Focus on Karel Capek

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 entire section contains 2340 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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 it then. But not too roughly, please.’’ Love is the first of two issues that the butterflies flit around, stopping briefly to touch, but never investing full emotion. The second topic is death.

The fatality of Felix and Iris’ relationship is obvious, but it is not the only fatality in this scene. One of Iris’ other, more superficial suitors is eventually eaten by a bird. He is caught in a bird’s mouth much like the butterflies in the first scene were caught in the lepidopterist’s net. His demise is swift and, like the lepidopterist, Iris shrugs death off lightly. In fact, death makes her laugh. She eventually flies off, leaving Felix with the tramp to listen to his poetry that, by the end of this scene, reflects the brevity not only of love, but also of life. Brevity of life is a concept that will reoccur in the play, linking one scene to the next.

The creepers and crawlers enter the stage in the next scene. They represent various forms of political systems, most obviously capitalism and communism. ‘‘Philosophically as well as politically,’’ says Kussi, ‘‘[Karel] was a man of the center. . .The center he was aiming for was not a lukewarm middle ground between extremes. It was a radical center, radical in the original sense of the word: at the root of things.’’ Karel did not believe in collectivism, or any type of social organization in which the individual is seen as subordinate to a social collectivity such as a state or nation. Communism, Fascism, and Nazism are all based on a type of collectivism philosophy. Neither did Karel support selfish individualism that is the underlying philosophy in extreme capitalism. Karel was a ‘‘passionate democrat and pluralist,’’ says Kussi. ‘‘He disliked single vision and preferred to look at everything from many sides.’’

Some of the most obvious as well as most absurd capitalists in the third scene are the beetles. Their main goal in life is centered on gathering their precious little pile. These beetles are like dung beetles who gather cow dung in small balls and roll them into their holes in the ground. The tramp says the little pile smells, but the beetles are willing to protect their little pile with their lives. They will roll it around with them forever for they fear someone may steal it. Once they find a good hiding place, they will go find another pile that they will roll around again. They talk about this pile as if it were their child. They’ve watched it grow. They refer to it as a blessing from heaven. Their whole life is consumed with taking care of the pile. They care for nothing else, not even for one another. All they want is to accumulate more piles. When the unthinkable happens—another beetle steals the pile—the first beetle despairs: ‘‘Rolled it away? My pile? . . . All my little lot. All I’ve saved. They’ve killed me . . . Who cares about my wife? It’s my pile they’ve taken.’’

There is also the ichneumon fly in this scene who spends his life gathering food for his larval daughter. She is spoiled and eats only the tasty parts of the crickets that her father brings home. He, on the other hand, is proud of her and does not mind all the work that she requires. As a matter of fact, the fly’s whole life is consumed with work. ‘‘Up early, home late, but as long as you’re doing it for some one worth doing it for, what does it matter?’’ says the fly.

The tramp sees that it matters. He can’t figure out nature. ‘‘This ’as me fairly beat. That fly destroys but that pore ’armless cricket found life sweet, same as ’e does . . . No! Nature ’as me beat!’’ This is the Capeks’ comment on capitalism. One capitalist nation feeds off another. To provide economic growth, a capitalist nation must find ways of making a profit, even if it is at the expense of another nation.

In contrast to capitalism is the parasite, whom the tramp calls a ‘‘Bolshie.’’ The Bolsheviks, to whom the play is referring, were the forerunners of communism in Russia. The parasite is two-faced and at one point yells: ‘‘Down with work,’’ but then steals from the fly who has worked to build his larder. ‘‘Down with larder,’’ says the parasite. ‘‘Hoarding shouldn’t be allowed. Eat your fill and ’ave done with it . . . Storing things is robbin’ those who haven’t nowhere to store. Eat your fill and have done with it and then there’d be enough for all, wouldn’t there?’’ Later the parasite says: ‘‘why should I work when somebody else has more than he can consume?’’ Then a few lines later, the parasite contradicts himself with: ‘‘That’s the third cricket [the fly has] had already, and me nothing. And that’s what we poor working men are asked to put up with.’’

