The Plot

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The play begins at a time that is possibly the early 1920’s, on an unspecified island somewhere on Earth. A factory called R.U.R. (an acronym for Rossum’s Universal Robots) manufactures and exports thousands of artificial people, the so-called Robots.

Helena, a daughter of a renowned scientist, Dr. Glory, goes to...

(The entire section contains 2486 words.)

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The play begins at a time that is possibly the early 1920’s, on an unspecified island somewhere on Earth. A factory called R.U.R. (an acronym for Rossum’s Universal Robots) manufactures and exports thousands of artificial people, the so-called Robots.

Helena, a daughter of a renowned scientist, Dr. Glory, goes to the island on behalf of the Humanity League to investigate the condition of the Robots. She is told that the elderly Professor Rossum began to seek a sort of scientific substitute for God, with the sole purpose of supplying proof that Providence was no longer necessary. His son had a different goal, that of making live and intelligent working machines that would provide cheap labor. As Domain, the General Manager for Rossum’s Universal Robots explains, humans are too complicated, and a good engineer could make them more simply, which is exactly what the younger Rossum has done. The result is a mechanism that resembles a human in some ways but shows striking differences.

Amid the handful of humans, surrounded by a hundred thousand Robots, Helena stays on the island much longer than planned. She expresses her sadness as well as her intent to liberate the Robots. She fears that no more children will be born and too many mindless Robots will be produced. She influences one of the engineers, Dr. Gall, to provide the Robots with souls in order to improve their lot; he does so because he is in love with her, as are all others. She finds rapport with the Clerk of Works, Alquist, a religious person who understands the philosophical ramifications of the situation better than any other technocrat.

Five years later, Helena is married to Domain, but others retain their affection for her. Dr. Gall’s slight change in the Robot-making process in order to transform them into nearly human beings leads to a dangerous change in the human-Robot relationship. The Robots are now organized and begin a revolt against the humans. After conquering the rest of the world, they attack the island. Outnumbered, the humans hope to make a deal with the Robots. In exchange for their freedom, they offer the Robots the plans for Robot production so that they can procreate. Helena, however, had burned the plans in the hope of stopping the mistreatment of the Robots and the slow dying out of the human race.

With nothing to offer, the humans are exterminated, except Alquist. The Robots beseech him to reconstruct from memory the formula for Robot production. As he tries to cut open a Robot Helena in order to tinker with her, her friend Primus offers himself instead, but Helena rejects that option. Alquist lets them go as the new Adam and Eve, because for the first time the Robots have shown the capacity for love, giving hope that Earth will not die out after all.

Places Discussed

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Island

Island. Unnamed island in an unspecified remote location that is the initial launching ground for the robot revolt. By the end of the play, the island becomes a kind of Eden, where the last human man witnesses the birth of love between a young robot couple that holds the promise of a new kind of humanity, albeit a robot one.

Rossman’s Universal Robots office

Rossman’s Universal Robots office. Central office of R.U.R., in which Harry Domin, the general manager, meets Helena Glory, who has come to tour the factory. Harry eventually proposes marriage in a manner that suggests a business transaction. It is fitting that such a proposal takes place in his office.

Helena’s drawing room

Helena’s drawing room. Ten years after Helena and Harry marry, their drawing room is neatly appointed, revealing the humanizing and feminine influence that Helena brings to the otherwise sterile environment of the robot factory.

Laboratory

Laboratory. Workplace where Alquist—the last human still alive—experiments on robots, hoping to rediscover the formula for their manufacture. He fails but confronts a young robot couple who exhibit signs of romantic love. They have already transcended Alquist’s ability to propagate their race and reveal a humanity that all human beings in the play—except Helena—ironically lack.

