I have to admit that I didn't really want to read this play.
It was given to me by one of my teachers back in 1991, before I even
started University. And so it's been sitting on my shelf ever
since. But last year I read a bunch of Asimov's robot short
stories. In his introduction, he said that the first ever mention
of the word "robot" is in a play called R.U.R. My gaze went to my bookshelf, and my interest
was piqued. But Asimov seemed to think it wasn't terribly well written,
and so I hesitated.
Karel Capek (pronounced CHOP-ek) was a Czechoslovakian authour.
He wrote many plays and other works of fiction. The play first premiered
in 1922, and has apparently been translated into English and put into many
anthologies ever since.
I must say right away that I know nothing, really, about plays,
and even less about Czechoslovakia. However, as a play, and as a
work of fiction, I thought R.U.R. was enjoyable. It takes place in
four acts. The first one introduces us to Mr. Domain, who is in charge
of Rossum's Universal Robots. He instantly falls in love with visiting
Helena, a woman from the Humanitarian League, who thinks robots should
be given souls and rights. The first act is basically exposition
concerning the history and formation of the only robot factory in the world.
The second and third acts take place five years later, when the robots
revolt, and are annihilating humanity. The final act exposes us to
some hope –the hope that humanity can rise again in the form of its creations,
which are made in our image.
The play is a satire, and describes what could happen if mechanization
gets out of hand. No matter how noble the manufacturer's aims, for
example, eliminating human labour, there are people who will turn those
machines toward war. It has happened time and again.
The characters are shallow, except for Helena, who is the feminine
stereotype –though she doesn't scream, she's the only emotional one.
But, considering all we can get in a play is dialogue, it's the ideologies
that are important. And in the pre-Asimov robot world, the idea that
we should be afraid of robots is a necessary one. Since Asimov created
the Three Laws of Robotics, however, it seems only natural that such safeguards
would be put in place. What decent human being wouldn't implement
But, of course, the robots in our world are much more subtle.
Bank machines, fully automated assembly-lines, all the way to the timers
that make our ovens work when we're out for the day, the robots have taken
over our lives. We can't live without them. But so far, we
seem safe. As one character in R.U.R. puts it, people may be unemployed,
but eventually there will be no more employment, and no need for the wages
that employment produces. Unfortunately, some casualties are unavoidable.
We don't have to like it, and we shouldn't like it. But
that's what is called progress.