By the end of this scene the poor tramp is very confused. He tries hard to define man, thinking that man is better than the insects. But every time he comes up with a definition of what man is, he is reminded of the beetles, the crickets or the flies.

But man—man’s diff’rent. Folks like me an’ you Work ’ard, real ’ard, and makes our little pile. . . Blast! I’m all mixed. That’s what them beetles do. . .

. . . Bold—that’s what man is; resolute, yer might s’y, If ’e wants more, ’e does ’is neighbour in . . . O ’Ell! That makes ’im like this murd’rous fly . . .

The war machine comes in the next scene as seen through the lives of the ants. Anticipating these insects, the tramp begins this act with a commentary on how men need to work together, and surrender their own, selfish desires (such as the capitalists have) to the greater good of the State. This act is Karel’s reference to the worst of communism. The ants’ values emphasize world power, reason, law and the interests of the whole. Everything that the ant colony does is for ‘‘Her.’’ This ‘‘Her’’ is the queen ant that Karel uses as a metaphor for the State. She is ‘‘the one who orders.’’ At first the tramp likes this concept, a kind of one for all and all for one philosophy. Unfortunately, the ‘‘all’’ in this anthill excludes anyone outside the given race of that particular colony. Therefore the ants believe that enemies surround them. The enemies are the black, brown, gray, and yellow ants. When the Chief Engineer declares war on the yellow ants, it is proposed that his ants are ‘‘fighting the battle of peace.’’

Karel inserts an inventor in this scene, taking on the scientist again. This time the scientist is the creator of the war machine. The inventor glorifies his invention: ‘‘A war machine. A vast machine, a huge one. The swiftest, most effective crusher of lives. The forefront of progress, the acme of science . . . Two hundred thousand dead . . .’’ When the tramp asks the ants why there must be war, the ants reply: ‘‘Because we shall have a new war machine.’’

The play ends with a summary of Karel’s observations about life from the viewpoint of death. In the end, Karel cries out for the use of common sense. Kussi says,

[Karel’s] work radiates a firm belief in common sense. . .praise for simple folk wisdom. [Karel] counters nonsense by steadfast adherence to good sense. Such an attitude could easily become boring; [but] it is one of the glories of [Karel] that he makes the voice of reason sound lively, amusing, totally fresh . . . he writes [from] a deep-rooted center that includes reason yet reaches beyond reason to deeper springs.

The Epilogue of the play is titled ‘‘Death and Life.’’ In this scene the tramp sees his own death coming in the form of two snails. Before leaving, the tramp reflects on all the lives, as well as the deaths of the insects:

‘‘Life and death—seems they’re both good if we know how to treat ’em . . . why can’t we all live ’appy together? The world’s big enough, and life could be ’appy for everythink—if we ’ad a bit o’sense.’’

Source: Joyce Hart, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Hart, a former college professor, is a freelance writer.

Role of Tramp

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Many critics have noted that Karel and Josef Capek’s The Insect Play (1921) consists of three one-act playlets. Others have called the play a revue, a show comprised of different sketches that comment on recent events. However these critics describe the nature of The Insect Play, everyone agrees that one character ties the disparate acts together: The Tramp. Introduced in the prologue, the tramp could be interpreted as dreaming the play’s action or as merely a device the Capeks use to link the three stories they are telling. In either case, the tramp plays a key role in The Insect Play. He gives the audience a human character to identify with. The tramp guides the audience through the action, commenting on it. As the play progresses, he becomes part of it. This essay looks at the crucial role the tramp has in the play, and the effect of his character on the play’s tone and content.

