Creation and Creator's Responsibility

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1552

In R.U.R., Karel Capek comes very close to echoing the ideas first explored by Mary Shelley a hundred years earlier in Frankenstein (1818). Like Shelley, Capek is also asking man to consider the ramifications of science. It is not simply whether man can achieve something through technology, but whether he should that interested Shelley. It is the question with which Capek struggled as well. The creature that Victor Frankenstein builds is meant to prove that its creator can supplant God, that God has become redundant. The creature is bigger than man, and illustrates Frankenstein’s belief that he can create a man who is superior to that which God has created. Old Rossum has a similar goal. His robots are tireless workers, demanding little, but with the capacity to be stronger and faster, more efficient than the model created by God. But as both authors prove, creation is not without responsibility.

Even before Dr. Gall humanizes the robots, there were problems that signaled the failure of Rossum’s creation. The robots appeared to be prone to suffering some sort of breakdown, which the plant has labeled ‘‘robot cramp.’’ There is no acknowledged awareness that this may prove serious, and in fact, the breakdowns are dismissed as insignificant. Rossum has created something that appears human, feels human, and sounds human, but he stops short of creating humanity. However, on the surface, his creations seem to prove that man can conquer science. Rossum apparently never considR ers the potential for misuse, nor does he foresee that in the future man might modify his creation and create a new kind of robot. Greed motivates massproduction of the robots and their sale to any outlet with enough money. The goal of creating a labor saving substitute for man leads to the creation of quasi-men with orders to kill. And still, those who manufacture this new weapon accept no responsibility for its use. But the real creator of the robots is Dr. Gall who, through love, is motivated to create robots with souls. It never occurs to either Dr. Gall or Helena that they are creating life and that when life is created, someone has to assume responsibility for assimilating that life into society. It is the point that Old Rossum missed as well.

In a similar fashion, Victor Frankenstein misses that point when he creates his creature. He envisions himself as a replacement for God, as with his creation of a life, that God has been rendered unnecessary. As the robot’s creators will learn a hundred years later, a new creation needs someone to acculturate this new life into the world. Frankenstein’s creature is abandoned to find his own way, and left alone, he finds that murder is the only way to force his creator into assuming a responsible role. Of course even murder does not shock Victor, who escapes into fainting spells, illness, and sleep, rather than face what he has created. Of course, none of the plant managers at Rossum’s Universal Robots feign illness when the first reports begin to surface of the robots’ murderous spree; instead they continue to mass-produce their robots and accept orders and collect money. Still, they recognize the danger as they plot their escape on a waiting gun ship. Even as the robots besiege their last refuge, Busman escapes into his accounts, and the managers and scientists escape into a celebration of Helena’s ten years on the island. None of the robot’s creators appears willing to deal with the tragedy that is unfolding, and none will take responsibility to end it. Even when it has become clear that...

(This entire section contains 1552 words.)

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they may be the last of the humans to exist in the world, their only thought is to their own personal survival.

Frankenstein’s creature is different from the robots in that he does not appear ordinary. He is human, but not human enough to be mistaken as such, as are the robots in Capek’s play. James Naughton points out that Frankenstein’s creature is really an ancestor to the robots. The purpose of the robots is different than that of the creature. Frankenstein has no role planned for his creature; there is no purpose to its formation, except to prove that it can be done. In contrast, Rossum has an idealistic purpose: the robots can be used to serve mankind. But, as Naughton observes, both creations are biological and not mechanical. This renders their creators god-like, since only God can create man. And while the creators have formed a biological being, they have themselves become mechanical and less human. Naughton states that ‘‘man is mocked, victimised and degraded by depersonalised, mechanistic man-made civilisation.’’ But it is not the robots that have mocked man and mechanized his world; it is man who creates and then abandons responsibility that mocks himself and transforms humanity into machinery. When Busman attempts to use all the money the company has accumulated to pay for his escape and the others hope to buy their freedom by selling the robot formula, their actions demonstrate how dehumanized the creators have become. Similarly, when Victor Frankenstein allows his family to be murdered rather than speak out, he gives voice to the dehumanization of his actions.

