BORN: 1890, Male Svatonovice, Bohemia
DIED: 1938, Prague, Czechoslovakia
GENRE: Fiction, drama
Rossum’s Universal Robots (1921)
The Absolute at Large (1922)
An Atomic Phantasy (1924)
War with the Newts (1936)
Karel Capek. Capek, Karel, photograph. AP Images.
Karel Capek is regarded as the most important Czech writer before World War II. He worked in many capacities: He was a man of the theater, a translator, a journalist, an essayist, a fiction writer, and an organizer of cultural activities. His views tended toward tolerant democracy and practical humanism, and he subscribed to the ideology of the first Czechoslovak Republic (1918-1938) and to the views of its first president, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk. Despite his broad body of work, his most lasting contribution to international culture has proven to be a single word he coined for one of his plays: ‘‘robot.’’
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Life in Bohemia. Karel Capek was born in Male Svatonovice in northeastern Bohemia on January 9, 1890. His father, Antonin Capek, was a doctor who came from a family of farmers. His mother, Bozena Capek, collected folklore. The Capek children were all artistically gifted: Karel’s sister, Helena, published several books, and his brother, Josef, was a well-known artist, fiction writer, and dramatist. Karel and Josef wrote several stories and plays together.
As a child Capek began showing a talent for science and art. From 1901 to 1905 he attended the grammar school at Hradec Kralove, where he was an excellent pupil. He had to leave, however, when it was discovered that he was a member of a secret anarchist society; anarchists support the idea of society operating without a formal governing body, which allows for complete liberty of its citizens. He continued his schooling in Brno and Prague, finishing in 1909. Between 1909 and 1915 he was a student at Charles University in Prague, where he studied philosophy and aesthetics as well as French, German, and English philology. For eight months during 1910-1911 he took time off to visit the universities of Berlin and Paris, the latter with Josef. While they were in Paris they both became familiar with avant-garde art, particularly cubism and futurism, and after they returned home, they were instrumental in making these forms more widely known. In 1911, with other young artists, they founded the Society of Painters and Artists, which published a magazine titled Art Monthly. In 1913 they organized the Almanac for the Year 1914. During this period, between 1908 and 1912, the short pieces that comprise Krakonos’s Garden were published in magazines. (The collection did not appear in book form until 1918.)
World War I. These avant-garde efforts were interrupted by World War I. Members of the avant-garde expressed admiration for technologically advances but distrust of the dangerous powers of technology, the unheeding egoism of the capitalist world, and revolutionary, violent ideologies, especially communism and later fascism, that attempted to establish a new world order and a new kind of man. During the war Capek began to show signs of spondylitis, a serious disease of the spine that was initially diagnosed as terminal and that affected him for many years. In his work he began to explore man’s inner nature and other epistemological and metaphysical questions, as he did in the important collection of stories Wayside Crosses. These stories always start out with a mystery that cannot be explained rationally—for instance, a solitary footprint in the snow or the disappearance of a young girl. Such mysteries lead the heroes toward a search for the truth, which transcends everyday experience. Capek’s philosophy was inspired by Anglo-American pragmatism, which he discussed in Pragmatism: A Philosophy of Practical Life. This philosophy had its roots in tolerance and humanism, which he actively supported in his writings and in his positive work ethic.
Then Invention of ‘‘Robot’’. In the 1920s Capek, at the height of his creative powers, began to win world fame as a dramatist. His most renowned work was the fantasy play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), published in 1920 and first performed in January 1921 as an amateur production. A few days later it was performed in the National Theatre. In the same year, it was performed in Germany, and in 1922 there were productions in Warsaw, Belgrade in Serbia, and New York; by then it had been translated into thirty languages. Capek was the first to use the word ‘‘robot’’ (from the Czech word robota, meaning labor or drudgery) to mean an artificially constructed being, similar to a man but devoid of any kind of creativity or feeling. In R.U.R. the robots, basically modern slaves, increase in numbers throughout the world and gradually take over all human tasks. Meanwhile, however, because they are condemned to inactivity, humans become sterile and lose their natural position in the world. Finally the robots rise in revolt, slaughter the human beings, and seize power. This turn of events seems to seal the fate of humanity, for the robots are not capable of reproduction. In the end, however, human feelings of love and self-sacrifice appear unexpectedly among the robots, and the play ends on a note of hope for the future.
