Although The Insect Play was an immediate hit on Broadway in the early 1920s, Robert Wechsler states, in Capek in America, that the Capeks and their play were viewed mostly as a novelty. ‘‘[Karel]Capek was from a brand new country [that] some reviewers didn’t even seem to know about.’’ According to Wechsler, the Capeks’ play appealed to an audience that was ‘‘taken with the scenery and the special effects.’’ In the 1920s the audience found the Capeks’ play entertaining; they were unable, or unwilling, to go beyond the surface meaning of the dialogue. It was viewed as a comedy— something that was supposed to be taken lightly.
With the passing of time, as well as another world war, the development of the nuclear bomb, and the degradation of the environment by an industrialized world, Arthur Miller, an American playwright, has a different take on the Capek play and sense of humor. Miller believes that Karel Capek was so far ahead of his time that his contemporaries missed the point. They thought Karel’s ideas were too improbable to ever come true. In his introduction to a study of the Capeks’ works titled, Toward The Radical Center, Miller writes that while the audiences in the Capeks’ time responded to the play with charming curiosity, more modern audiences view the Capeks’ portrayed world as far less outrageous and far more frightening. ‘‘We have evolved into [Karel’s] nightmare,’’ Miller says, and now ‘‘when our science, shorn of moral purpose, is gradually enclosing our planet in unbreathable gases, it is time to read Capek again for his insouciant laughter, and the anguish of human blindness that lies beneath it.’’
The Insect Play is a play about scary things; and the least scary things in the play are the insects. The play is not about bugs, per se, but rather about the bugs in humanity: the problems, the faults, the mistakes. Karel Capek, having been an avid gardener, uses insects as an extended metaphor, expressing the foibles of humanity by giving insects a voice and exaggerating their likeness to mankind. It is the scary things in The Insect Play that Karel masks with his deceptive sense of humor. As Peter Kussi puts it in Toward the Radical Center, Karel Capek ‘‘has the gift of expressing weighty matters in the simplest of terms, while his most casual, humorous articles and stories contain something of real substance.’’
The overall theme in all of Karel’s works, says Kussi, is a ‘‘search for man.’’ If this is true, then The Insect Play begins with what appears to be a rather shabby example of man, a tramp: unshaven, rumpled, and wobbly. But it is off this tramp that the Capeks bounce all the underlying political and social commentary. The tramp observes the other characters in the play and reflects on the absurdity of their communications and actions. Although he appears drunk, it is the tramp who has the clearest thoughts. ‘‘P’raps I am screwed,’’ he says, but ‘‘. . .that ain’t the only reason why I see everythink double. . . ’’
What is double in this play is not the tramp’s vision, but rather the double-talk, or nonsense, of its characters. The first character that the tramp meets is the scientist, who represents one of Karel’s central worries about the world. Karel was very concerned that scientists were not aware of the potentially catastrophic consequences of scientific investigations and subsequent inventions. He wrote several science fiction novels about the possible misuse of technology. So The Insect Play begins with a lepidopterist, or someone who studies butter- flies. This scientist appears more benign than a nuclear physicist might in today’s world, but Karel nonetheless presents this seemingly safe butterfly man as a cold, unemotional person who seems to be defying his own scientific end. When asked by the tramp what it is that he is doing, the lepidopterist responds: ‘‘The butterfly must be carefully killed. . .pinned, and. . .dried.’’ And what is this all for, the tramp wants to know. ‘‘Love of nature,’’ says the lepidopterist, then he adds, ‘‘if you loved nature as much as I did, my man . . . ,’’ trailing off without finishing his statement, leaving the audience to fill in the blanks.
It is also in this opening scene that the tramp voices Karel’s deepest concern: the eventual destruction of humanity. The tramp turns to the audience and says: ‘‘I know what you think . . . you think I’m screwed . . . You didn’t catch me staggering, did you? I fell like a tree . . . like a hero! I was rehearsing . . . the fall of man!’’ This sets up the premise, and from this point to the end of the play Karel postulates the various combinations of events that might lead to mankind’s eventual destruction.
The next scene is dedicated to the butterflies, a somewhat superficial and frivolous group, possibly reflecting the upper-class dilettantes of society. The act begins with poor Felix who resembles the fourteenth- century Italian poet Petrarch, who constantly wrote of his love for an unattainable woman. Felix has his own unattainable woman, Iris. Part of this scene revolves around Felix’s attempts to tell Iris of his love, but the words he uses are grossly misinterpreted. Iris mistakes Felix’s subtle emotional pronouncements as insults. She calls him a ‘‘rude little man’’ and a ‘‘cynic.’’ ‘‘Oh, Iris,’’ Felix says, ‘‘every one disparages the thing that he loves best.’’ Iris’ reply is: ‘‘Do you mean dark women?’’ In another exchange Felix tells Iris that woman is a riddle. Iris again confuses his meaning and says: ‘‘Guess...
(The entire section is 2340 words.)