Josef Capek

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Born in Male Svatonovice, Bohemia (later part of Czechoslovakia), the Capek brothers were the sons of Antonín Capek, the village doctor, and his wife, Bozena Capekova, an intellectual. Josef Capek was born in 1887, and his brother Karel followed on January 9, 1890, nearly three years later. The brothers were extremely close as children. Karel was always sickly; Josef was a strong influence and his brother’s protector. Karel would be ill most of his life.

While Karel was attending boarding school, the family moved to Prague in 1907. Karel joined them there to finish high school. Despite his family’s protests, Josef entered art school. The brothers began writing stories for newspapers together, especially after Karel entered Charles University in 1909. There, he studied art history, aesthetics, and philosophy, and earned his doctorate in 1915. During this time, both brothers spent some time abroad: Karel studied at universities in Paris and Berlin while Josef went to Paris. The brothers published their first book, a collection of short stories entitled The Luminous Depths, in 1916.

In Prague, the Capek brothers became leaders in the avant-garde movement. While Josef was on his way to becoming a renowned Czech painter, Karel worked as a journalist, began writing novels, and continued to write short stories of some renown. The brothers still collaborated, but primarily in plays. They wrote ten plays together over twenty years. The first was The Fateful Play of Love. This play was written in 1910 but not performed until 1919. While neither brother served in World War I, both were outspoken supporters of the burgeoning Czech nationalism.

By the 1920s, most of the brothers’ work was done separately. From 1921 to 1923, Karel worked as a stage director and the dramaturg, or specialist in dramatic composition, at Prague’s Vinohrady Theatre. Josef designed sets and costumes for a number of theatrical productions, and often illustrated his brother’s books. Aside from their best known play, The Insect Play (1921), the Capeks mostly wrote their own theatrical works. In 1921, Karel’s seminal play, R.U.R., depicted humanity as served—to the brink of subjugation—by ‘‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’’ and gave him international fame. Josef also wrote several plays on his own, with less success, including The Land of Many Names (1923).

Their last dramatic collaboration was Adam the Creator (1927), though they continued to produce several more plays individually after this date. Karel did not write plays again until the mid-1930s. Antifascism became the focus, especially in his 1937 play The White Plague. For most of the early 1930s, however, Karel wrote important novels (including the acclaimed War with the Newts, 1936) and travel books, returned to work as a journalist, and was involved in politics. Josef continued to share his brother’s left-leaning political beliefs.

Because of Karel’s illnesses (including calcifi- cation of part of his spine), he did not marry his long-time girlfriend Olga Scheinpfugová, an actress and novelist, until 1935. The Capeks’ political beliefs led them in public attacks against the Nazis after the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia. The pressure might have contributed to Karel’s death in Prague. He succumbed to pneumonia on December 25, 1938, on the verge of being arrested. Josef was arrested by the Nazis and taken to the Bergen- Belsen concentration camp where he died in 1945 (probably of typhus) after being held for six years.

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