The tramp is the only human character to appear in each part of The Insect Play. When he is introduced in the prologue, he is asleep with an empty bottle, implied to be liquor, at his side. The tramp is awakened by the lepidopterist, who is collecting butterflies for his scientific collection. The scientist is trying to nab a butterfly that is resting on the tramp’s nose. After the scientist leaves to continue his pursuit, the tramp addresses the audience directly. He tells them that he was not drunk, but that he fell from a tree while rehearsing ‘‘the fall of man.’’ Further, the tramp declares ‘‘I’m a man, that’s what I am—a lord of creation! A great thing to be I tell yer! Now then, pass along there, my man! That’s what they say to me.’’

Thus, from the beginning of the play, the tramp’s role is established. He identifies himself as ‘‘man,’’ not just in one way but several. The tramp may be a human man, but to his fellow human men and women, he is less than them. He is pushed aside by them. He has no home to sleep in, no job or family. Yet the tramp also claims to be ‘‘a lord of creation.’’ The tramp is a man who created these insect worlds in the woods, away from civilization. They are, perhaps, his interpretations of or perceptions of the reality of human life. This duality makes the tramp a Christ-like figure: both complex man and god. The tramp represents the human conscience, a definer of values.

Each of the three one-acts (or sketches, depending on the definition preferred) defines an aspect of human morality for the tramp. The fact that the pieces use insects makes them small morality plays: they illustrate human vices and define meritorious behavior. The human audience can see these morals more clearly because they are presented in a palat able form. They are not seeing themselves on stage, but a version thereof. Each act is like an animated cartoon. The tales reflect an aspect of society, exaggerated to reveal a deeper message. While the goal of most cartoons is to elicit a humorous reaction, the acts of The Insect Play define what the tramp thinks is wrong and right with the human world.

In Act I, the tramp shows a society that has rejected him. The butterflies—vain, shallow creatures only concerned with attracting the opposite sex and outmaneuvering those of the same—intrigue him at first. But as he watches the superficial mating dance unfold, the tramp becomes disgusted. Towards the end of the act, Clytie, a female butter- fly, tries to induce the tramp into chasing her. He becomes annoyed by her false interest, calling her a ‘‘’ussy’’ and a ‘‘’arlot’’ before exclaiming ‘‘Go— get a move on. I ’ate the sight of yer.’’ The tramp sees past skin-deep beauty and empty relationships. While the act begins with him believing he has found paradise, it ends with him disparaging their lifestyle and motivation.

The tramp shows both what he respects and despises in Act II. This act is more complex than the first, with several story lines. One concerns a Mr. and Mrs. Beetle, who have worked very hard to collect what they call their ‘‘capital.’’ This is a ball of dirt and dung, what they consider their life’s savings. The tramp respects the fact that these insects actually labor. He says: ‘‘Them butterflies was gay / And foolish, yer might say: / But these ’ere beetles—lumme, / They do work, anyway!’’ Later in the act, he makes fun of their obsession with their capital after it is stolen. The beetles care more about the capital than each other.

The tramp is more troubled by the actions of the ichneumon fly. The fly kills other insects to feed his daughter, a larva. While the tramp respects the right of the fly to feed his children, he also sympathizes with the fly’s victims. The tramp exclaims in the middle of the act: ‘‘That fly destroys / The cricket jest to feed ’is girls and boys; / But that pore ’armless cricket found life sweet, / Same as ’e does—No! Nature ’as me beat!’’ But later in the act, after the tramp observes and becomes friendly with a Mr. and Mrs. Cricket, he finds the fly’s actions murderous. The fly kills them both in cold blood in front of the tramp. The tramp blames himself for not trying to help these innocent victims. The tramp expresses his horror over killing with a parasite who happens along. The parasite further condemns the fly for storing large amounts of food when other creatures are starving.

After the parasite exacts a certain amount of revenge by eating the parasite’s stored food as well as his daughter, the tramp remains upset by the murders. Near the end of the act, while the parasite is in the fly’s lair eating his fill, the tramp speaks three verses that explicitly compares humankind to these three kinds of creatures (beetles, crickets, and ichneumon fly), as much as he dislikes the parallels. The last line of these verses states ‘‘’oo can think straight on gin?’’ The tramp, as a conscience, does not always like what he sees.

