Virtually every encyclopedia or textbook etymology of the word “robot” mentions the play R.U.R. Although the immediate worldwide success of the play immediately popularized the word (supplanting the earlier “automaton”), it was actually not Karel Capek but his brother Josef, also a respected Czech writer, who coined the word. The Czech word robota means “drudgery” or “servitude”; a robotnik is a peasant or serf.
Although the term today conjures up images of clanking metal contraptions, Capek’s Robots (always capitalized) are more accurately the product of what we would now call genetic engineering. The play describes “kneading troughs” and “vats” for processing a chemical subst
itute for protoplasm, and a “stamping mill” for forming Robot bodies. A more imaginative and scientifically plausible description of the artificial creation of armies of workers would have to wait for Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). 
The translator (Paul Selver) changed the play quite a bit while preparing the English version, combining two Robot characters into one, and considerably toning down the ending. If you’re interested in reading the play as it was originally presented to American audiences, read the 1920s version (most university libraries will have a copy — it was tremendously popular in its day).
In the 1990s, a new translation, with much better dialogue and a chilling new final speech (new to English audiences, anyway) by the Robot Damon, was published in a Capek reader called Toward the Radical Center (with a short introduction by Arthur Miller).
Plot Summary (spoilers)
In R.U.R., the idealistic young Helena Glory arrives at the remote island factory of Rossum’s Universal Robots, on a mission from a humanitarian organization devoted to liberating the Robots. From Domin (sometimes translated as “Domain”), she receives a compressed account of the company’s father-and-son founders (who do not appear in the play). The mad inventor Old Rossum was bent on usurping the role of the Creator by artificially reproducing a man in painstaking detail, while the practical industrialist Young Rossum produced a stripped-down version of humanity to be sold as inexpensive workers:
- : Practically speaking, what is the best kind of worker?
- : The best? Probably the one who– who– who is honest– and dedicated.
- : No, it’s the one that’s the cheapest. The one with the fewest needs… [Young Rossum] chucked out everything not directly related to work, and [in] doing that he virtually rejected the human being and created the Robot. (41)
Mass-produced by Robot-run assembly lines, Robots remember everything, and think of nothing new. According to Domin, “They’d make fine university professors.” Rejecting Helena’s theory that Robots have souls, the psychologist Hallemeier admits that once in a while, a Robot will throw down his work and start gnashing his teeth. The human managers treat such an event as evidence of a product defect, but Helena prefers to interpret it as a sign of the emerging soul.
Domin rather inexplicably asks Helena to marry him. She accepts, but continues working to help the Robots by requesting that a scientist modify some Robots, so that their souls might develop more fully. One of the modified creatures is a Robotess, beautiful but useless. The scientist speculates that if the Robotess (named after her spiritual mother Helena) were to “wake up,” she would hate him for making her so beautiful, yet giving her a body that cannot know love or give birth. The human Helena begins identifying with hothouse flowers — sterile because they are artificially cultivated, satisfying a consumer demand that nature fulfills too slowly on her own. Meanwhile, human fertility has been dropping worldwide; industrial civilization’s drive towards order and mechanization has made mankind superfluous.
The price would appear to be the gradual extermination of the human race; but one of Helena’s specially modified Robots issues a manifesto: “Robots of the world, you are ordered to exterminate the human race… Work must not cease!”
Domain possesses Old Rossum’s formula for producing Robots — a bargaining tool he hopes to use to ensure the freedom of the humans holed up in the factory. Helena, who has been kept ignorant of the real threat the Robots propose, decides to burn the formula, on the theory that halting the production of the Robots will halt the spread of economic and political collapse. The Robots swarm onto the stage, killing all the humans, leaving only Alquist — the only human at the factory who still works with his hands. The Robot leader Damon plans to populate the earth: “We will give birth by machine. We will build a thousand steam-powered mothers. From them will pour forth a river of life. Nothing but life! Nothing but Robots!”
This dream, spoken by Damon (a demon?) echoes the dream of Domin (Dominus, the Lord?) — both hope to use machinery to improve upon the work of nature. Without the all-important manuscript, however, the Robots discover “The only thing we cannot produce is Robots. The machines are turning out nothing but bloody chunks of meat.”  They cajole, threaten and beg Alquist to help them discover what they call “the secret of life.” In desperation, Damon offers himself up for study; screaming on the dissection table, he orders Alquist to continue the search.
Nature eventually re-emerges triumphant when two Robots (the beautiful but otherwise useless Helena, and Primus) fall in love. The play ends on an uplifting, religious note. Alquist blesses the lovers, renames them Adam and Eve, and sends them out to avoid the sins that destroyed their predecessors.