Czechoslovakian Politics When the independent state of Czechoslovakia was established in 1918 as one of the end results of World War I, Capek was deeply involved from the beginning in public and cultural life. Between 1921 and 1924 he was producer and repertory adviser for the Vinohrady Theatre in Prague. He was one of the founders and the first president of the Czech PEN Club, representing it at the world forum. In his apartment in Prague he organized gatherings of ‘‘The Friday Club,’’ a kind of debating society for intellectuals of all political affiliations; even President Jan Masaryk, whom Capek admired and whose views he adopted, attended these debates. As a result of his association with Masaryk, Capek wrote President Masaryk Tells His Story and its continuation, The Silences of T. G. Masaryk, exploring Masaryk’s life and setting out his philosophical and political ideas.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Capek's famous contemporaries include:
Irving Berlin (1888-1989): This Russian-born composer became an American citizen and wrote important songs like ''God Bless America'' and ''There's No Business Like Show Business.''
H. G. Wells (1866-1946): This English author wrote some of the seminal works of science fiction, a genre that Capek would later take up and help reach its full potential.
Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951): This American author of Main Street and Elmer Gantry became the first American to earn the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930.
Manfred von Richthofen (1892-1918): This German fighter pilot is better known as ''The Red Baron.'' He was a very successful pilot who brought down approximately eighty other planes during World War I.
Satyendra Nath Bose (1894-1974): This Indian Bengali physicist played an integral role in the development of quantum mechanics.
Karl von Frisch (1886-1982): This Austrian zoologist won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973, primarily for his work on communication among insects.
Capek’s Later Years
Capek’s literary work reached its peak with the novels Hordubal (1933), MeteorPovetron (1934), and An Ordinary Life (1936). These novels form a loose trilogy concerned with questions of morality and the limits of human knowledge. Defense of democracy forms the background to all of Capek’s work between the wars, particularly after 1933 when Czechoslovakia was threatened by Adolf Hitler’s Germany. This concern is evident in his journalism—in his series of essays on the position and duty of intellectuals, for example—and in his literary works, in which once again he resorted to fantasy subjects. In the novel War with the Newts (1937) and in the drama Power and Glory (1938), he again envisages a catastrophe for civilization and asks who is responsible for it. Capek is also more pessimistic than in his earlier writing; both works finish without any hope of a solution.
By the Munich Agreement in the autumn of 1938, France and Britain agreed to German occupation of Czech border territories. Capek was bitterly disappointed at the capitulation of the democratic world. The first republic of Czechoslovakia, with which he had been in close sympathy ideologically, had collapsed. Capek died in Prague on December 25, 1938, after a short illness.
Works in Literary Context
Although there had been writers before Capek who could be described as having written a kind of early science fiction, no writer was more important for the development of the genre than Capek. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the genre without the robots that so often inhabit the books of that genre. As such, writers like Harlan Ellison, whose cyborgs inspired the Terminator films, and Isaac Asimov, who developed the Three Laws of Robotics in his text I, Robot, are deeply indebted to the author.
Science Fiction. Capek based many works on fantastic catastrophes, notably the novels The Absolute at Large and An Atomic Phantasy. In An Atomic Phantasy young engineer Prokop invents an explosive capable of destroying the world. Only when his discovery is misused does he realize his responsibility. At the same time, he falls in love with more than one woman, with an equally explosive force. Two works in a similar vein are the play The Makropulos Secret and Adam the Creator, the latter written in collaboration with his brother. The Makropulos Secret was first performed in 1922. It deals with the possible immortality of man and inspired Leos Jamcek’s world-famous opera of the same title in 1926. Adam the Creator is about the destruction of the ‘‘old’’ world and the emergence of ‘‘new’’ man.
With these works Capek became a pioneer of science fiction in literature. The attractive fantasy worlds of his plays, however, did not lead the author into sensationalism; he used them to pose universal human and moral questions. Capek puts a high value on ‘‘everyday normality’’ and on an approach to life that is unpretentious and constructive. It is truly in this light that the science fiction genre receives its best reading. While the genre is often misconstrued as describing a simply fantastical version of this or some other world, what the genre often addresses is essentially the problems of mankind—not just social but also personal.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Artists and authors often find accidents and illnesses—either ones they themselves suffer from or ones that a loved one struggles with—inspirational, particularly when the illness is terminal or thought to be terminal, as in Capek's case. Here are some examples of texts that deal with the life-changing effects of accidents and illnesses:
The Dive from Clausen's Pier (2002), a novel by Ann Packer. This novel follows the reaction of friends and family to an accident that leaves a young man crippled.