The tramp still has confidence in Act III. At the beginning of the act, he exclaims, ‘‘Insec’s won’t work together. Man / Will. ’E can form a general plan. There’s something great in ’im what fights / And perishes for the nation’s rights.’’ The tramp goes on to laud those that give up their lives for their country. His opinion changes once he sees what goes on in the Ant Realm. This sketch is about the negative effect of blind devotion to the state and to work. The ants are only concerned with how to work more quickly and efficiently for the good of the state. Unlike the insects in other sketches, some of the ants are defined by work titles: chief engineer and second engineer. (The butterflies have names, while the insects in Act II are defined by species.)

The ants want to work faster so they can take over the world. The chief engineer declares himself dictator as soon as a war has begun with their last remaining enemy, the yellow ants. The tramp takes the Ant Realm’s side and hopes they win their war. But when he sees the slaughter from the battles and the injured ants, the tramp changes his mind. He identifies more with the soldiers of the Ant Realm, rather than its self-proclaimed dictator. Finally, when the yellow ants overrun the Ant Realm at the end of Act III, the tramp can no longer remain a passive observer to slaughter. He kills the yellow leader, grinding the ant with his boot. Everything the tramp has seen in The Insect Play has led to this moment. It is one thing to moralize through example; it is quite another to take action for one’s self. His conscience has driven him to murder.

One reason for the tramp’s evolution, especially after the end of Act I, might be the introduction of the chrysalis at the beginning of Act II. The chrysalis is an insect about to be born. She is excited about her forthcoming birth, and tells the tramp (and whoever else is listening) about the great things she will accomplish. While the tramp grows tired of hearing her plans, she does give him one thing none of the other insects can: hope. Her hope touches him when all the other insects disappoint him with their actions. She is possibility. She is the future. One interpretation could be that the chrysalis is the tramp’s foster child. He laments his childless state several times in the play. It is as if they adopt each other as father and daughter. But like the other father-daughter relationship depicted in The Insect Play, it ends badly.

In the play’s epilogue, it is night and the tramp is yelling in his sleep. He already fears death in the dark and seeks light. The light that comes draws and kills moths. When the chrysalis finally opens, a moth emerges, only to die a few moments later. None of her hopes or dreams are realized. Before she is born, the tramp asks ‘‘Butterflies, beetles, moths and men—why can’t we all live ’appy together? The world’s big enough, and life could be ’appy for everythink—if we ’ad a bit o’ sense.’’ After her death, the tramp realizes that he is going to die, though he tries to deny it. He wants to live because he knows more about what it means to be human now. But like the chrysalis/moth, he will not get the chance.

In The Insect Play, the tramp serves as a symbol of optimism for humankind. Despite the problems he sees exemplified by the insects, the tramp does not lose hope until he is near death. The hope that is lost is only for his future, not the rest of humanity’s. The tramp wants the world to be a fair place, though his frustrations do lead to his murdering the yellow ant leader at the end of Act III. The ending of the play shows this change. Though the woodcutter who finds the tramp’s corpse dismisses him as ‘‘Only a tramp,’’ he also states that ‘‘I hope he’ll be better off than we are.’’ The woman, carrying a newborn baby, yet another symbol of a hopeful future, places a flower on his makeshift grave. Unlike the beginning of The Insect Play, when the scientist is angry and dismissive of the tramp, the end shows other humans being kind to their fellow man.

Source: Annette Petruso, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.

Allegorical Meaning

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In The Insect Play, insect society, so to speak, is represented as an allegory for human society. In particular, in Act II, Capek and Capek address their concerns with the economic struggles of, and competition between, humans through their characterization of different species of insects. Thus, the dung beetles represent the working class, the Ichneumon Fly seems to represent the entrepreneurial, or petitbourgeoisie, middle class, and the butterflies represent the upper classes, or bourgeoisie. The play presents a highly cynical perspective on the workings of human society, made up of lives character ized by meaningless existence, greed, and hard work in the name of family.

The dung beetles represent the working masses who toil their lives away for no other reason than to amass a pitiful life savings for which there is no real purpose. The dung beetles are obsessed with their ‘‘little pile’’—a ball of dung—which represents their life’s work. They refer to it in terms commonly used by people to describe their hard-earned savings. The Male Beetle calls it, ‘‘Our capital. Our nest-egg. Our stock-in-trade. Our all.’’ The Female Beetle concurs with similar descriptions, which further indicate that these two value their ‘‘pile’’ of dung above all else in life, although it in fact serves no purpose, except to represent an abstract notion of amassed wealth: ‘‘Oh, what a lovely little pile, what a treasure, what a beautiful little ball, what a precious little fortune.’’ And the Male Beetle adds that it is ‘‘our only joy.’’ The beetles further describe the lifetime of labor they have devoted to amassing this ‘‘pile.’’ The Male Beetle continues, ‘‘To think how we’ve saved and scraped, toiled and moiled, denied ourselves, gone without this, stinted ourselves that—,’’ and, the Female Beetle adds, ‘‘worked our legs off and drudged and plodded to get it together.’’ Capek and Capek represent this ‘‘life’s work’’ of the beetles as an allegory for the ‘‘life work’’ of humans, who spend their entire lives working in order to save a ‘‘nest-egg,’’ of money. But the beetles’ ‘‘nest-egg’’ is merely a ball of dung, and the implication is that the life savings of a hard-working human amounts to little more than a pile of dung, and has no intrinsic value. But the beetles value their pile of dung simply because they own it, just as humans tend to value their amassed life savings simply because it represents an abstract concept of wealth, or ownership, regardless of whether or not this wealth actually adds any value to the quality of human life. The Male Beetle states that, ‘‘it’s fine to own something. Your property! The dream of your life! The fruit of your labors!’’ Not only does this amassed pile of dung smell bad and seem to have no intrinsic value, but also it brings with it a world of fear and anxiety. Once this wealth has been amassed, it serves no purpose, except as a basis for amassing more wealth. The Male Beetle states that he is ‘‘going off my head with sheer worry’’; and continues, ‘‘Now we’ve got our little pile. I’ve been so much looking forward to it, and now we’ve got it, we’ll have to make another one. Nothing but work, work, work.’’ The Female Beetle asks, ‘‘Why another one?’’ to which her husband replies, ‘‘so that we can have two, of course. . . . Ah, just fancy, two of them. At least two. Let’s say even three. You know, every one who’s made one pile has to make another.’’ It seems that, for the beetles, and, allegorically, for humans, the purpose of work is to amass wealth, and yet this only leads to more work in the service of amassing yet more wealth. The implication is that a human life, filled with hard work for the sole end of amassing more and more wealth, is ultimately meaningless.

Furthermore, the acquisition of wealth only adds more worry and anxiety, lest it be lost or stolen. The Female Beetle says ‘‘I’m scared. Suppose someone was to steal it from us.’’ Their life’s work of amassed wealth brings them no joy or pleasure, but merely fear, anxiety, and the prospect of more work. The beetles continue to describe their pile of dung in terms which humans use to describe their life savings. They call it, ‘‘Our little pile. Our joy. Our all,’’ and ‘‘Our precious little store. Our life. Our whole concern.’’ The pile of dung clearly represents money, as the Male Beetle refers to it as ‘‘Our precious gold,’’ and suggests that they ‘‘invest it.’’ When the Strange Beetle comes along to steal the ‘‘pile’’ of dung left by the Male and Female Beetle, he too describes it in terms which humans use to describe a life’s fortune, calling it ‘‘my pile. Capital. Gold. . . . My treasure. You lovely nestegg. My jewel. My all.’’ The Vagrant (The Tramp in other versions) points out that this ‘‘gold’’ is actually a pile of dung when he comments that ‘‘That gold of yours smells.’’ Capek and Capek here clearly criticize the value of material wealth, and criticize a human society that attaches such importance and worth to something so inherently worthless, and even distasteful, as money or ‘‘gold.’’ The Strange Beetle further represents the materialism of a human society that values ‘‘possessing’’ material wealth, just for the sake of ‘‘owning’’ something. The Strange Beetle replies that, despite the fact that the pile ‘‘smells,’’ as the Vagrant put it, ‘‘it’s nice to own something.’’