Reciprocal Links (Archived)
I am no longer actively updating these links, but someone from the BBC’s My Science Fiction Life contacted me and asked me for a link. The page she sent me taught me something I didn’t know about RUR, so here’s the link.
- Alpha Ralpha Boulevard. “Karel Capek.” Alpha Ralpha Boulevard: Science Fiction Bibliographies <http://www.catch22.com/SF/ARB/SFC/Capek,Karel.php3>. Added Dec. 15, 1999.
- Anonymous Coward. “Re:Origin of “Robot” clarification – A bit more.” [Comment appended by user to a slashdot posting by “JohnKatz”.] Dec. 20, 1999. http://slashdot.org/features/99/12/12/1618253.shtml Added Dec 27, 2000.
- Artificial Intelligence Learning Group. “Robot links” [list of links] Institutt for datateknikk og informasjonsvitenskap. <http://www.ifi.ntnu.no/grupper/ai/eval/robot_links.html> Added Dec. 21, 2000.
- Bowser, Randy. “Word from the Director.” Metropolis the Musical [Publicity website.] <http://rbowser.tripod.com/metropolis/directornotes.html> Added 22 May 2002.
- Blackstock, Jon. Suite101.com. “Hairy Ape Part 1.” 23 Jun 2000. <http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/dramaturgy/42754> Added 18 Sep 2000.
- Cooper, Charles. “Make that ‘check’, not ‘checkmate’.” C|Net. 10 May 2002. <http://news.com.com/2010-1074-909162.html> Added 13 Jun 2002.
- Currie, Adam. Adam’s Robot Page. <http://cache.ucr.edu/~currie/roboadam.htm>. Added 14 Oct 1999.
- Dallas Personal Robotics Group. “Robotics Related Web Sites” [list of links] <http://www.dprg.org/links.html> Added Dec. 21, 2000.
- Fitton, Robert B. “Science Fiction… pump… a primer.” The Fitton Chronicles [e-book author’s website] <http://www.fittonbooks.com/pulp.htm>. Added 17 Feb 2002.
- Grupo de Robotica. [Organization home page.] December 20, 2000. Universitat de Lleida. http://robotica.udl.es Added Dec. 21, 2000.
- Grupo de Sistemas y Comunicaciones. “Introduccion.” [Curricular site.] October 5, 2000. Departamento de Ciencias Experimentales e Ingeniería. Universidad Rey Juan Carlos. <http://gsyc.escet.urjc.es/docencia/asignaturas/robotica/transpas/node1.html> Added Dec. 21, 1999.
- Imaginautes.com. “Les réponses à la question 18.” June 25, 2000. Imaginautes. <http://www.imaginautes.com/atelier/observatoire.php3?obs_mode=QUESTION&obs_ques=18> Added Dec. 15.
- Jerz, Dennis G. [Translator unknown.] “Le règne des robots.” Le Encyclopedie de L’Agora. http://www.agora.qc.ca/reftext.nsf/Documents/Robot–Le_regne_des_robots_par_Karel_Capek Added Dec. 21, 2000.
- Jerz. Dennis G. “Capek’s Dystopian Robots and O’Neill’s Demonic Dynamo: The “Natural Man” in Technological Society” [Abstract of a conference paper.] 1996<http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~djerz/rur-dyn.htm>
- Jones, Karl. “RUR or RU Not My Baby?” [personal web page ] June 2, 2000. Karl Jones web. <http://www.karljones.com/tech/robots/rur.asp> Added Dec. 27, 2000.
- K2robots.com. “Robot Stories.” [List of links] 1999-2000. <http://www.k2robots.com/directory/RobotStories/RUR.htm> Added 21 Dec 1999.
- “Linkkejä tulevaisuusajattelun historian” [Unknown.] <http://users.utu.fi/helpaa/tulevaisuus.html> Added 27, 2000.
- Liukkonen, Petri. “Karel Capek (1890-1938).” Webmaster, Pesonen, Ari. Author’s Calendars. 2000. 1 Apr 2001. <http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/capek.htm>. Added 03 Apr 2001.
- Lucas, G.W.Rossum’s Playhouse. <http://www.connix.com/~gwlucas/>. Added 03 Dec 1999.
- Mataric, Maja J. “USC-CSCI445 Introduction to Robotics Homepage” [Curricular page.] University of Southern California. <http://www-scf.usc.edu/~csci445/otherlinks.html> Added 27, 2000.
