Glenn Russell's Reviews > R.U.R.

R.U.R. by Karel Čapek
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it was amazing




Here are ten philosophical insights embedded in the extended prologue to this highly inventive 1920 science fiction three-act play by Czechoslovakian author Karel Čapek. And, yes, this play marks the very first appearance of the term “Robot” as in R.U.R. – Rossum’s Universal Robots – mass produced, human-like machines to perform manual labor and function as servants.

1. Old man Rossum was a biologist who failed to create actual humans in his laboratory; engineer son Rossum invented the living labor machine, the Robot, a natural progression of production (son) following discovery (father). After all, as the present central director of R.U.R. states: “If you can’t do it faster than nature, what’s the point?” Let’s not forget this is 1920, the engineer is king and speed, machines, factories and efficiency are all the rage. Speed and machines even made headway in the world of art some year prior, especially among the Italian Futurists such as Mainetti, Boccioni and Bella.

2. The central director continues: “Production should be as simple as possible and the product the best for its function.” And “The creation of an engineer is technically more refined than the product of nature.” The spirit of these statements was captured magnificently in the film “Modern Times” with Charlie Chaplin. Since the prologue is peppered alternately with satire, comedy and black humor, it’s as if the creators of that Chaplin film mined a number of ideas from Čapek’s play.

3. Young Rossum started with twelve-foot Superrobots but they kept falling apart so he began manufacturing Robots of normal human height and respectable human shape. Curiously, when Robots mimic human dimensions, there is something inexplicably appealing about their physical presence. For example, witness the computer generated American football playing Robot one of the large commercial stations uses in their broadcasts – the Robot signals a first down, spikes the ball and even does a little dance after scoring a touchdown – all very charming for football fans – just Robot enough to be fantasy; just human enough to seemingly possess human emotions and feelings.

4. A recent arrival to the R.U.R. factory, Helena, a sensitive young lady converses with the central director and mistakes the director’s beautiful secretary, a Robot named Sulla, for a real person. Oh, no, no! Helena is quite upset and initially refuses to belief such a gorgeous woman, just like herself, isn’t human. Ah, there’s something so very compelling about a woman’s beauty – we refuse to believe a young woman with such beauty lacks heart and feeling – case in point, the 2015 film “Ex Machina.”

5. The way they are constructed, Robots never think up anything original. As the director notes: “They’d make fine university professors.” Did I mention Karel Čapek’s infusion of satire and black humor? Such a nice touch – not too much satire to sound preachy but enough to let us know much in his society and culture, all the flummery about “progress” and the eventual perfection and purification of mankind through scientism, is so much smoke and mirrors.

6. Turns out Helena has traveled to the R.U.R. factory on behalf of the League of Humanity in order to incite and liberate the Robots. All the factory directors in the room, all six men, laugh and tell Helena everybody from the outside who comes to the factory wants to do good by the Robots and set them free. As the central director, Harry Domin, informs Helena: “It would amaze you to know how many churches and lunatics there are in the world.” Churches and lunatics . . . you gotta love it! As events unfold beginning in Act One, Helena’s words take on stinging irony.

7. Helena wants to know if you can show the Robots a bit of love. Impossible, retorts the directors, since Robots are made for one and only one purpose: work. For Robots have no sense of taste nor do they ever smile. Considering how many 21st century factory Robots have been successfully constructed for nonstop work, this passage takes on a particular resonance. And, God forbid, if there is work where Robots can’t replace humans, there is always the opportunity to move your factory to a third world country and corral the poverty-stricken into your sweat-shop for next to nothing. Much of the themes of R.U.R. are as relevant today as they were in 1920.

8. But, but, but . . . there is a chink in the armor. As one director sadly states: “Occasionally they go crazy somehow. Something like epilepsy, you know? We call it Robotic Palsy. All of a sudden one of them goes and breaks whatever it has in its hands, stops working, gnashes its teeth – and we have to send it to the stamping mill. Evidently a breakdown of the organism.” Sound like trouble? Such breakdowns prove to be big trouble.

9. Powerful economic forces are at work. One of the directors pronounces how their Robots have cut the cost of labor, so much so that non-Robot factories are going belly-up. Many are the zingers the playwright hurls at a society reduced to the forces of supply and demand where the requirement to produce profits for shareholders takes top priority at the expense of humanity. Money, money, money . . . the lifeblood of the modern world then and now.

10. Harry Domin proclaims how no longer will mankind have to destroy his soul doing work he hates; people will live to perfect themselves. Considering the modern phenomenon of the couch potato and numerous other mind-numbing addictions, unfortunately there is substantial evidence the vast percentage of the population is far from “perfecting itself” given time free from work.

So, Act One, Act Two, Act Three take place at the R.U.R. factory ten years after the prologue. It's Robots vs. humans. I encourage you to read the play to find out what happens. And I highly recommend this Penguin edition which includes a most informative introductory essay by Czeck writer Ivan Klima.
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Reading Progress

September 9, 2016 – Started Reading
September 9, 2016 – Shelved
September 12, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-41 of 41 (41 new)

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sologdin kickass, glenn. slick way to write about its intellectual content without spoilering the plot.