Another creation, from the sixteenth century, designed to serve man was the Golem of Jewish legends. Although his purpose was intended to be noble (the Golem was to save the Jews from pogroms), like the robots, the Golem proved difficult to control. The Golem was also human in appearance and made from earth and other biological components. He was not mechanical; thus, once again, the creator, Rabbi Loew, is supplanting God to form a man. Loew’s intent was worthy, but, as is the case with Frankenstein and Rossum, he failed to accept responsibility for his creation. Norma Comrada argues that there are many similarities between the Golem and Rossum’s robots, and she points that these similarities include elements of Adam’s creation. This reminder of man’s creation by God suggests ‘‘a challenge to and competition with a higher power.’’ But Comrada argues that there is another, more significant connection between robots and Golem. She quotes a Capek interview from 1935, where the playwright stated that ‘‘the Robot is the Golem made flesh by mass production.’’ And yet, the robots are very different from the Golem: they never make claims to spiritual purpose and they are not designed to protect man, only to do his work. And they come to represent man’s greed at its most offensive.

In this respect, the purpose of robots differs significantly from the other two earlier creation stories. Rabbi Loew never seeks any money for his creation, and Frankenstein never seeks to profit from his creature, in fact disclaiming knowledge of its existence. Only the robot’s creators realize that capitalism and economic profit are the important by-products of supplanting God. This changes the emphasis of the play back to the actions of the humans and away from the robots. And there is every reason to think that is what Capek intended. The robots proved to be both frightening and captivating when first introduced. They also provided the genesis for hundreds of robots and films that followed. The robots were so successful that their original purpose was forgotten. Capek is often quoted as saying that he wanted the play to focus on humanity, but, instead, it spawned an industry of robotic clones. William Harkins quotes Capek as saying that R.U.R. was ‘‘the worst of all his plays, one which he no longer wished to see on the stage.’’ And Comrada says that Capek, ‘‘had become increasingly alarmed by the manner in which robots were perceived and portrayed in plays, films, and stories in various parts of the world.’’ Naughton also quotes Capek as stating that R.U.R. ‘‘was concerned, ‘not with Robots, but with people.’’’ He wanted to be able to say, ‘‘It was a great thing to be a man.’’ But instead, his play questions the goodness of man. At the conclusion of Merritt Abrash’s comparison between the 1923 translation of R.U.R. and a 1989 translation, Abrash points out that the new translation provides a clearer understanding of the role Capek intended for the robots. Abrash says that by restoring nearly twenty-five percent of preciously deleted text, the robots are diminished into just another plot device. Instead, the plot shifts its focus back to the humans, as Capek intended. The play then becomes a study in human behavior, since Abrash points out that the play becomes important when readers understand that it is not about how robots behave as robots, but about how robots behave when they become human that matters. In fact, the play is also about how humans behave when they abdicate responsibility for humanity. It is in their role as creators of men that humans fail. Capek was not opposed to science, but he was concerned with man’s ability to control what he had created. His modern day creation story illustrates that responsibility for science continues to be as important as scientific discoveries it unearths.

Source: Sheri E. Metzger, for Drama For Students, Gale Group, 2000. Metzger is a Ph.D. specializing in literature and drama at the University of New Mexico.


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There are two kinds of notions in the world. There is the kind that hits you between the eyes; there is the kind that irradiates the soul. Thus there are two kinds of art. There is the art that dazzles and grows dark; there is the art that shines calmly and forever. It would be a sorry sort of affectation to deny one’s natural interest in the merely striking and merely dazzling, especially when it is implicated with powerful forces beyond itself. But it is healthy and necessary to keep the difference in mind. I do not at all blame the Theater Guild for producing ‘‘R.U.R.’’ by the Czechish playwright Karel Capek, especially in view of the quality of the production; I think it well for both the directors of the Guild and for ourselves to remember and, for a space, to realize the precise quality of the drama in question. The central idea has violence rather than creative energy. Punch is not power any more than a pine torch is a star. Punch, indeed, commonly goes with a lack of power. And the lack of authentic power in the central idea of ‘‘R.U.R.’’ is borne out by the execution, which is a strange mixture of wavering brilliance and mere confusion.

