Saturday, 20 June 2009

R. U. R. and The Insect Play - Josef and Karel Čapek

R. U. R. – which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots – is credited with giving us the word robot (from the Slavic robota meaning ‘hard work’ or ‘drudgery’). Robot these days is generally used to refer to a mechanical construct, whereas in the play, these are artificial humans, redesigned and grown using a secret process. The play is set on a remote island where the company, R. U. R., creates its robots. It covers a period of several years from the time when one of he scientists in charge of production is encouraged by a visitor to try to give robots a soul. The project backfires and as robots become aware of their position (used as slaves and as expendable soldiers in increasing numbers of wars) they begin to revolt. Eventually they reach the island where their kind are produced and the final confrontation is played out.

The Insect Play tells of a tramp and his observations of the insect world – butterflies, beetles, and ants – with one act devoted to each of the groups of insects. On the surface it sounds whimsical. The butterflies chase each other about like empty-headed beautiful people, the beetles slave away to make their pile, and the ants engage in all out warfare that reminds the tramp of his own experiences in the trenches of the First World War.

Not much there, one would think, yet these two plays (along with other work by the Čapeks) are important in a number of ways. To begin with they are part of the tradition of highly political and philosophical science fiction to emerge from Eastern Europe. They are also a key part of the tradition of theatre as social conscience. Both plays in this volume are concerned with the way in which we treat others and the consequences of mistreatment. They are highly critical of totalitarian regimes. Had the Čapeks survived beyond the Second World War, it is highly likely they would have fallen victim of Stalin.

If only to keep the voice of dissent alive these plays should be read and performed. Totalitarianism and the exploitation of other people come in many forms and disguises and we need to be reminded of the terror and degradation this brings. Yet these plays are also worth keeping alive because they are good plays. Perhaps a touch dated, but that’s just fashion. They are not heavy with their message, but offer good, simple storytelling with a moral we can all draw for ourselves.