Historical Context

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In the aftermath of World War I, Central Europe was a mess. World War I (1914–1918) had torn the area apart, and borders and countries changed. Before the war, there was a movement to create an independent state for the Czech and Slovak people. At the time, the land and people that eventually formed Czechoslovakia were a part of Austria- Hungary. Czechs shared the land with Germans, who supported the war and the Central Powers. The Czechs were generally opposed, though the opposition took time to become coordinated. Czechs were pressed into military service by Austrians to fight on the side of the Central Powers. But those that served on the Eastern Front often defected to the Russian side. At home, the Czech press was censored, and no public meetings were allowed. Those considered disloyal to Austria-Hungary’s interests were often put in prison.

After 1917, when the United States officially entered the war and the Russian Revolution took place, Czech leaders sought to increase their autonomy within Austria-Hungary. A Czechoslovak army was formed to fight on the side of the Allies (including the United States and Russia). These troops participated in high-profile operations that gained sympathy for their cause. Independence now seemed possible, with the help of the Allies. Before the war ended, Czech leaders got recognition for their Czechoslovak National Council from Allied countries. This Council officially represented Czech interests at the peace conference, and declared itself a provisional government. After the Austria-Hungary Empire fell apart in October 1918, a republic was declared.

The early years of the Republic of Czechoslovakia were not easy. Immediately after the war, while the new government was being formed, borders had to be determined in the postwar peace conference. The new government got in a dispute with Poland over the partition of the Duchy of Teschen, for example. Still, Czech leaders formed a National Assembly that drafted a new, democratic constitution. This constitution was adopted on February 29, 1920. While many Czechs and Slovaks were pleased to finally have their own country, there was internal opposition to the republic. One group in particular, the Sudeten Germans, protested the constitution. They did, however, vote in elections and form political parties. Some Slovaks also had aspirations towards their own autonomous state, though others supported a close alliance with Czechs. The first strong political party in Czechoslovakia was the Social Democracy party for the first several years. After an internal split in 1920, the Republicans became the leading political party. One Republican, Antonín Svehla, was prime minister of Czechoslovakia from 1921 until 1929.

As the newly formed Czechoslovakia began to define itself internally and externally, problems in Europe were on the horizon. Though Czechoslovakia was loyal to the League of Nations (formed in the wake of World War I), and had an alliance with France and treaties with Yugoslavia and Romania, Germany proved to be the biggest stumbling block to the country’s future. Though relations were somewhat cool, one event in the Germany of the early 1920s proved important: Adolf Hitler was elected chair and dictator for life of the relatively new Nazi Party. Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s would eventually spell the end of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Germany occupied the country, and split it up during World War II. Later, Czechoslovakia would rise again.

Literary Style

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SettingThe Insect Play is a revue-like fable/drama set in the woods of an unspecified place and time. While the action of the prologue and epilogue takes place in ‘‘reality’’ with only human characters, the three acts are interlinked sketches that occur only in the mind of the...

(This entire section contains 475 words.)

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tramp. Act I is set on a hill, but with cushions and a table or bar where the butterflies gather. Act II takes place on a sandy hillock with many holes for the insects to go in and out of. Act III is set inside an ant heap, where the ants work, strategize war, and fight. These settings emphasize the play’s dichotomy: the tramp’s reality and his fantasy, as well as the link between man and nature.

Nearly every character in The Insect Play is a symbol or has symbolic meaning. The only character that appears in each section of the play is the tramp, who represents humanity. He is the one who observes the faults of humanity as symbolized in each insect character. Though the tramp is upset by what he sees, he does not directly intercede until he kills the yellow ant leader at the end of Act III. The tramp dies soon afterwards. The insect characters are also symbolic. The butterflies symbolize the shallowness of youth or society. The ants represent, among other things, the unquestioned loyalty to one’s state, an important issue in post-World War I Europe. Some of the insects in Act II symbolize various human characteristics, especially faults. Mr. and Mrs. Beetle, for example, are greedy. The strange beetle and the parasite are opportunists ready to take advantage of another’s misfortune. The ichneumon fly shares this characteristic, but is also a cold-blooded murderer.

