Critical Overview

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Although printed reviews of R.U.R. are not readily available, there are a number of indications that the play was well received and that it enjoyed international success when it opened in the Czech National Theatre in 1921. It was equally successful when produced in Europe, Asia, and North America, opening on Broadway in 1922. At its premiere, audiences were both fascinated at the promises offered by technology and horrified at its potential for destruction. The play’s success stemmed from the public’s current interest in technology. Technological advances promised an easier life, one filled with more leisure time. The image on stage, of robots engaged in menial, mindless work, was appealing. Capek’s lead character, Domin, suggests a utopian dream is possible. He envisions a world without hunger and with enough free labor to pro- vide for all man’s needs. Domin tells the audience of a future filled with freedom and a cornucopia of plenty, and then, the play’s last three acts shatter that hope. For the audience, this turn of events is a graphic reminder that while technology may make man’s life easier, it presents incredible risks far beyond what man can imagine or foresee. The play leaves the audience feeling conflicted between optimistic hopes for the future and pessimistic fears for that same future’s troublesome potential.

With the play’s success, Capek also found himself acclaimed an international success. This added to the reputation of the newly created Czech Republic. Although the play helped to establish Capek’s reputation, he was disappointed that audiences and critics focused on the robots and not the social commentary their actions were intended to suggest. When Helena sees a robot for the first time, she cannot accept that it is real. The audience reacts just as strongly to the idea that robots might appear alive, function as humans, but need no subsistence or money to live. That they feel no pain and can express no opinions or desires also made them unique from mankind. But then the audience receives an abrupt reminder that slave labor has its price, and the horror of war is revisited in the theatre. The audience is also reminded that humanity comes with a price after all, it is the robots infusion with human-like traits that leads to the annihilation of mankind. Capek was so disappointed in the critics and audience’s focus on robots instead of his social ideology that he later refused to see the play in performance. That R.U.R. is best remembered as the source of the word ‘‘robot’’ would only demonstrate to Capek that his play was a failure with regard to achieving the effect he had intended.

R.U.R. is considered the most successful of Capek’s dramas. Its themes, the fate of man and the loss of man’s humanity to technology, became a staple of his other works. The move from drama to fiction was a successful one for him, and Capek is best known for his science fiction novels. He did not oppose technology, but he was concerned that men had not given enough consideration to its potential misuse. For example, scientists succeeded in splitting the atom in 1919, and Capek, understanding the negative and dangerous potential of atomic energy, uses that destructive potential in The Absolute at Large (1922) and Krakatit (1924). He was not a realist focusing on man’s ordinary dilemmas; instead Capek found expression in archetypal characters thrust into extraordinary situations. Capek’s novels and dramas are important as a contribution to Czech’s literary reputation, but more importantly, they are important as an expression of Capek’s concern for the survival of humanity. His work had relatively little influence on the future development of Czech theatre, since Capek’s greatest focus was on fiction and not drama. In fact, his brother Josef’s theatre designs had a more lasting influence, but R.U.R. continues to be performed in regional theatres where it persists in provoking discussions about technology, humanity, and greed.

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