Karel Čapek Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Čapek, a practicing journalist, is best remembered as a dramatist who also wrote children’s stories, short stories, and novels, many of them satirical. An early master of science fiction, Čapek’s most famous play, R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots (with Josef Čapek, 1921; English translation, 1923) popularized the word “robot,” invented by his brother Josef.

Early Life

Karel Čapek, the last of Antonin Čapek and Božena Čapková’s three children, was born on January 9, 1890, in the country town of Malé Svatoňovice, situated in the Krakonose Mountains a few kilometers from what later became Czechoslovakia’s border with Austria and Germany. Antonin, a physician, had far-ranging interests and led a local amateur theatrical group. Božena Čapková was a cultured woman with a particular interest in regional folklore. She knew the folk songs and legends of her area, and her children were steeped in folk culture from their earliest recollections. Karel and Josef, his brother and lifelong companion, imbibed these early influences, and the writing of each reflects them. Karel was a sickly child. His mother, a neurotic, was distrustful of men, including her husband, and was hypochondriacal. She was abnormally concerned about the health of her children, especially Karel, whose lungs were weak.

Karel and his brother were seldom apart until 1910, when Karel, having studied at the Gymnasium at Brno in Moravia and having then completed his secondary education in Prague, went to Berlin to study further, while Josef went to Paris. Before he went to Berlin, however, Karel studied philosophy for one year at Charles University in Prague, where he met Thomas G. Masaryk, a professor of philosophy who was President of Czechoslovakia from 1918 until 1935 and was intimate with the Čapek brothers throughout their lifetimes. Before they went their own ways in 1910, Karel and Josef had collaborated on a folk play, Lásky hra osudná (wr. 1910, pr. 1930), but they were to collaborate on nothing more until they published Krakonošova zahrada (1918; the garden of Krakonos), a collection of their early sketches. Their most thoroughgoing collaboration, Ze života hmyzu (1920; The Insect Play, 1923), followed it.

Karel became interested in the pragmatism of William James, and, in 1911, while visiting Josef in Paris, he broadened his interest in art and aesthetics, becoming aware for the first time of the writings of Henri Bergson and of Bergson’s concept of the élan vital, which was to influence Karel’s future writing greatly. He completed his doctoral dissertation in aesthetics in 1915, probably led to this topic by the experience of his Parisian summer.

Because chronic spinal problems caused Karel agonizing pain, he had to seek employment that would not overtax him. He served for a year as tutor to the son of Count Vladimír Lažanský, then returned to Prague to become a journalist for Národní listy, for which he became a literary and art editor before leaving in 1921 to accept a position with Lidové noviny, a newspaper for which Josef also worked.

Life’s Work

Throughout his adult life, Čapek had abiding political concerns. His overtly political books include his three-volume Hovory s T. G. Masarykem (1928-1935; President Masaryk Tells His Story, 1934; also as Masaryk on Thought and Life, 1938), his O věcech obecných: Čili, Zóon politikon (1932; on public matters), and his posthumously published collection, Věci kolemnás (1954; the things around us).

Čapek honed his thinking skills through his extensive study of James’s pragmatism, which resulted in his publishing Pragmatismus (1918) early in his career. This philosophical exploration combined with his delving into aesthetics, which resulted in his publishing his doctoral dissertation as Musaion (1920-1921) and led him to understand specific ways in which art can affect and influence a whole society.

His early employment as a journalist gave Čapek the fluency required to write voluminously. It taught him as well some of the investigative techniques that would help to shape his later writing, particularly his political satires. The Čapek brothers received international attention for two of their collaborations, R.U.R. and The Insect Play, both plays that deal with the question of a technology that gets out of control. The plays are not anti-progressive so much as they are anti-utopian. They question the wisdom with which humankind will deal with the technological...

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