Glenn Russell sologdin wrote: "kickass, glenn. slick way to write about its intellectual content without spoilering the plot."

Thanks so much, S! Glad you appreciate my approach to this classic. Just call me Glenn the Slicker :).


message 3: by Toni (new) - added it

Toni Glenn, this is fantastic! Do you know when it was first published in English? My mother would have love this! Although her parents were Czechoslovakian immigrants, she never fully learned the language. She loved sci-fi though.


Glenn Russell Toni wrote: "Glenn, this is fantastic! Do you know when it was first published in English? My mother would have love this! Although her parents were Czechoslovakian immigrants, she never fully learned the langu..."

Thanks, Toni! Most appreciated. Below is a link with the history, which includes: "The work was published in Prague by Aventinum in 1920, and premiered in that city on 25 January 1921. It was translated from Czech into English by Paul Selver and adapted for the English stage by Nigel Playfair in 1923.."

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R.U.R.


message 5: by Richard (new)

Richard Derus One of the very few plays I've ever enjoyed reading.


message 6: by Rob (new) - added it

Rob Atkinson Always been curious about this. Going on my to read list!


Glenn Russell Richard wrote: "One of the very few plays I've ever enjoyed reading."

Likewise, Richard. Makes me wonder why it is better well known and performed more frequently. I'd love to see a live performance.


message 8: by Glenn (last edited Sep 13, 2016 11:10AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Glenn Russell Rob wrote: "Always been curious about this. Going on my to read list!"

Much easier than reading Henry V. At 80 pages, a less than a 2 hour read. There are a couple of audible versions available also. I've listened to both - both really worth it.


William Very dated but truly visionary.


Glenn Russell William wrote: "Very dated but truly visionary."

Thanks for reading and your comment here, William.

Sci Fi is really not my thing - I picked up R.U.R since it is part of the Penguin series. I plan on reading more Capek and some recently written Sci Fi/Robot fiction. The ideas are intriguing.


message 11: by Jose (new) - added it

Jose Moa Sort of futuristic book,as every day more jobs are taken by machines.And excelent review Glenn


Glenn Russell Jose wrote: "Sort of futuristic book,as every day more jobs are taken by machines.And excelent review Glenn"

Thanks, Jose. Certainly those routine factory jobs are mostly a thing of the past. Fortunately, so far as I know, book reviews still require humans.


Henry Martin Very nice, indeed. Capek was ahead of his time, both in ideology and foresight. You wrote a fine review, Glenn.


message 14: by Henry (new)

Henry Avila Beautiful review ,Glenn, it all began here... for better or worse.


Glenn Russell Henry wrote: "Very nice, indeed. Capek was ahead of his time, both in ideology and foresight. You wrote a fine review, Glenn."

Thanks, Henry. Yea, man, he can really pull a reader in. I just did pick up 'The Absolute at Large' today and I'm nearly done. What vision this guy had.


Glenn Russell Henry wrote: "Beautiful review ,Glenn, it all began here... for better or worse."

Thanks so much for your kind comment, Henry. I really wanted to give this classic my best shot with my review.


message 17: by Richard (new)

Richard Derus Glenn wrote: "Richard wrote: "One of the very few plays I've ever enjoyed reading."

Likewise, Richard. Makes me wonder why it is better well known and performed more frequently. I'd love to see a live performance."


A teaser for a 2019 retro-futuristic movie adaptation: https://vimeo.com/73724661

1936 Soviet film adaptation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8ORN...
Pretty, but not helpful if one doesn't speak Russian, which I don't. I saw it with subtitles once in Austin while I was dating a film student.


message 18: by Toni (new) - added it

Toni Glenn, you are so kind! Thanks so much for the link and info. And wouldn't you know it, my son has been to Prague, but not me. Well, not yet! Cheers.


Glenn Russell Richard wrote: "Glenn wrote: "Richard wrote: "One of the very few plays I've ever enjoyed reading."

Likewise, Richard. Makes me wonder why it is better well known and performed more frequently. I'd love to see a ..."


Fantastic! Thanks so much, Richard. I especially enjoyed the slick color retro film.

In turn, I found a Robot speaking Czech offering commentary on R.U.R. -- don't speak Czech but this is quite charming. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBQ5c...


Glenn Russell Toni wrote: "Glenn, you are so kind! Thanks so much for the link and info. And wouldn't you know it, my son has been to Prague, but not me. Well, not yet! Cheers."

My pleasure, Toni. As I understand, Prague is such a beautiful city. By the way, I found this link to a neat photo and article: https://www.washingtonpost.com/entert...


message 21: by Richard (new)

Richard Derus Glenn wrote: "Richard wrote: "Glenn wrote: "Richard wrote: "One of the very few plays I've ever enjoyed reading."

Likewise, Richard. Makes me wonder why it is better well known and performed more frequently. I'..."


I particularly love the steampunky hissing noises of the movements the robot thespian. Interesting project, wasn't it? Robots playing all the parts!


Glenn Russell Richard wrote: "Glenn wrote: "Richard wrote: "Glenn wrote: "Richard wrote: "One of the very few plays I've ever enjoyed reading."