The materialism and greed of the beetles is so extreme that the Male Beetle even values his pile of dung more than his own wife. While he speaks of the pile with the greatest of affection, his references to his wife are full of disdain and insult; he agrees with the Vagrant’s description of his wife as ‘‘that old harridan. . . . That ugly chatterbox. . . . That bad-tempered, dirty rag-bag.’’ The Male Beetle is completely unconcerned that another beetle may have taken his wife, but becomes hysterical at the idea of losing his pile. He tells the Vagrant, ‘‘I don’t care what he did with my wife. But where’s my pile?’’ When he is told that the pile has been taken, he cries, ‘‘My pile? God in heaven! Catch him! Thief! Murder! (Flings himself to the ground.) My hard-earned fortune. They’ve killed me. I’d rather give up my life than that ball of golden manure.’’ Capek and Capek are here criticizing the ways in which human society values material wealth over other humans, as well as one’s own life. The Vagrant sums up the allegory in which the beetles represent the working masses, whose only wish is to work hard in order to acquire material wealth, no matter how valueless. Comparing them to the butterflies, who represent the leisure classes, the Vagrant observes:

These others at least smell of honest labor. They don’t want to enjoy, they only want to possess. Something.

The Vagrant then observes the concept of the ‘‘family’’ as a justification for a life of meaningless labor in the service of amassing material wealth.

You labour for others, and if you’re stingy,

Well, stinginess is a virtue, when it’s for the family.

The family has its rights, the family sanctifies everything,

Even theft, if need be, for after all, there are children. That’s how it is, I tell you, and that’s the whole point: A man will do anything to preserve his kindred.

The view of family and children, and the role of family and children in the economic structure of human society, allegorically represented here by Capek and Capek, is extremely cynical and critical. Through the Vagrant’s comments, and the examples of the Ichneumon Fly and the cricket couple, the purpose of children is presented as merely an excuse for hard work, greed, and selfishness in the service of amassing material wealth. According to this perspective, as the Vagrant comments in the quote above, ‘‘stinginess,’’ and even ‘‘theft,’’ are justified on the basis that it is for the children, since ‘‘the family sanctifies everything.’’

The first species encountered by the Vagrant who justifies greed in the name of children is the Ichneumon Fly, whose sole purpose in life is to procure food for his larva. As represented in the play, the Fly’s life would be meaningless if he didn’t have a child whose need for food justifies his every act. He tells the Vagrant, ‘‘When you have them, you do at least know who you’re working for. If you have a child then you must strive, work, struggle. That’s real life, eh? Children want to grow, to eat, to feast, to play, don’t they?’’ The Fly even kills other insects, such as the crickets, in order to feed his larvae. Because this selfishness, greed, and stinginess is justified by the importance of the child, the Fly must constantly remind himself and others of the importance of the child. The Fly comments to the Vagrant, ‘‘Children are a great joy, aren’t they?’’ He goes on to justify his life of hard work by expressing his ‘‘pride’’ in his child: ‘‘I’m proud of her. Really proud. Just like her daddy, eh? . . . and I’m gossiping here, instead of getting to work. Oh, the fuss and running about. But as long as we do it for somebody, what does it matter? Aren’t I right?’’