What is Capek after? What, in plain language— everything worth saying can be said thus—does he want to tell? Something like this: An industrial civilization with its power concentrated in the persons of the captains of industry and war wants hands not minds, helots not men. It is secure and powerful in the measure in which the proletariat is degraded, insensitive, supine. That is obviously true and was worked out long ago in a melodramatic but quite telling way by Jack London in one of his not altogether deservedly forgotten books. Now, Capek’s argument runs on, if ever this industrial civilization does succeed in reducing the proletariat to the level of mere mechanical helots, then the death of civilization will be upon us. For when these helots revolt they will destroy all things and values that represent the spirit of man. The squint at Russia is obvious; the complete absurdity of the argument equally so. For on the one hand we have the assumption that men can be reduced to the level of mere machines which, in the nature of things, would not revolt at all; on the other hand we are told that these helots will revolt against slavery, oppression, their own soulless estate, which at once reinvests them with all the passions, powers, and thoughts from which the triumphs of civilization—St. Peter’s and the Divine Comedy and the Ninth Symphony—draw their origin.

In order to project his argument pictorially and dramatically Capek uses what may be called the Golem-Frankenstein device. Rossum, a great physiological chemist, invents a method of manufacturing man-like creatures who make good workers and soldiers but are without passions or self-originating thoughts. These ‘‘robots’’ are manufactured, bought, and sold as workers and, finally; as cannon-fodder. They soon vastly outnumber mankind whose birthrate declines to nothing since men cannot compete in cheapness or usefulness with the robots. They revolt —this is the central absurdity—slaughter all men left, but are doomed to extinction in their turn since the secret of their manufacture is lost. This ending, which might be called logical were not the whole thing the reverse, is furthermore stultified by an epilogue in which a male and female robot suddenly become human and enter, a queer Adam and Eve, the dusty paradise left them.

There can be no question but that behind the play, as well as in a hundred details of the execution, a high and powerful passion, a far from ignoble imagination have been at work. ‘‘R.U.R. ’’ is no ordinary work, Capek’s no ordinary talent or intelligence. I have been at some pains to point out the brittleness of the argument, the confusion of the symbolism, because this brittleness and this confusion are very characteristic of a good deal of the minor serious drama of the hour. These plays come with an intellectual and poetic gesture which, upon analysis, is seen to be merely a gesture. Their turbid symbolism and specious arguments are in danger of making many people undervalue the literature which is humbler and truer, more concrete, and for that very reason more significant; not spectacular but sound.

Whatever the play has of imagination, weirdness, beauty, horror is fully expressed if not indeed heightened by the settings, costumes, acting, directing at the Garrick. As an example of the art of the theater the production is exquisite in skill, sensitiveness, in the unemphatic completeness of its command of all the resources of that art. It deserves the utmost admiration and the closest attention; the play deserves the nine days’ wonder of the proverb.

Source: Ludwig Lewisohn, ‘‘Helots’’ in the Nation, Vol. 115, no. 2991, November 1 1922 p. 478.

Review of R.U.R.

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1300

R.U.R. can hardly be better described than by its own subtitle, ‘‘A Fantastic Melodrama.’’ Here and there the fact of its projection into the future, its touches of genuine satire, its digressions into speculation, make one mistake it for a play of ideas. Then it seems disappointing, and we perceive the thin places in plot and characterization. Especially did it seem a ‘‘let down’’ to me, for I have had the pleasure of watching some of the rehearsals of Mr. Karel Capek’s other piece, The Insect Play, which Mr. Playfair produces at the Regent on May 5th. Here the satire is vivid, and the humour light and delicate. In fine, it is in comparison with The Insect Play that we see what is wrong with R.U.R., though it may be that R.U.R. will be esteemed the more taking piece. R.U.R. has much of the character of an early work. Its whole attitude is tentative and it takes obvious refuge in action and excitement from the difficulties both of sustained characterization and reflection. There is little character drawing in it. All the people are types, somewhat hazily conceived. The exasperating ingénue, Helena Glory, is the least successful, and they range up to Dr. Gall (head of the psychological department of Rossum’s Universal Robots) and Emma, Helena Glory’s servant, and Jacob Berman, the chief cashier. But really it is a quibble to draw attention to these faults of the play, for once grant that it is to be melodrama, and not a play of ideas, it is extraordinarily good, and holds the spectators from beginning to end. The actual story also is a genuine effort of the imagination.

