Karel Čapek Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Karel apek was concerned with the natural order of things, a theme that pervaded much of his work. His allegorical approach to expressionism linked his deep philosophical concerns to striking and often disturbing human situations. Artistically, politically, and socially, apek dealt with the human personality and with the fate of humankind. He attacked not only the conventions of the day but also human beings’ general lack of awareness of their place in nature and in the continuum of events that demands their attention to foster the perpetuation of values and ideals as well as the survival of the human race itself.

Lásky hra osudná

Lásky hra osudná, apek’s early dramatic collaboration with his brother Josef, is a one-act play that was not given a major premiere until twenty years after it was written, although it was produced by an amateur group in the mid-1920’s. The play has neoclassical overtones, but only inasmuch as it establishes them to parody neoclassical form. The play is technically in the tradition of the commedia dell’arte, and it satirizes this tradition by its own artificial form. Each of the characters in the play is the clear representative of some single aspect of human character: Scaramouche, the obvious madman; Gilles, unwell and emotionally vulnerable, largely because of his own self-indulgence; Isabella, the agent of consternation, whose skirts are lifted by Brighella, thereby enflaming the emotions of the two rival suitors, Trivalin and Gilles. The two fight a duel over Isabella, thereby enabling the opportunistic Brighella to whisk Isabella away and to steal money from her rival suitors.

This is the stuff of which operas are made. The plot is thin and contrived. Still, the play is rescued from the banality that such a plot would suggest by the well-controlled wit of the brothers apek, who used the dialogue as a means of ridiculing and poking fun at the theater itself. Particularly engaging is a love scene in which Scaramouche announces that the theater is on fire, tacitly suggesting that the audience might flee and leave him alone with his ladylove, Isabella.

The play begins with a verse prologue that continues until Gilles interrupts in prose. He refuses to speak in verse, although reminded of his obligation to do so, and the play proceeds with an intermixture of versified dialogue and prose, as suits the satiric nature of the production. Although not a notable artistic achievement, this play shows two significant wits working harmoniously to produce a delightful entertainment with a cutting edge of irony throughout.

The Robber

apek’s first full-length play, The Robber, was begun in Paris in 1911, when the author was visiting his brother for the summer. The play apparently passed through a number of distinct versions before it was finally produced by the Prague National Theatre in 1920. The drama moves from realism to Symbolism and back again; it also moves from prose to verse, often without adequate preparation. The story is an old one: Mimi is dominated by her overly protective parents, who already have lost one daughter to an elopement with a man who quickly abandoned her. The father, a stuffy professor, and his wife have to go away on a trip, but the father fortifies the house against intruders and leaves Mimi in the capable hands of their trusted erstwhile servant, Fanka.

The robber is a rather typical hero: His background is unknown; he appears on the scene briefly, bringing about significant changes in the action; and he disappears almost as suddenly as he appeared in the first place. As soon as the parents have left, he makes his move. While Mimi tells him of her troubles, his understanding of and sympathy for her plight lead the hapless Mimi to lose her heart to him. He responds by instigating a fight with Mimi’s suitor, a local bumpkin, who, being quicker on the draw than the robber, wounds him. The injured interloper leaves Mimi, promising to return, and being only slightly wounded, he returns that very night, meeting Mimi, who tiptoes past the sleeping Fanka, outside into the moonlight. The parents, who have premonitions of trouble, hurry home unexpectedly and send the robber off.

Mimi’s parents exact from her a promise that she will never speak to the robber again, but as soon as he returns in the morning, she violates her promise. In a scene that is almost slapstick, Fanka and the parents come out to try to drive the robber away from outside the fortified dwelling, but he slips past them and into the house, locks the door, and takes to the balcony, gun in hand, ready to fight to the death if necessary to defend Mimi’s right to make her own decision about whom she will marry. By this time, Mimi is hopelessly in love with the robber, although there is no suggestion that he reciprocates this love.

After one false start, the professor and his cohorts retake the house and the robber runs off to escape injury at the hands of Fanka, who is shooting at him. He does not leave, however, until the audience learns that Mimi’s parents suffered through eight years of courtship before they married and that Mimi’s father, the professor, assumes that such deprivation and suffering are what love is all about. Mimi’s mother, though, questions the wisdom of their having been forced to wait so long. Mimi’s sister returns, her face covered with a veil, to tell Mimi her tale of being deceived by the man she loved.

Though the play is somewhat lacking in substance, it provided a pleasantly diverting evening for audiences. It presents essentially several faces of love and the contrast between youth and age in matters related to the heart. It attacks the question of the rights of the young over the rights of their elders and examines several sets of rights quite closely. The setting had about it certain gothic elements that were well suited to the romantic tone of the play.

The Insect Play

apek is often at his best dramatically when he is not writing about human beings, who often turn out to be unconvincing in his plays. In his collaboration with his brother Josef on The Insect Play, apek wrote a virtual medieval morality play. The insects are presented allegorically, and the whole action is unified by the tramp, who, in his role as stranger, serves the function of seer.

The play is divided into three acts, the first called “Butterflies,” the second called “Creepers and Crawlers,” and the last called “The Ants.” Through these sets of characters, and through their notable characteristics, the brothers apek depicted a coherent and quite pessimistic view of human beings. Questions of family organization are central to each act, as are questions of greed, pride, vanity, and other deadly sins.

In the first act, two aging butterflies compete for the affections of the youthful poet, Felix, also a butterfly, who has the reputation of being a Lothario but who is really shy at heart. The butterflies, ethereal and lovely, are subject to the same whims as anyone else. They experience rivalry in love, and their actions are misinterpreted. They contrast sharply with the beetles in the next act, whose family exclusivity is limiting and ultimately cruel.

The natural order of things is presented without comment in the cricket scene, in which two crickets looking for shelter rejoice at finding the nest of another cricket who has fallen victim to a hungry bird that has gobbled him whole. Their good fortune is short-lived because they are barely installed in their new habitat before a cuckoo fly attacks and paralyzes them. The tramp ruminates on the cruelty and rapacity that he sees here. The cuckoo fly kills; the parasite eats the crickets and their larvae. In accord with apek’s philosophy that drama should be objective rather than subjective, the authors present the facts of what has happened and leave the audience with these facts, although the tramp represents a subjective intrusion on the scene, somewhat in violation of apek’s philosophy of objective realism in drama.

In The Insect Play, the brothers balance the actions of their three allegorical groups, using the tramp as a conscience, a representative of those who view the play. In the end, the tramp, begging for just a little more life, dies, his body left in a fen where slugs begin to feast on it. It...

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