Likewise, Richard. Makes me wonder why it is better well known and performed more ..."

Glad you enjoyed! The tilting of his head and the movement of his eyes, making eye contact will all the audience. Much more lovable than many public speakers I have seen.


message 23: by Alan (new) - rated it 3 stars

Alan Fantastic analysis. Thank you!


Glenn Russell Alan wrote: "Fantastic analysis. Thank you!"

My pleasure, Alan. Thanks for reading and taking a moment to write your kind comment.


message 25: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Wow, Glenn, thank you for this splendid review! I just had a great time reading another of his social studies/science fiction books, War with the Newts, and was hugely surprised at how much I loved it. I will try this one as well, now with high expectations from the start!


Glenn Russell Lisa wrote: "Wow, Glenn, thank you for this splendid review! I just had a great time reading another of his social studies/science fiction books, War with the Newts, and was hugely surprised at ho..."

My pleasure, Lisa. Yes, yes . . . I recall reading your fine review of our human war with those pesky newts.

I really enjoyed R.U.R. - Read it in this penguin edition and also listened to two different versions of a cast (one British, one American) reading through the play via audible.com. Most entertaining.


message 27: by Arun (new) - rated it 4 stars

Arun Divakar Now that's an exhaustive and well articulated review Glenn ! Good one.


Glenn Russell Arun wrote: "Now that's an exhaustive and well articulated review Glenn ! Good one."

Thanks for reading and your comment (and, again, your own very fine review!). I certainly had fun doing the write-up of this classic.


message 29: by Vincent Turpin (new)

Vincent Turpin what the fuck


Henry Martin The wonderful Capek. Thanks for the review, Glenn.


Glenn Russell Henry wrote: "The wonderful Capek. Thanks for the review, Glenn."

My pleasure, Henry. I also listened to a lively audio of the play. Perhaps a tale even more relevant today.


message 32: by Alvokun (new)

Alvokun Very insightful remarks; thanks, Glenn. This book must definitely be worth reading.
The connection you establish with the film Ex Machina is also very interesting; I found that film frankly disturbing when I saw it.
All the same, as you also suggest, automatized capitalist humans are the most robotic beings on Earth!


Glenn Russell Alvokun wrote: "Very insightful remarks; thanks, Glenn. This book must definitely be worth reading.
The connection you establish with the film Ex Machina is also very interesting; I found that film frankly disturb..."


Thanks, Alvokun! Likewise, I found that film disturbing, and for good reason - it was robots vs humans, but this fact wasn't discovered by that young man madly in love until the very end. He learned the hard way.

Of course, millions of workers have been replaced in factories by robot-like machines as have office workers by computers. Much more profit that way. Among other things, computers/robots can work 24/7 without health benefits or desire for a pension! Unfortunately, the humans that do work are performing more successfully the more the emulate robots or computers. Such is our brave new 21st century world.


message 34: by Mike (new)

Mike Fascinating review, Glenn. Thanks for sharing.


message 35: by Glenn (last edited Jul 24, 2018 09:41AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Glenn Russell Mike wrote: "Fascinating review, Glenn. Thanks for sharing."

My pleasure, Mike! Thanks, in turn, for taking a moment to read my review. This play was a blast to review. I enjoy the author's insights so much - not only read but listened to a couple different versions of the play via audible.com..


message 36: by Jim (new)

Jim Thanks for your detailed, thematic review. The only other "serious" (Star War doesn't count) SF treatment I've read was Asimov's positronic robot series - with its Laws of Robotics.

Unlike Asimov's stories, which posits functional AI and morals, this one seems to project much more recently - and it is the more prescient in that it predicted factory robotics, albeit, still humanoid in form. Asimov's robots were essentially human actors after a fashion.

Also, Asimov was not overtly political with his stories, rather his top-down view of future big big governments were more part of the landscape - with the exception of the Galactic Empire early in the Foundation series.

I wonder if Asimov had read RUR?


Glenn Russell Jim wrote: "Thanks for your detailed, thematic review. The only other "serious" (Star War doesn't count) SF treatment I've read was Asimov's positronic robot series - with its Laws of Robotics.

Unlike Asimov..."


My pleasure, Jim. And thanks for your comments and insights.

I haven't read that much Asimov myself, but the answer to your question is "yes." Here is a link to a short essay where Asimov comments on RUR: https://blog.bookstellyouwhy.com/kare...


message 38: by P.E. (new)

P.E. I am wondering what happens in the Stamping Mill...


Glenn Russell P.E. wrote: "I am wondering what happens in the Stamping Mill..."

Robots breaking things and gnashing their teeth! One can imagine such anarchy isn't handled with kid gloves at the Stamping Mill. How would a human react if told they were going to be sent to the Stamping Mill to have their deviant behavior modified??


Henry Martin Glenn,

I think Absolute at Large is even more relevant today than RUR.


Glenn Russell Henry wrote: "Glenn,

I think Absolute at Large is even more relevant today than RUR."


I see what you mean, Henry. I wrote a review of that eerie novel.


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