Historical Context

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The end of World War I brought many changes to Europe, Russia, and the United States. The years of war had been hard on many countries. Because of severe famine, Russia had signed a peace treaty and withdrawn from the war earlier than other countries. The Russian Revolution and the assassinations of the Romanovs did little to improve life for its citizens. Life was not much better in post-war Europe or America. The Spanish flu of 1918 left more than twenty million dead, and the war had been responsible for another eight and a half million deaths. The war had inflicted more than one hundred billion dollars worth of damage, and many countries were in serious debt. A year after the war ended a scientist finally succeeded in splitting an atom, opening the way for greater, more dangerous discoveries. Technology was allowing faster automobiles, new highways, and faster transportation. The first non-stop flight from North America to Ireland was completed in June 1919, and airplanes, which had proved very efficient during the war, were promising to provide a way to make the world smaller. Thus, when Capek began writing R.U.R., the world seemed a dangerous and destructive place.

If technology was offering the promise of a better life, it was also promising a new level of destructiveness. The war effort had led to larger bombs and the development of gas weapons. The Germans had developed a weapon so efficient that it could be used against a city from a distance of more than seventy-five miles. They used ‘‘Big Bertha’’ on Paris, and within three months, the bombardment had killed more than a thousand people. The weapon was inaccurate, but Paris was a large city and hard to miss. This new weapon showed that technology could be used to kill and from a distance, thus depersonalizing the process. War casualties, as a result of all this new technology, demonstrated just how fragile the human body really was. The sheer number of deaths and the severity of wounds shocked citizens, soldiers, and governments on both sides. In addition, soldiers fell victim to disease. The flu epidemic was so severe it was compared to the fourteenth-century plagues that killed one third of Europe’s population. More importantly, the flu epidemic illustrated that while technology had made advances in killing people more efficiently, it had still not found a way to save their lives. It was a sobering lesson for human beings to learn.

If the war had horrified men, the need to find a way to prevent another war motivated leaders to seek other solutions. After five months of work, a treaty was forced upon the Germans that resulted in severe penalties and terrible financial hardship. Boundaries were redrawn and new countries created. The League of Nations was formed to settle disputes, but famine, poverty, and a decaying economic picture led to a shaky peace. This atmosphere forms the backdrop of R.U.R. Wars continue to be fought, but now robots sustain the casualties, which makes it even easier to continue the fighting. Leaders continue to look to better technologies to use against their enemies, and robots provide that technology. But just as the flu epidemic proved that technology and science had limits, R.U.R. proves that technology can create new and greater problems even as it makes life easier. Domin’s desire to see robot labor eliminate famine with a plentiful harvest reflects the hunger that gripped much of the world in the years following the war. R.U.R. looks to the future and finds that answers may not be found easily in a laboratory.

Literary Style

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Audience
Authors usually write with an audience in mind. Capek intended R.U.R. as a way to awaken audiences to the possible threat of technology. His concern about the fate of humanity is transmitted to the audience as they watch and listen to the drama unfold.

Character
The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular individual’s morality. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multi-faceted ones. Characters may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. ‘‘Characterization’’ is the process of creating a life-like person from an author’s imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation. Domin is an idealist. The audience learns this through speeches that he makes, especially his visions of an utopian society.

Drama
A drama is often defined as any work designed to be presented on the stage. It consists of a story, of actors portraying characters, and of action. But historically, drama can also consist of tragedy, comedy, religious pageant, and spectacle. In modern usage, drama explores serious topics and themes but does not achieve the same level as tragedy.

Genre
Genres are a way of categorizing literature. Genre is a French term that means ‘‘kind’’ or ‘‘type.’’ Genre can refer to both the category of literature such as tragedy, comedy, epic, poetry, or pastoral. It can also include modern forms of literature such as drama novels, or short stories. This term can also refer to types of literature such as mystery, science fiction, comedy or romance. R.U.R. is science fiction.

Plot
Generally plots should have a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, but they may also sometimes be a series of episodes connected together. Basically, the plot provides the author with the means to explore primary themes. Students are often confused between the two terms; but themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner. Thus the plot of R.U.R. is the story of the creation of robots and the robot revolt that destroys almost all of mankind. But the theme is that of greed and technology out of control.

Setting
The time, place, and culture in which the action of the play takes place is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The locations for R.U.R.are on an island. They include the offices of the plant, Domin and Helena’s home, and the plant laboratory. The action occurs over a period of eleven years.

Compare and Contrast

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1921: The first aircraft carrier is commissioned.

