For the past several years, The Shakespeare Theatre has collaborated with the National Academy of Sciences at their beautiful headquarters at 21st Street and Connecticut Avenue NW by presenting a staged reading of a classic play that has some connection with “science”. Last night, it was “science fiction” and the 1920 play by Czech writer Karel Capek, R u R. An outstanding play, an outstanding cast, and an outstanding venue.
Capek’s play has been a hit since its premiere shortly after the end of the First World War (the war to end all wars, you recall). Rossum’s Universal Robots is the name of a factory located on an island somewhere which manufactures robots to take the place of humans in both manufacturing and service industries. At the factory itself, a group of thirty humans controls a much larger group of robots, who perform all the work (other than giving directions). Their business is booming, orders are coming in from all over Europe and America, and the future knows no limits.
The daughter of the president of an important company, Helena, visits the plant (her secret mission is to free the robots from slavery), all the men on the island fall in love with her, and she marries (how did this happen? it’s like she’s a robot) the director of the plant, Harry Domin (pronounced in English “domain”). The men try to convince her that the robots don’t mind doing the work, they have no feelings one way or another about their “enslavement”.
In the meantime, the purchasers of the robots realize that they can be put to more use than being simple “employees”. They can be soldiers. And pretty soon, all of the world powers have robot armies, willing to take orders to perform any atrocity, and having no conscience to hold them back. The idea arises that robots should be manufactured as “nationalist” robots – no longer universal – and that they should speak different languages, and be programmed to hate anyone different from their own patriotic selves.
In the meantime, Helena’s influence on the island spreads, as experiments are performed to enable some robots to have some more human-like characteristics, including the ability to feel pain and to suffer – this seemingly will make them work harder. But it also raises their consciousness, and things get out of control.
The robots stage a world-wide revolt, taking control of their own fates, killing humans wherever they find them. The robots keep manufacturing clones of themselves, and humans stop reproducing altogether. The future is clear – it does not belong to the humans. It belongs to the robots, as long as the robots possess the instructions on how to keep manufacturing more of themselves.
This is where things get messy.
The play is clever, it is very funny, and it is horrifying because it comes so close to the truth. It would be, I thought, a wonderful teaching play – helping the younger generations see how bad things really are, and allowing them to put so much chaos into perspective, teaching them to think a little before taking strong positions that are likely to backfire, as human activities so often do.
Capek witnessed World War I from his home in Prague, and during the interwar years became more and more concerned about totalitarian governments. He was strongly anti-fascist and anti-Communist. Sadly, he died at a young age (48) in 1938 shortly after Hitler incorporated part of his homeland (the Sudetenland part of Czechoslovakia) into the Reich. In R u R, he invented the not universally used word “robot” – from the Czech (and in general Slavic) word “robota” meaning “work”. When he wrote R u R, science fiction was not yet a genre – he is considered one of its founders, as well as a strong and accurate social critic.