Anthropomorphism means to give animals, objects, or anything non-human, some of the characteristics of a human. As the previous section suggests, the Capeks have given these insects human qualities for symbolic value. But the anthropomor phic traits serve other purposes in the play as well. By using anthropomorphic characters, The Insect Play becomes fable-like. That is, it has some of the qualities of a fable. A fable is a fictitious story with a moral lesson that often features animals. This play touches on many moral issues and ideas—greed, the blind following of leaders, the brutality of murder, the harshness of death—using the insects, but does not have an obvious moral. Instead The Insect Play focuses on the implications of actions without clearly stating that one action is definitely good, while another is clearly bad, as a fable would. The authors leave the interpretation (good, bad, or a mix of both) of what is depicted up to the audience. Fables are usually written to instruct, while this play is more concerned with being thought-provoking as well as entertaining.

Compare and Contrast

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1920s: Czechoslovakia is a single, newly formed country, trying to define itself. While most Czechs support the republic, there is a Slovak independence movement.

Today: The Czech Republic and Slovakia are now two separate countries. The countries split amicably on January 1, 1993, when the federation was dissolved.

1920s: Czech writers, like Karel Capek, are in vogue throughout the literary world.

Today: A Czech writer of some acclaim, Vaclav Havel, has served as president of Czechoslovakia, as well as the Czech Republic.

1920s: Czechoslovakia, and much of Central Europe, is recovering from the effects of World War I.

Today: The Czech Republic, Slovakia, and much of the Eastern Bloc that was previously under the rule of the Soviet Union are recovering from the effects, economic and otherwise, of communist rule. The Czech Republic is trying to become part of the larger European Economic Community.

1920s: In 1921, Adolf Hitler is elected chair and dictator of the Nazi Party. He will eventually lead Germany into World War II. Hitler’s rise to power in Europe leads to the end of Czechoslovakia. The United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) is also declared, creating one of the largest communist powers the world will ever see.

Today: While communism is on the wane in Europe, the Soviet Union has broken up and become a democracy and the Czechs and Slovaks have their own independent countries, Nazism still has a hold over some German-speaking peoples. In Austria, a controversial politician with ties to Nazism was elected.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Birrell, Francis, ‘‘The Aesthetics of Revue,’’ in The Nation [and] the Athenaeum, May 19, 1923, p. 248.

Capek, Karel, and Josef Capek, The Insect Play (And so ad infinitum), in R.U.R. and The Insect Play, translated by Paul Selver, Oxford University Press, 1961, pp. 105–77.

Clurman, Harold, ‘‘A Dying Sound,’’ in New Republic, June 21, 1948, pp. 28–29.

Corbin, John, ‘‘Libeling the Insects,’’ in New York Times, November 1, 1922, p. 16.

Gassner, John, Review of The Insect Comedy, in Forum, July, 1948, pp. 20–22.

Mauro, Lucia, Review of The Insect Play, in Chicago Sun- Times, February 4, 1999, p. 34.

Parker, Robert Allerton, ‘‘Satire from Czecho-Slovakia,’’ in The Independent, November 25, 1922, pp. 320–22.

Review of The Insect Comedy, in New York Times, May 28, 1948, p. 26.

Further Reading
Bradbrook, Bohuslava, Karel Capek: In Pursuit of Truth, Tolerance, and Trust, Sussex Academic Press, 1998. This critical biography considers Karel Capek’s career in terms of each area he wrote in, including drama, novels, and short stories.

Harkins, William E., Karel Capek, Columbia University Press, 1962. This critical biography covers Karel Capek’s life, both as a writer and a person. It also includes information on Josef Capek and the brothers’ collaboration.

Makin, Michael, and Jindrich Toman, eds., On Karel Capek, Michigan Slavic Publications, 1992. This collection of essays considers the whole of Karel Capek’s work from different perspectives.

Thomson, S. Harrison, Czechoslovakia in European History, Archon Books, 1965. This history of Czechoslovakia includes information on how the country came to be formed and the problems it faced in the era in which the Capeks worked.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide