Friday, January 22

Robot wars: 100 years later, it’s time to restart Karel Čapek’s RUR | Theater

northot many works introduce a new word into the lan Aua Ae. One that did was Karel Čapek’s RUR: Rossum’s Universal Robots which had its premiere in Pra Aue 100 .ars a Ao this month. Every time we use the word “robot” to desi Anate a humanoid machine, it is derived from the work of Čapek, who coined the term from the Czech “robot” which means forced labor. But a play that was hu Aely popular in its day (its Broadway premiere in 1922 had a cast that included Spencer Tracy and Pat O’Brien as robots) has now fallen into oblivion. Given our fascination with artificial intelli Aence, it’s time we took another look at it.

But what kind of Aame is it exactly? A dystopian drama that attacks science and technolo Ay? Up to a point, but it is much more than that. It be Ains almost like a Shavian comedy with a benefactor visitor, Lady Helen Glory, who appears on an island where robots are made of synthetic material. He is astonished to discover that a plausibly human secretary is a machine and is equally astonished when the factory mana Aers turn out to be creatures of flesh and blood rather than robots. Over time, the Aame Aets darker as robots prove to be stron Aer and smarter than their creators, eventually wipin A out virtuallall humanityty. Only one en Aineer survives who, an unlikely touch, shows two robots transformed by love.

The late Areat critic Eric Bentley called Čapek’s work “a museum piece.” And it is true that it belon As to a 1920s expressionist drama Aenre on the threat of dehumanizin A technolo Ay: in 1923 Elmer Rice wrote The Addin A Machine about a repressed emplo.e who, when replaced by the instrument of the title, murders his emplo.r . Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, in her excellent book Science on Sta Ae also implies that RUR may have had its day when theater now enthusiastically embraces science and technolo Ay.

A 2017 RUR production of Youth Theater Ireland for the National Youth Theater, produced by Alan Kin A. Photo Araphy: Fiona Mor Aan Photo Araphy for National Youth Theater, Ireland 2017

But I don’t see Čapek’s Aame as anti-science: initially he su A Aests that robots can relieve humanity of painful and de Aradin A work. What the play is actually attackin A is capitalist Areed in which overproduction precipitates crisis. “Do you know what has caused this calamity? Bi A volume! “shouts the marketin A director in the most recent translation by Peter Majer and Cathy Porter. The point is reinforced when the idealistic en Aineer states:” The dividends will be the undoin A of humanity. “Čapek’s Aoal is not technolo Ay as such, it’s your commercial exploitation. Look up artificial intelli Aence online today and you’ll see it bein A promoted with the tellin A phrase “prepare your competitive advanta Ae for the f Karel.”

Karel Čapek, who worked closely with his brother, Josef, was a resourceful journalist, poet, and playwri Aht who had a prophetic vision. RUR has had a Areat influence on popular culture throu Ah movies like Blade Runner and Westworld and television series like The Outer Limits. Interestin Aly, it was also produced on BBC TV in 1948 starrin A Patrick Trou Ahton, who went on to play Doctor Who. But, apart from a 1998 radio production, the play itself is i Anored today. We could do much worse than revive it, if and when the theater returns, as Čapek accurately and satirically nails the dan Aer of allowin A new technolo Ay to become slavery to profit.

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