Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Capek Reader

Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Capek Reader

by Peter Kussi

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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.


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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“Imagine discovering the rich, warm humanity of a Dickens or a Gogol, and you have some idea of the impact of this selection from the work of Czechoslovakia's foremost 20th-century writer.”  —Booklist

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Toward the Radical Center

A Karel Capek Reader

By Peter Kussi, Karel Capek, Norma Comrada, Tatiana Firkusny, Yveta Synek Graff, Robert T. Jones, Claudia Novack-Jones, Dora Round, Paul Selver, Charles E. Townsend, M. & R. Weatherall, Robert Wechsler

Catbird Press

Copyright © 1990 Peter Kussi and Catbird Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-936053-02-5



(Rossum's Universal Robots)

A Collective Drama in a Comic Prologue and Three Acts

Translated by Claudia Novack


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.


NANA, her nurse

MARIUS, a Robot

SULLA, a lady Robot

RADIUS, a Robot

DAMON, a Robot







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?


DOMIN: New sheet. Friedrichswerke, Hamburg. — ate. — "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 (talking 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 extraordinarily 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.

DOMIN: In the museum I'll show you what all he managed to bungle in ten years. The thing that was supposed to be a man lived for three whole days. Old Rossum didn't have a bit of taste. What he did was dreadful. But inside, that thing had all the stuff a person has. Actually it was amazingly detailed work. And then young Rossum, an engineer, the son of the old man, came here. An ingenious mind, Miss Glory. When he saw what a scene his old man was making he said: "This is nonsense! Ten years to produce a human being?! If you can't do it faster than nature then just pack it in." And he himself launched into anatomy.

HELENA: It's different in the papers.

DOMIN (stands): In the papers are just paid ads; all the rest is nonsense. It's been written, for example, that the old man invented the Robots. The fact is that the old man was fine for the university, but he had no idea of production. He thought that he would create real people, possibly a new race of Indians, whether professors or idiots, you see? It was only young Rossum who had the idea to create living and intelligent labor machines from this mess. All that stuff in the papers about the collaboration of the two great Rossums is idle gossip. Those two quarreled brutally. The old atheist didn't have a crumb of understanding for industry, and finally young Rossum shut him up in some laboratory where he could fiddle with his monumental abortions, and he himself undertook production from the standpoint of an engineer. Old Rossum literally cursed him and before his death he bungled two more physiological monsters until finally he was found dead in his laboratory one day. That's the whole story.

HELENA: And what about the young man?

DOMIN: Young Rossum was of a new age, Miss Glory. The age of production following the age of discovery. When he took a look at human anatomy he saw immediately that it was too complex and that a good engineer could simplify it. So he undertook to redesign anatomy, experimenting with what would lend itself to omission or simplification — In short, Miss Glory — but isn't this boring you?

HELENA: No, on the contrary, it's dreadfully interesting.

DOMIN: So then young Rossum said to himself: A human being. That's something that feels joy, plays the violin, wants to go for a walk, and in general requires a lot of things which — which are, in effect, superfluous.


DOMIN: Wait. Which are superfluous when he needs to weave or add. A gasoline engine has no need for tassels and ornaments, Miss Glory. And manufacturing artificial workers is exactly like manufacturing gasoline engines. Production should be as simple as possible and the product the best for its function. What do you think? Practically speaking, what is the best kind of worker?

HELENA: The best? Probably the one who — who — who is honest — and dedicated.

DOMIN: No, it's the one that's the cheapest. The one with the fewest needs. Young Rossum did invent a worker with the smallest number of needs, but to do so he had to simplify him. He chucked everything not directly related to work, and doing that he virtually rejected the human being and created the Robot. My dear Miss Glory, Robots are not people. They are mechanically more perfect than we are, they have an astounding intellectual capacity, but they have no soul. Oh, Miss Glory, the product of an engineer is technically more refined than the creation of nature.

HELENA: It is said that man is the creation of God.

DOMIN: So much the worse. God had no notion of modern technology. Would you believe that the late young Rossum assumed the role of God?

HELENA: How, may I ask?

DOMIN: He began to produce Superrobots. Working giants. He experimented making them twelve feet tall, but you wouldn't believe how those mammoths fell apart.

HELENA: Fell apart?

DOMIN: Yes. All of a sudden a leg would break or something. Our planet is apparently too small for giants. Now we make only Robots of normal human height and respectable human shape.

HELENA: I saw the first Robots back home. The township bought them ... I mean hired —

DOMIN: Bought, my dear Miss Glory. Robots are bought.

HELENA: We acquired them as street-cleaners. I've seen them sweeping. They are so odd, so quiet.

DOMIN: Have you seen my secretary?

HELENA: I didn't notice.

DOMIN (rings): You see, the Rossum's Universal Robots Corporation does not yet manufacture entirely uniform goods. Some of the Robots are very fine, others come out cruder. The best will live perhaps twenty years.

HELENA: Then they die?

DOMIN: Well, they wear out.

(Enter SULLA.)

DOMIN: Sulla, let Miss Glory have a look at you.

HELENA (stands and offers SULLA her hand): How do you do? You must be dreadfully sad out here so far away from the rest of the world.

SULLA: That I cannot say, Miss Glory. Please have a seat.

HELENA (sits down): Where are you from, Miss?

SULLA: From here, from the factory.

HELENA: Oh, you were born here?

SULLA: I was made here, yes.

HELENA (jumping up): What?

DOMIN (laughing): Sulla is not human, Miss Glory. Sulla is a Robot.

HELENA: I meant no offense —

DOMIN (placing his hand on SULLA's shoulder): Sulla's not offended. Take a look at the complexion we make, Miss Glory. Touch her face.

HELENA: Oh, no, no!

DOMIN: You'd never guess she was made from a different substance than we are. She even has the characteristic soft hair of a blonde, if you please. Only the eyes are a trifle — But on the other hand, what hair! Turn around, Sulla!

HELENA: Please stop!

DOMIN: Chat with our guest, Sulla. She is a distinguished visitor.

SULLA: Please, Miss, have a seat. (They both sit down.) Did you have a good crossing?

HELENA: Yes — cer-certainly.

SULLA: Do not go back on the Amelia, Miss Glory. The barometer is falling sharply — to 27.7. Wait for the Pennsylvania; it is a very good, very strong ship.

DOMIN: Speed?

SULLA: Twenty knots. Tonnage — twenty thousand.

DOMIN (laughing): Enough, Sulla, enough. Let's hear how well you speak French.


Excerpted from Toward the Radical Center by Peter Kussi, Karel Capek, Norma Comrada, Tatiana Firkusny, Yveta Synek Graff, Robert T. Jones, Claudia Novack-Jones, Dora Round, Paul Selver, Charles E. Townsend, M. & R. Weatherall, Robert Wechsler. Copyright © 1990 Peter Kussi and Catbird Press. Excerpted by permission of Catbird Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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