Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1932
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.
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.
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 advances of a mechanistic age. Karel’s play of the same period, Věc Makropulos (1920; The Makropulos Secret, 1925), is in a similar philosophical vein. From 1921 to 1923, Čapek served as director of the City Theater of Prague, directing thirteen plays during his tenure. Ironically, although he is best known as a playwright, most critics consider Čapek’s science-fiction novels, particularly Krakatit (1924; English translation, 1925) and Válka s mloky (1936; The War with the Newts, 1937), stronger literarily than his better-known plays. Čapek himself far preferred to write as a journalist or novelist than as a playwright because of the lack of control that playwrights have when their plays are produced by others.
The Insect Play is essentially a latter-day medieval morality play in which each character is consciously intended to represent some generalized vice or virtue, clearly defined and presented unilaterally. The play sounded dire warnings to those in the post-World War I years who were moving toward the kind of totalitarianism that was to result in the rise of the Axis powers during the next decade. This play is an early warning, whereas Čapek’s 1936 novel, The War with the Newts, is an anguished cry against the rise of Nazism. The latter work was directly responsible for Čapek’s being denied a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1937 or 1938. At that time, Sweden was still trying to appease Adolf Hitler. To have honored Čapek, whose name was under serious consideration by the Nobel Committee, would have been to offer a direct challenge to Germany’s all-powerful Führer.
From the time the Treaty of Versailles established Czechoslovakia as a discrete political entity in 1919, Čapek worked to make his country a democracy. His close and sustained friendship with President Masaryk took the form of weekly meetings every Friday night in the double house that Josef and Karel built in 1925. Josef lived in one side of this house, Karel in the other.
In 1925, Karel was elected president of the PEN Club of Prague but soon resigned, because he feared his personal political utterances might be attributed to the club and construed as PEN policy. A decade later, H. G. Wells persuaded Čapek to succeed him as international president of the PEN Club, and Čapek agreed. He was not able, however, to attend the annual meeting in Latin America, so his candidacy did not materialize.
Čapek’s political concerns led him in the early 1930’s to overcome his inherent shyness and take to the radio in an attempt to solidify the Czech people against totalitarianism. His eventual support of Edvard Beneš for the presidency and his attempts to bring about a peaceful coexistence between the Czechs and the southern Germans of Bavaria in the mid-1930’s shocked and irritated many Czechs. It was clear that Čapek had greater public impact through his writing than through his more direct personal appeals, as the reception of The War with the Newts illustrates.
As Adolf Hitler’s influence grew, Čapek’s distress increased. The Munich Pact of 1938 appalled Čapek. He sank into a spiritual decline and his lungs, always weak, became inflamed. On Christmas Day, 1938, nine months before the beginning of World War II, he died in Prague of pneumonia. When Nazi troops swarmed into Prague less than three months later, Čapek’s widow, Olga, destroyed all of his papers, fearing that these writings might incriminate Čapek’s friends and associates. Shortly thereafter, the Nazis, unaware that Čapek had died, appeared at his house with a warrant for his arrest.
Only history will tell what Karel Čapek will be remembered for. He was an Olympian in many respects. He had a total devotion to democratic principles and was fearless in advancing the cause of political self-determination. Leaving such considerations aside, however, Čapek towers as a giant in the field of modern science fiction. Much of his work was satire, one of the most difficult literary forms to master. Čapek was totally in control of satire, applying it to novels, short fiction, and drama.
Čapek learned much about literature from the folktales to which he was regularly exposed during his youth. He also understood the dynamics of medieval morality plays and used many of their techniques to promote his ideas subtly and indirectly. His early appreciation of the writing of Wells made Čapek aware of the potential for using science fiction satirically, and he became a master of this technique, some of the technical flaws of his plays notwithstanding. Čapek’s philosophical engagement with the writing of James and with the aestheticism of Henri Bergson provided a sound intellectual overlay for his own writing. His work as a journalist helped him to perfect many of his writing techniques, and directing plays for the City Theater of Prague provided him with insights into the practical aspects of play-making.
If he has not received the full recognition that seems his due, this is attributable in part to the fact that he wrote in a language spoken by relatively few people. Although his work was translated into other languages, the full impact of his writing is best appreciated by the limited audience that is able to approach it in its original language.
Bradbrook, Bohuslava R. “Chesterton and Karel Čapek: A Study in Personal and Literary Relationship.” Chesterton Review 4 (1977-1978): 89-103. An interesting assessment of the continued relationship between Čapek and British author G. K. Chesterton, which began when Čapek was an emerging author and continued until Chesterton’s death in 1936.
Bradbrook, Bohuslava R. “Karel Čapek’s Contribution to Czech National Literature.” In Czechoslovakia Past and Present, edited by Miloslav Rechcigl. The Hague: Mouton, 1968. Identifies Čapek as being clearly among Czechoslovakia’s leading writers and shows the strong influence that his writing had upon the culture of the country. Comments on the author’s inventiveness and on his ability to work in several genres. One of the better short treatments of the author.
Harkins, William E. Karel Čapek. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962. The most dependable critical biographical source on Čapek. This book considers the whole of Čapek’s literary production and relates it to his life and to the social milieu in which he was working, particularly to the onset of Nazism in Czechoslovakia. An indispensable book to Čapek scholars yet easily accessible to those new to him.
Mann, Erika. “A Last Conversation with Karel Čapek.” The Nation 149 (January 14, 1939): 68-69. Erika Mann, daughter of German Nobel Prize laureate Thomas Mann, relates her interview with Čapek shortly before his death in 1938, at about the time of the Munich Pact. She attributes his death to a sickness of the spirit, to Čapek’s unwillingness to go on in the face of Hitler’s threat to the Czech nation.
Matuška, Alexander. Karel Čapek: An Essay. Translated by Cathryn Alan. London: Allen & Unwin, 1964. This extensive study considers the artistry of Čapek’s writing, emphasizing such matters as thematic development, characterization, plot development, and method of handling detail. An important book for students of Čapek.
Wellek, René. Essays on Czech Literature. The Hague: Mouton, 1963. Wellek’s essay, “Karel Čapek,” which originally appeared in 1936, is one of the most searching pieces written about the author during his lifetime. Wellek comments on Čapek’s relative youth and considers him at the height of his powers. When these words were written, Čapek had less than three years to live.