On this day in 1919: Karel Čapek's R.U.R. gets its first public reading

The play, which was first read over 100 years ago, resonates more than ever with contemporary audiences and will get a new film adaptation.

Expats.cz Staff

Written by Expats.cz Staff Published on 05.09.2023 15:23:00 (updated on 05.09.2023) Reading time: 3 minutes

The influential 1920 science-fiction play R.U.R. (Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti/Rossum's Universal Robots), Czech author Karel Čapek's pioneering work about artificial life and humanity's relationship with technology, had its first public reading on this day in 1919.

The play is set in a future time where human-like androids called robots are mass-produced on an island factory owned by R.U.R. All work on the island is done by robots. Čapek's brother Josef famously coined the word "robot" for the play by suggesting his brother use the Czech word "robota" which means forced labor or servitude.

From small beginnings to global recognition

The reading took place on Sept. 5, 1919, in Čapek's small apartment on Říční Street in Malá Strana. The text was read to a small gathering of writers and literary types by Čapek's wife, the actress, playwright, and writer Olga Scheinpflugová. 

While Sept. 5 marked the first public reading of R.U.R.'s thought-provoking text, it would go on to have its premiere on Jan. 2, 1921, when it was performed by a volunteer ensemble in Hradec Králové. The play has been translated into more than 30 languages, including Esperanto, and remains wildly relevant today; a major film adaptation, a musical, has been announced this summer.

In the story, robots are created to eliminate hunger and hardship for humanity by performing all physical labor. Over time, as robots became more sophisticated, they started to be used for military purposes as well. Eventually, the robots rebel against their human creators and overthrow humanity, killing all humans except for one, a man named Alquist. The robots, who begin to express independent thought and emotion, plot to find the secret to Rossum's original robot manufacturing process.

FIVE fun facts about R.U.R

  • The world premiere was supposed to be at the National Theater in Prague, but it ended up premiering first in Hradec Králové due to a scheduling mix-up.
  • In 1938, the BBC produced a short 35-minute film adaptation of the play, one of the earliest film versions.
  • In 1977, Czech composer Zdeněk Blažek created a full opera version of R.U.R.
  • To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the publication in 2020, over 100 contributors wrote essays in the book Robot 100 - One Hundred Reasons, and sci-fi stories were published in another anthology.
  • In 2019, a project called THEaiTRE used AI to generate a new play script about Karel Čapek and R.U.R to mark the 100th anniversary, with performances through 2022 analyzing the role of humans and robots.

New adaptations

According to The Prague Reporter, acclaimed director Alex Proyas (known for The Crow and I, Robot films) is preparing a musical adaptation of the R.U.R using virtual production techniques. The story follows a young woman who visits the island factory of Rossum’s Universal Robots to emancipate the robots from capitalist exploitation, with catastrophic results.

Casting is currently underway in Australia for the independent production. Proyas told the press that he aims to modernize the thought-provoking story while honoring its origins.

U.S. playwright Arthur Miller called Čapek’s seminal work “a joy to read,” adding that he had read him for the first time as a college student. Praising Čapek’s “prophetic assurance mixed with surrealistic humor and hard-edged social satire,” Miller added, “There was no writer like him.” Science fiction author Isaac Asimov begged to differ and called Čapek’s play “a terribly bad one,” while conceding that it was “immortal for that one word.”

Despite its mixed critical reception, Asimov was right about the legacy R.U.R left behind, writes The Books Tell You Why Blog. “Just as the word, 'robot,' has embedded itself in popular culture, Čapek’s themes are just as timeless.”

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