Today: During periods of threatened conflict, aircraft carriers supply off-sea staging areas for bombing runs. They greatly add to a country’s ability to wage war.

1921: The Russian economy collapses, and Russian sailors attempt a bloody and unsuccessful mutiny.

Today: The economy of what was once the Soviet Union is in disarray, creating increased risk from an unpaid military establishment.

1921: Poliomyelitis (polio) is widespread in North America; it attacks U.S. Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and will leave him crippled for life.

Today: Polio is almost completely eradicated due to immunizations, but as each disease is cured, new ones appear to take its place.

1921: Famine kills 3 million Russians, and corpses are piled twenty feet high waiting for burial.

Today: Famine continues to be a leading cause of death in the world as a result of weather disasters, such as hurricane Mitch, which destroyed much of Central America, and droughts which leave many starving in Africa.

1921: The Autobahn opens in Germany, and thousands of miles of new surfaced highways are built in the United States to accommodate the increase in automobiles since the end of the war.

Today: Citizens in both Europe and the United States take for granted the ready availability of automobiles and easy transportation that a major highway system offers.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Comrada, Norma. ‘‘Golem and Robot: A Search for Connections,’’ in the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Vol. 7, nos. 2-3, 1996, pp. 244-54.

Day, Barbara. ‘‘R.U.R.,’’ in the International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady. St. James Press, 1992, pp. 695-96.

Day, Barbara. ‘‘Karel Capek,’’ in the International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 2: Playwrights, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady. St. James Press, 1992, pp. 162-65.

Drake, William. ‘‘Karel Capek,’’ in Contemporary European Writers. John Day, 1928, pp. 310-16.

Harkins, William E. ‘‘The Real Legacy of Karel Capek,’’ in The Czechoslovak Contribution to World Culture, edited by Miloslav Rechcigl, Jr. Mouton & Co., 1964, pp. 60-67.

Naughton, James D. ‘‘Futurology and Robots: Karel Capek’s R.U.R.,’’ in Renaissance and Modern Studies, Vol. XXVIII, 1984, pp. 72-86.

Further Reading
Abrash, Merritt. ‘‘R.U.R. Restored and Reconsidered,’’ in Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Vol. 32, no. 2, Summer 1991, pp. 184-92. This article offers a comparison between translations and suggests that in early translations as much as twenty-five percent of the text was censored to removed suggestive sexual or political content.

Harkins, William E. Karel Capek. Columbia University Press, 1962. This is the only book-length biography of Capek in English. It contains a lengthy discussion of his works as well.

Kussi, Peter, ed. Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Capek Reader. Catbird Press, 1990. This is a collection of essays about Capek’s work and also contains a new translation of the play.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. Yale University Press, 1979. This book discusses the development of science fiction as a genre and Capek’s place within the genre.

Bibliography

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apek, Karel. Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Capek Reader. Edited and introduced by Peter Kussi. Translated by Norma Comrada, et al. Highland Park, N.J.: Catbird Press, 1990. Includes a brief but informative biography. Evaluates existing translations of apek’s works and provides many new translations, including R.U.R. Discusses apek’s philosophy, politics, and use of language.

Harkins, William Edward. Karel Capek. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962. Best introduction to R.U.R. Only book-length critical study of apek’s work written in English, discussing philosophy, artistic structure, theme, character, literary influences, and innovations in form.

King, Sharon D. “A Better Eve: Women and Robots in Capek’s R.U.R. and Pavlovsky’s El Robot.” In Women in Theatre, edited by James Redmond. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Interesting, detailed analysis of the character of Helena, including discussion of male-female roles and attitudes about childbirth and sterility.

Matuska, Alexander. Karel Capek: An Essay. Translated by Cathryn Alan. London: Allen & Unwin, 1964. Clear introduction to life and philosophy for new readers. Discusses R.U.R. as an analysis of human nature and of labor.

Wellek, Rene. Essays on Czech Literature. The Hague: Mouton, 1963. Divides apek’s writing into three periods, discussing changes in style and subject matter. Evaluates the play’s theatrical qualities, traces popularity, and analyzes the play’s emphasis on the dangers of mechanization.

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