An old scientist has found out not merely how to produce life, but how to make tissues which can be infused with the life that he has made. He tries to imitate nature and makes an artificial dog. ‘‘That took him several years,’’ explains one of the characters, sarcastically, ‘‘and resulted in a sort of stunted calf which died in a few days.’’ Then he tried to make a man. But his nephew was a man of very different ideals. He saw that there was money in the idea. He saw that, given a slight twist, the formula would produce not men, but ‘‘Robots,’’ living, intelligent, working machines. Young Rossum goes over the human anatomy and cuts out everything that is ‘‘unnecessary.’’ A weaver does not need to play the piano and feel joy or sorrow; or love or hate. Young Rossum, then, produces Robots. The factory is a going concern. Helena Glory comes to the island where the R.U.R. factory is situated on behalf of a sentimental ‘‘League of Humanity,’’ who are shocked at the material way in which Robots are looked upon. She sentimentalizes over their hard lot (they are sent back to the stamping mills and ground if they show any signs of inefficiency) and ends by marrying the General Manager, Harry Domain. But Dr. Gall is a scientist and missionary, and carries on the tradition of old Rossum rather than young Rossum. He pushes forward. He endows the Robots with pain, so that they shall not be careless and break their limbs. This is the beginning of the end. Pain proves the beginning of some sort of consciousness. Ten years after the opening scene of the play the Robots are turning upon the men who have made them and conquering the world, for men have ceased to be born, and the Robots now outnumber the human beings by a hundred to one. A thrilling scene ensues in which the humans are besieged by the Robots, and finally overwhelmed, only one man surviving. But the secret of making Robots has been lost through the sentimental action of Helena Glory, who, before the catastrophe, has burned the formula.

Power has made the Robots still more like human beings. They only last twenty years, and their leaders are in agony lest the race of Robots should die out. They are machines and the formula has gone. But the anxiety, in its turn, has had its effect upon them, and the play ends with a young Robot and Robotess going out into the world suffering from new and unaccountable symptoms, such as inability to live without each other, willingness to sacrifice everything for the other’s welfare, laughter and a quickened heart-beat. A new Adam and Eve have come back to the world.

An exciting, thrilling play, which everyone will enjoy. But the glamour over, to return to its faults. The part, played by old Rossum’s formula is ludicrously like that of the ‘‘marriage lines’’ in the oldfashioned Lyceum melodrama. The tragedy is made to turn on their burning by the impulsive sentimental young wife, who has got them out of the strong box where they are kept. Now, Robots are supposed to be turned out by the hundred-thousand. Imagine a play in which the tragedy depends on Mr. Ford losing the formula for his motors! Manufacture in bulk would so patently involve at least some hundred printed copies of the formula that this flaw is worrying, and gives far more sense of unreality than a mere synthetic man. The second drawback is the extremely tiresome character of Helena Glory, played by Miss Frances Carson, whose pretty looks could do no more than make her bearable. The men characters all have a certain touch of imaginative largeness about them. Harry Domain, the manager, wants to make Robots so as to free the human race from the grind of monotonous labour. Dr. Gall is a scientist with enthusiasms. The half-comic cashier is yet a man not without grandeur and a sense of the hugeness of the machine for which he works. But Helena Glory is of the past; she is told nothing about the revolution, and her ten-year anniversary is being celebrated with pearl necklaces, cyclamens and so forth all through the exciting part. Her characteristic speech is, ‘‘Oh, Harry, I don’t understand!’’ She would seem out of place in modern London, she is two or three centuries behind the life of the factory between 1950 and 1960. She interrupts the adventure story in the most exasperating way. The adult playgoer will feel almost a schoolboy irritation at the way in which she interferes with our enjoyment of the revolution scene, and in the way in which she is always on the stage. In exasperation we remember that she does not even fulfil the one function of the harem woman; she is childless. All this would be bearable if she were not so constantly in evidence.

Mr. Basil Rathbone looked very handsome as Harry Domain, but acted stiffly. Mr. Brember Wills’s acting as Alquist, in the last act was too much reminiscent of his performance in Heartbreak House. Mr. Leslie Banks as a Robot, and Miss Beatrix Thomson as a Robotess, were admirable, and the entrance of the Robots at the end was most striking; indeed, I wish we could see more of them—they are really alarming and convincing monsters. I am sorry that Miss Olga Lindo, as Helena II., the Robotess through whom love comes back into the world, should have modelled her costume on the tradition of the opera stage, hair down, backward tilted pose and white nightgown. The result is that to most people she does not look nearly so attractive as Sulla, the unemotional Robotess.

May I compliment the Reandean management on their news-sheet and programme, of which I had not previously seen a number? The cover of it is delightful, with its harmonious printing, and the contents are quite amusing.

Source: Anonymous, review of R.U.R. in the Spectator, Vol. 130, no. 4949, May 5, 1923, pp. 755–56.


Critical Overview