Where the Robots Came From: Historical Notes on Karel Capek’s R.U.R.
The intellectual history of Theatre UNB’s upcoming production is truly fascinating. Here are some thoughts on the historical and cultural background to the play.
R.U.R. in its Era: Historical and Cultural Contexts
R.U.R. had its origins in decidedly tumultuous times. Written in 1920 and first performed in 1921, the play’s nightmare vision of massed armies of faceless hordes threatening to wipe out human civilization was undoubtedly influenced by two world-changing recent events. In 1917, Russia rose up in revolt, overthrowing the Czar and overturning the social order, sending shivers through aristocrats across the world and inaugurating a nearly century-long global conflict between capitalism and communism. Closer to home for Karel Čapek and of greater impact, World War One (1914-1918), which he escaped by being declared medically unfit for military service, devastated his entire generation. The war introduced such deadly innovations as the first mass use of trench warfare, the machine gun, tanks, air combat, bombs, and poison gas, resulting in mechanized slaughter unprecedented in its horror and sheer numbing statistics. Modern machinery could now kill on a scale and with an efficiency never seen before. As Ivan Klima writes in his introduction to the Penguin Classic edition of R.U.R., “the cruel, senseless carnage of war shattered the world of certainties: the commonly shared illusion that by means of unprecedented technical progress, civilization was moving toward a better, easier life.”
The industrial age that had begun in the previous century had indeed made great leaps forward and was progressing with the same sense of unstoppable momentum that marks the technological advances of our own time. Railways, steamships, and telegraph lines connected the world and its economies as never before, and the mass manufacture of automobiles enabled by Henry Ford’s assembly line offered Čapek the inspiration for Rossum’s robot factory, where humanoid machines are turned out en masse in the same manner. The machine was glorified and celebrated in popular culture and modern art in movements such as Futurism, Vorticism, and the sleek lines of Art Deco in design and architecture (and let’s not forget that the first moving picture created by the Lumière brothers to cause a mass sensation depicted a train entering a station). Yet for every innovation there was a World War or a Titanic (lost in 1912) to remind the world that the new technology was not always friendly or infallible.
In western culture and society, meanwhile, unrest and reorderings were not confined to Russia. Another of the side effects of industrialization was the rise of a middle class that was starting to become aware of its power and to demand democracy and rights. The trade union movement began to burgeon, and the women of many western countries increasingly mobilized to demand the vote. It is hard not to see in Helena Glory, the naïve Humanity League activist of Act One of R.U.R., a perhaps less-than-generous portrait of the militant suffragette (maybe not coincidentally, women gained the right to vote in what is now the Czech Republic in 1920, as Kapek was writing the play), even as her rhetoric also recalls that of the Abolition movement of the 19th century (for the first audiences of R.U.R., slavery was a not altogether distant memory).
At the confluence of social upheavals and science was the Eugenics movement, which reached its apex in the early decades of the twentieth century. Seeking to apply Darwin’s theories to human beings, eugenicists sought to perfect human beings by way of selective breeding and sterilization of undesirables (“inferior” races, mental “defectives,” etc.). Eugenics was a respected and much debated scientific movement at the time of R.U.R.’s composition, attracting as adherents even such widely admired thinkers as H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and John Maynard Keynes. Eugenics would have offered Čapek a model for the type of human physiological engineering he would depict in the play, one that prefigures our modern equivalent, genetic engineering. Hitler’s dreams of a conquering Aryan race spelled the death knell for the movement some years after Čapek, who had been proclaimed Czechoslovakia’s “public enemy number two” by the Nazis, died in 1938, escaping the fate of his brother Josef, who died in a Nazi concentration camp.