Meditations from a Moveable Chair (1998), a work of nonfiction by Andre Dubus. Dubus wrote this collection of essays after he was struck by a car while trying to help a motorist on the side of the road. After his accident, Dubus—formerly a very active man—was confined to a wheelchair and suffered intense periods of depression.
Tuesdays with Morrie (1997), a memoir by Mitch Albom. In this text, Albom recounts the last months of one of his professors, who suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease.
Works in Critical Context
Today, critical evaluation of Capek’s work focuses primarily on his role as the progenitor of modern science fiction, embodying the important step that the genre needed to take to get from H. G. Wells and other seminal science fiction writers to the force it is now. However, there was a time when Capek’s work was commented upon primarily for its political meanings, not its revolutionary use of images, mysteries, and fantasy. Indeed, little remains of the traditional literary criticism that Capek received during his lifetime. The success of his plays and their production in many, diverse countries— particularly Rossum’s Universal Robots—demonstrates his popularity.
The impact of the Nazi opposition to Capek’s views had a long-lasting effect on how his work was interpreted through the years. During the German occupation and again after the Communist takeover of 1948 Karel Capek was an author seldom published and not well respected. The democratic values he defended were at odds with the totalitarian regimes of fascism and communism. Things changed slightly after the publication of Sergei V. Nikolski’s Soviet study, in which he interpreted Capek as a friend of the Soviet Union and a writer who came near to being Communist in the 1930s. This perspective made it possible to publish Capek’s books more widely, with the omission of some parts, but to a certain extent it also misrepresented his ideas and work. It was not until after 1989, with the fall of the Communist regimes in Czechoslovakia and in Eastern Europe as a whole, that change came and his work could be published without distortion. In this way, politics became the most powerful comment upon Capek’s body of work, virtually rendering traditional—honest, fair, and objective—commentary impossible.
R.U.R. Capek’s play R.U.R. was the subject of immediate and almost unanimous international praise as it opened across Europe and the United States. When it premiered in New York, a reviewer for the New York Herald called it ‘‘murderous social satire done in terms of the most hair-raising melodrama.’’ A review in the Evening Sun praises the way ‘‘the dramatist frees his imagination and lets it soar away without restraint, and his audience is only too delighted to go along on a trip that exceeds even Jules Verne’s wildest dreams.’’ The Evening Post called the play ‘‘a veritable novelty full of brains and purpose.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Capek did not live to see the development of the atomic bomb, much less to see it used in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan, in August 1945, but his work predicted weapons of mass destruction. In your opinion, what would Capek have to say about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? In forming your response, keep in mind that the goal of these bombings was to end World War II.
2. Read Possum’s Universal Robots. How is Capek’s depiction of robots different from the way we view them today?
3. In Capek’s fiction, he envisions a world in which the widespread use of robots essentially makes humans ineffectual—unable to do the tasks necessary to survive. In a short essay, discuss whether or not this vision seems plausible.
4. Read War with the Newts. In your opinion, does Captain von Toch take advantage of the newts? Support your response with examples from the text.
Bradbrook, Bohuslava R. Karel Capek: In Pursuit of Truth, Tolerance, and Trust. Brighton, U.K.: Sussex Academic Press, 1998.
Burianek, Frantisek. Karel Capek. Prague: Ceskoslovensky spisovatel, 1988.
Cerny, Vaclav. Karel Capek. Prague: Frantisek Borovy, 1936.
‘‘Karel Capek (1890-1938).’’ Drama Criticism. Ed. Lawrence J. Trudeau and Linda M. Ross. vol. 1. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991, pp. 49-81.
Matuska, Alexander. Karel Capek: Man Against Destruction. Prague: Artia, 1964.
Nemecek, Zdenek. World Literatures. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1956.
Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979.
Thiele, Eckhard. Karel Capek. Leipzig: Reclam, 1988.
Davydov, Sergei. ‘‘Tales from One Pocket. Detective and Justice Stories of Karel Capek.’’ The Structure of the Literary Process (1982).
Toman, Jindrich. ‘‘If I Were a Linguist... Karel Capek and/vs. the Prague Linguistic Circle.’’ For Henry Kucera. Studies in Slavic Philology and Computational Linguistics (1992).