Monday, February 15, 2016
R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Capek
Visionary science fiction meets Dadaist absurdism
Karel Capek is frequently the answer to a historical trivia question: Who came up with the word “robot”? Capek it was, and this was the work in which he introduced it. R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), published in 1920, is a four-act science fiction drama. It is the precursor to all the science fiction literature and movies about robots and/or computers becoming self-aware. The robots of R.U.R. can be seen as the great grandparents of Skynet from The Terminator, Hal from 2001, and Agent Smith from The Matrix. Though the concept may seem old hat to 21st-century audiences, this visionary play deserves more than a historical footnote. Almost a century after its debut, R.U.R. is still disturbingly thought-provoking and delightfully entertaining.
The play is set sometime in the late 20th century. Harry Domin is general manager of R.U.R., a robot manufacturer founded by Old Rossum in the 1930s. R.U.R. is the world’s foremost supplier of cheap, nonhuman labor. Helena Glory, the daughter of the President, arrives at Domin’s office unexpectedly. He is used to receiving curious visitors at the robot plant, and he gives her the VIP tour. Helena’s motives go beyond curiosity, however; she has come on behalf of a human rights organization called the League of Humanity, with the idealistic intention of liberating the robots. Her plot is thwarted, however, when Domin proposes marriage to her, an offer she somehow can’t resist. While Helena’s apparent change of heart cools her ardor for robot revolution, the robots, on the other hand, just might liberate themselves.
It goes without saying that this work was way ahead of its time. The robots of R.U.R. are not boxy, mechanical constructions, but rather androids built from man-made organic tissues, so as to physically resemble human beings. What differentiates a human from a robot? Just because we can create artificial beings, does that mean we have the right to use them as slaves? Do robots have rights? Do they have a soul? If these robot slaves we’ve created ever gain sentience, what does that mean for the future of the human race? By now we are all familiar with the ethical and philosophical debates regarding artificial intelligence, yet Capek’s take on the issues still feels fresh and provocative.
The wonderful thing about R.U.R. is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The play is quite lively and entertaining, and imbued with an absurdist sense of humor reminiscent of the Dada movement. The marriage proposal scene is outright slapstick. The dialogue is filled with wry little satirical witticisms. The human characters, with the possible exception of Helena, all have a trace of buffoonery about them, while the robots remain rational and dignified, almost noble. I would gladly sit in a theatre for two hours to watch this play. Reading it off the page, you can fancy yourself in a playhouse full of 1920s hipsters and imagine what the retro-futuristic sets and costumes might have looked like. Often a seminal work of classic literature, though groundbreaking, loses its appeal and relevance over time. Not so with R.U.R, which not only merits a spot in the science fiction canon but also deserves to be experienced and appreciated by a whole new generation of readers, performers, and spectators.
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