Analysis of Karel Capek’s Plays

Karel Capek  (9 January 1890 – 25 December 1938) was concerned with the natural order of things, a theme that pervaded much of his work. His allegorical approach to expressionism linked his deep philosophical concerns to striking and often disturbing human situations. Artistically, politically, and socially, Capek dealt with the human personality and with the fate of humankind. He attacked not only the conventions of the day but also human beings’ general lack of awareness of their place in nature and in the continuum of events that demands their attention to foster the perpetuation of values and ideals as well as the survival of the human race itself.


Lásky hra osudná

Lásky hra osudná, Capek’s early dramatic collaboration with his brother Josef, is a one-act play that was not given a major premiere until twenty years after it was written, although it was produced by an amateur group in the mid-1920’s. The play has neoclassical overtones, but only inasmuch as it establishes them to parody neoclassical form. The play is technically in the tradition of the commedia dell’arte, and it satirizes this tradition by its own artificial form. Each of the characters in the play is the clear representative of some single aspect of human character: Scaramouche, the obvious madman; Gilles, unwell and emotionally vulnerable, largely because of his own self-indulgence; Isabella, the agent of consternation, whose skirts are lifted by Brighella, thereby enflaming the emotions of the two rival suitors, Trivalin and Gilles. The two fight a duel over Isabella, thereby enabling the opportunistic Brighella to whisk Isabella away and to steal money from her rival suitors.

This is the stuff of which operas are made. The plot is thin and contrived. