetic anti-utopian, warning the world against the excesses of scientism and technocracy. Certainly, there is still a chill of recognition in seeing rebellious robots or warrior ants take over the stage, but Capek's plays are basically comedies, and they are comedies not about machines or insects but about human beings.

R.U.R., like all classic comedies, ends in marriage and the renewal of life. And the basic, unresolvable conflict of the play is not between humans and robots but between different kinds of idealism. As Capek himself put it: `General Director Domin shows in the play that the development of technology frees man from heavy physical labor, and he is right. Alquist, with his Tolstoyan outlook, believes that technology demoralizes man, and I think he is right, too. Busman believes that only industrialism is capable of meeting modern needs, and he is right. Helena instinctively fears all these humanmachinations, and she is quite right. Finally, the robots themselves revolt against all these idealists, and it seems they are right, too.'

In his foreword to this Reader, Arthur Miller refers to Capek's peculiar blend of Czechness and worldliness. This is certainly true of R.U.R., as suggested in the name of the robot manufacturer: Rossum's Universal Robots (not a translation). This enterprise is clearly a multinational corporation, but its Czech origins cannot be concealed. The name `Rossum' was doubtless derived from the Czech word rozum, meaning `mind' or `reason.' And the expression `robot' was coined from the Czech robota, meaning `heavy labor.' It is one of only two Czech expressions that ever made their way into English (the other is `pistol'). Incidentally, Karel Capek was apparently not the inventor of the term `robot;' he gives credit for that to his brother Josef.

The Makropulos Secret is Capek's meditation on mortality. Janácek's opera based on this play brings out the grandeur and pathos of the heroine, but Capek stresses the absurdly comic side of the human condition, especially the antithesis between duration and intensity of life. Here, as elsewhere in Capek's work, the criterion of value is the human scale, the classical measure without which life becomes tragic or comical. In his preface to the play, Capek observed that in contrast to Shaw's Back to Methuselah, which extols the joys of longevity, his own play was taken as a rejection of life. Yet is there not a dose of healthy optimism in considering the average lifespan quite sufficient for happiness, Capek asks-with perhaps just a trace of irony.

Capek was leery of excessive faith in technology, but he appreciated modern inventions as long as they were domesticated, kept within usable bounds. This is reflected in the amusing little feuilleton that closes this section, extolling the wonders of the latest miracle from abroad: the vacuum cleaner. It was not the practical side of the machine that excited him but its magic, its ability to show that commonplace, everyday life can be full of surprises. Everywhere around us there is a wealth of invisible, unsuspected dust-suggesting both the gold-dust of the imagination and the dust to which all of us must one day return.


(Rossum's Universal Robots)

A Collective Drama in a Comic Prologue and Three Acts

Translated by Claudia Novack-Jones


Harry Domin, central director of Rossum's Universal Robots Fabry, engineer, general technical director of R.U.R. Dr. Gall, head of the physiological and research divisions of R.U.R. Dr. Hallemeier, head of the institute for Robot psychology and education Busman, general marketing director and chief counsel of R.U.R. Alquist, builder, chief of construction of R.U.R. Helena Glory Nana, her nurse Marius, a Robot Sulla, a lady Robot Radius, a Robot Damon, a Robot First Robot Second Robot Third Robot Fourth Robot Robot Primus Lady Robot Helena Robot Servant and numerous other Robots Domin, about 38 years old in the Prologue, tall, clean-shaven Fabry, also clean-shaven, fair-haired, with a serious and gentle face Dr. Gall, trifling, lively, suntanned, with a black moustache Hallemeier, huge, robust, with a red, English moustache and red scrubby hair Busman, fat, bald, near-sighted Alquist, older than the rest, carelessly dressed, with long grizzled hair and whiskers Helena, very elegant

In the play proper everyone is ten years older than in the Prologue. In the Prologue the Robots are dressed like people. Their movements and speech are laconic. Their faces are expressionless and their eyes fixed. In the play proper they are wearing linen shirts tightened at their waists with a belt, and have brass numbers on their chests. There is an intermission following the Prologue and the second act.


The central office of the Rossum's Universal Robots factory. On the right is a door. Windows in the front wall look out onto an endless row of factory buildings. On the left are more managerial offices.

Domin is sitting at a large American desk in a revolving armchair. On the desk is a lamp, a telephone, a paperweight, a file of letters, etc.; on the wall to the left are big maps depicting ship and railway lines, a big calendar, and a clock which reads shortly before noon; affixed to the wall on the left are printed posters: "The Cheapest Labor: Rossum's Robots." "Tropical Robots-A New Invention-$150 a Head." "Buy Your Very Own Robot." "Looking To Cut Production Costs? Order Rossum's Robots." Still more maps, transport regulations, a chart with entries of telegraph rates, etc. In contrast to these wall decorations there is a splendid Turkish carpet on the floor, to the right a round table, a couch, a leather club-style armchair and a bookcase in which there are bottles of wine and brandy instead of books. On the left is a safe. Next to Domin's desk is a typewriter at which Sulla is working.

Domin (dictating): "-that we will not stand responsible for goods damaged in transport. We brought it to the attention of your captain just before loading that the ship was unfit for the transportation of Robots, so we are not to be held financially accountable for the damage to the merchandise. For Rossum's Universal Robots, etcetera-" Got it? Sulla: Yes.

Domin: New sheet. Friedrichswerke, Hamburg. -Date. -"I am writing to confirm your order for fifteen thousand Robots-" (In-house telephone rings. Domin answers it and speaks.) Hello - Central office here - Yes. - Certainly. But of course, as always. - Of course, wire them. - Good. - (He hangs up the telephone.) Where did I leave off?.

Sulla: "I am writing to confirm your order for fifteen thousand Robots."

Domin (thinking): Fifteen thousand Robots. Fifteen thousand Robots.

Marius (enters): Mr. Director, some lady is asking-

Domin: Who is it?

Marius: I do not know. (He hands Domin a calling card.)

Domin (reads): President Glory. - Ask her in.

Marius (opens the door): If you please, ma'am. (Enter Helena Glory. Marius leaves.)

Domin (stands): How do you do?

Helena: Central Director Domin?

Domin: At your service.

Helena: I have come-

Domin: -with a note from President Glory. That will do.

Helena: President Glory is my father. I am Helena Glory.

Domin: Miss Glory, it is an unusual honor for us to-

Helena: -to be unable to show you the door.

Domin: -to welcome the daughter of our great president. Please have a seat. Sulla, you may go.

(Sulla leaves.)

Domin (sits down): How can I be of service, Miss Glory?

Helena: I have come-

Domin: -to have a look at our factory production of people. Like all visitors. I'd be happy to show you.

Helena: But I thought it was prohibited-

Domin: -to enter the factory, of course. Yet everyone comes here with someone's calling card, Miss Glory.

Helena: And you show everyone ...?

Domin: Only some things. The method for producing artificial people is a factory secret, Miss Glory.

Helena: If you knew just how much-

Domin: -this interests you. Good old Europe is talking about nothing else.

Helena: Why don't you let me finish my sentences?

Domin: I beg your pardon. Perhaps you wanted to say something different?

Helena: I only wanted to ask-

Domin: -whether I wouldn't make an exception and show you our factory. But certainly, Miss Glory.

Helena: How do you know that's what I wanted to ask?

Domin: Everybody asks the same thing. (He stands.) With all due respect, Miss Glory, we will show you more than we show the others and- in a word-

Helena: I thank you.

Domin: If you vow that you will not disclose to anyone even the smallest-

Helena (stands and offers him her hand): You have my word of honor.

Domin: Thank you. Don't you want to take off your veil?

Helena: Oh, of course, you want to see- Excuse me.

Domin: Pardon?

Helena: If you would let go of my hand.

Domin (lets go of her hand): I beg your pardon.

Helena (taking off her veil): You want to see that I'm not a spy. How cautious you are.

Domin (scrutinizing her ardently): Hm, of course, we- yes.

Helena: Don't you trust me?

Domin: Singularly, Hele- pardon, Miss Glory. Really, I'm extra-ordinarily delighted. - Did you have a good crossing?

Helena: Yes. Why-

Domin: Because- I was just thinking- you're still very young.

Helena: Will we be going to the factory immediately?

Domin: Yes. I'd guess about twenty-two, right?

Helena: Twenty-two what?

Domin: Years old.

Helena: Twenty-one. Why do you want to know?

Domin: Because- since- (Enthusiastically.) You'll stay awhile, won't you?

Helena: That depends on what I see at the factory.

Domin: Blasted factory! But certainly, Miss Glory, you will see everything. Please, have a seat. Would you be interested in learning something about the history of the invention?

Helena: Yes, please. (She sits down.)

Domin: Well, then. (He sits down at the desk gazing rapturously at Helena and rattles off quickly.) The year was 1920 when old Rossum, a great philosopher but at the time still a young scholar, moved away to this remote island to study marine life, period. At the same time he was attempting to reproduce, by means of chemical synthesis, living matter known as protoplasm, when suddenly he discovered a substance which behaved exactly like living matter although it was of a different chemical composition. That was in 1932, precisely four-hundred forty years after the discovery of America.

Helena: You know all this by heart?

Domin: Yes. Physiology, Miss Glory, is not my game. Shall I go on?

Helena: Please.

Domin (solemnly): And then, Miss Glory, old Rossum wrote among his chemical formulae: "Nature has found only one process by which to organize living matter. There is, however, another process, simpler, more moldable and faster, which nature has not hit upon at all. It is this other process, by means of which the development of life could proceed, that I have discovered this very day." Imagine, Miss Glory, that he wrote these lofty words about some phlegm of a colloidal jelly that not even a dog would eat. Imagine him sitting over a test tube and thinking how the whole tree of life would grow out of it, starting with some species of worm and ending- ending with man himself. Man made from a different matter than we are. Miss Glory, that was a tremendous moment.

Helena: What then?

Domin: Then? Then it was a question of taking life out of the test tube, speeding up its development, shaping some of the organs, bones, nerves and whatnot, and finding certain substances, catalysts, enzymes, hormones, etcetera; in short, do you understand?

Helena: I d-d-don't know. Not very much, I'm afraid.

Domin: Neither do I. Anyway, by using these substances he could concoct whatever he wanted. For instance, he could have created a jellyfish with a Socratic brain or a one-hundred-fifty-foot worm. But because he hadn't a shred of humor about him, he took it into his head to create an ordinary vertebrate, possibly a human being. And so he set to it.

Helena: To what?

Domin: To reproducing nature. First he tried to create an artificial dog. That took him a number of years, and finally he produced something like a mutant calf which died in a couple of days. I'll point it out to you in the museum. And then old Rossum set out to manufacture a human being.


Helena: And this I must disclose to no one?

Domin: To no one in the world.

Helena: It's a pity this is already in all the papers.

Domin: A pity. (He jumps up from the desk and sits down next to Helena.) But do you know what isn't in the papers? (He taps his forehead.) That old Rossum was a raving lunatic. That's a fact, Miss Glory, but keep it to yourself. That old eccentric actually wanted to make people.

Helena: But you make people after all!

Domin: More or less, Miss Glory. But old Rossum meant that literally. You see, he wanted somehow to scientifically dethrone God. He was a frightful materialist and did everything on that account. For him it was a question of nothing more than furnishing proof that no God is necessary. So he resolved to create a human being just like us to the turn of a hair. Do you know a little anatomy?

Helena: Only- very little.

Domin: Same here. Imagine, he took it into his head to manufacture everything just as it is in the human body, right down to the last gland. The appendix, the tonsils, the belly button-all the superfluities. Finally even - hm - even the sexual organs.

Helena: But after all those- those after all-

Domin: -are not superfluous, I know. But if people were going to be produced artificially, then it was not - hm - in any way necessary-

Helena: I understand.


Excerpted from TOWARD THE RADICAL CENTER by KAREL CAPEK Copyright © 1990 by Peter Kussi and Catbird Press
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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