- mentifex. “Philosophy of the Mind: The Mentifex Dossier.” Jan. 13, 2001. <http://www.scn.org/~mentifex/> Added Dec. 21, 2000.
- McMillan, Gloria.Hypertext Classics. “Rossum’s Universal Robots.” University of Arizona. <http://www.u.arizona.edu/~gmcmilla/capek.html> Added 03 Dec 1999.
- New York Public Library. “Utopia”. [list of links] <http://www.nypl.org/utopia/links.html> Added Dec. 21, 2000.
- Novosielski, Ryan. “Works Cited.” RoWaCo [Proposal for robotic elimination of waste from geese] BergenNet <http://users.bergen.org/~dialee/ISTF/workscited.html> Added Dec. 15, 1999.
- Ramesh, Amit. “Lecture #1: The Big Picture.” [Curricular site.] Maja Mataric,USC. <http://www-scf.usc.edu/~csci445/cs445notes/lecture1.html> Added Dec. 15, 1999.
- Rapaport, William J. “Bookmarks for William J. Rapaport.” State University of New York at Buffalo. <http://www.cs.buffalo.edu/pub/WWW/faculty/rapaport/bookmarks.html> Added Dec. 15, 1999.
- —–. “CSE 111: GREAT IDEAS IN COMPUTER SCIENCE: Directory of Documents. [Curricular site.] State University of New York at Buffalo. <http://www.cs.buffalo.edu/~rapaport/111F00/directory.html> Added Dec. 15, 1999.
- Shackelford, Lee. “‘R.U.R.’ at UAB.” Sep 2001. <http://uabtheatre.bham.net/rur.htm> Added 02 Oct 2001.
- Talon Radio. [Official site for a UK radio presenter who dresses up as an android.] “Talon’s Links to Robot Movie and Book Fan Sites.” <http://www.talonradio.com/robots/r-links.html> Added May 22, 2002.
- Witfelt, Claus. “RoboLab Mindstorms Links.” www.netby.dk. <http://www.netby.dk/Oest/Storehundsvej/Robolab/links.htm> Added Dec. 21, 2000.
- yahoo.com. “Yahoo! Arts Humanities Literature Authors Literary Fiction Capek, Karel (1890-1938)” [Web directory.]http://dir.yahoo.com/Arts/Humanities/Literature/
 Capek’s obituary in Newsweek (January 2, 1939) said of R.U.R.: “Although he believed it the least interesting of all his works, it brought him greatest fame.”
 In Brave New World, factories stimulate the budding and multiplication of selected fertilized ova, and then deliberately stunt the development of the embryonic humans. When “decanted” and conditioned for service, the lower orders make the undamaged elite appear to be supermen.
 “The skin does not stick to the flesh and the flesh does not cling to the bones.” Damon’s lament reverses the Biblical miracle of the enfleshment of the dry bones in the desert.
Site by Dennis G. Jerz
13 Jun 1999 — first posted
1999-2002 — ongoing minor edits
08 Oct 2002 — page redesigned
04 Sep 2011 — updates and redesign
RUR [ Intro & Summary | Image Archive | Review]
Buy Rossum’s Universal Robots
R.U.R. Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:
This detailed literature summary also contains Bibliography and a Free Quiz on R.U.R. by Karel Čapek.
When Karel Capek's R.U.R. (the acronymic title is short for "Rossum's Universal Robots") was first performed in 1921, it became a major international success and made Capek an internationally known playwright. Although R.U.R. may appear slightly dated nearly eighty years later, the concerns expressed by the playwright are still interesting to modern audiences, and the play is still performed in regional theatres. Capek's drama is also responsible for coining a new word, "robot," which became an important fixture of Hollywood films, especially the B-films of the 1950s. The word "robot" is derived from the Czech word robota, meaning forced labor, but it was the topic of the play, that technology can imperil the world, that made the play controversial.
The problems this play deals with are not the realities of everyday life; instead Capek is exploring the larger issues of the human condition. With technology booming immediately after the end of World War I, R.U.R. touched on the concerns of many people. The idea of a utopian society to replace the one fractured by the horror of the first World War was especially appealing to audiences, some of whom were deeply disturbed by Capek's vision of how technology might be misused. Capek's concerns about the dehumanization of man through technology provides the central core of this play, and it is this motif that warns of the destructive force of technology.
Although contemporary assessments of Capek's play frequently cite the stereotypical nature of the characters, there is enough depth to them to involve an audience, and this involvement is one of the play's strengths. At performances of R.U.R., audiences and critics were both fascinated with the idea of non-humans that appeared human and terrified at the implications for human destruction at the hand of technology. These two reactions led to the play's success.
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