The cricket couple expecting a baby are another example representing the ways in which human beings use family as an excuse to justify a life devoted to meaningless material acquisition. The cricket couple, rather than amassing a pile as their life’s work, like the beetles, or spending all of their time and energy working to feed a child, put all of their efforts into their dream of owning a home in which to house their expected child. Capek and Capek, however, are making a similar social critique of human life spent in pursuit of acquiring such material possessions as a house, especially at the expense of others. The Male Cricket and Female Cricket take over the home of the cricket that has been tied up by the Fly, to be preserved for food for his larva. The cricket couple are concerned only with acquiring their own home, as the Male Cricket says, ‘‘Our little nest, our villa, our own little place, our, ha, ha, our residence.’’ Meanwhile, they merely look in and laugh at the cricket who has been captured and tied up, interested only in their own good fortune in taking over the poor cricket’s home. The Male Cricket even refers to the captured cricket’s demise as a ‘‘godsend’’ for him and his wife. The materialism of the cricket couple in their dream of acquiring their own home is further expressed through the middle-class cliché of hanging curtains as a symbol of successful homemaking. The Male Cricket tells his wife, ‘‘We’ll furnish this place beautifully. And as soon as we can manage it we’ll put up some—’’ at which point the Female Cricket finishes his sentence with, ‘‘Curtains.’’ Later, the Female Beetle and the Female Cricket debate the relative value of a life spent amassing a pile, and a life spent acquiring and furnishing a home to house a family. Although each values her own approach to life, they are both completely preoccupied with a life devoted to material acquisition.

Female Beetle: And aren’t you making a pile?

Female Cricket: What for?

Female Beetle: A pile, that for the family. That’s the future. That’s your whole life.

Female Cricket: Oh no. My whole life is to have my own little house, my nest, a little place of my own. And curtains. And children. And to have my Cricket. My own home. That’s all.

Female Beetle: How can you live without a pile?

Female Cricket: What would we do with it?

Female Beetle: Roll it about with you everywhere. I tell you, there’s nothing like a pile for holding a man.

Female Cricket: Oh no, a little house.

Female Beetle: A pile, I tell you.

Female Cricket: A little house.

The Fly represents the most aggressive type of materialist, the entrepreneur. The Fly describes himself and his aggressive approach to obtaining food for his child, in terms similar to how successful business people are described. After he murders the pregnant Female Cricket and feeds it to his larva, he calls his act ‘‘A fine piece of work.’’ He brags that such an accomplishment takes ‘‘expert knowledge. Enterprise. I—ni—tiative. And foresight. And love for work, let me tell you.’’ The Fly continues in this vein: ‘‘if you want to keep alive, you’ve got to fight your way. There’s your future. There’s your family. And then, you know, there’s a certain amount of ambition. A strong personality is bound to assert itself. Aren’t I right?’’ The Fly goes on to describe such aggressive work as the stuff of a ‘‘useful life’’: ‘‘Make your way in the world, use the talent that’s in you, that’s what I call a useful life.’’ The Fly further extols the value of such work, which involves killing and eating other insects: ‘‘And how it cheers you up, when you fulfil your duty like that. When you perform your job. When you feel that you’re not living in vain. It’s so elevating, isn’t it?’’ Capek and Capek are here criticizing the aggressive nature of capitalist enterprise as based on the selfish sacrifice of other humans beings in the service of one’s own economic success.

The Vagrant concludes Act II by attempting to assert that the lives of human beings are devoted to some higher purpose than that of the cruel and meaningless lives of the insects, who selfishly and greedily kill and watch each other suffer for the sake of acquiring their own material wealth, in the name of supporting a family. But the Vagrant ultimately finds himself asserting that human beings are no better than such insects, looking out only for their own material self-interests, without regard to any higher purpose or meaning in life. He concludes with a cynical message about the baseness of human endeavors, no better than those of the insects:

Do you not hear

How throughout the world feverish jowls are working,

Chew-chew-chew, the blood-stained, sated smacking of lips

Over the still living morsel. Life is the prey to life.

In other words, Capek and Capek imply, human beings merely prey upon one another in the pursuit of their own material gain, and without regard to the value of human life, other than their own and that of their families.

Source: Liz Brent, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Brent has a Ph.D. in American Culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema.


Critical Overview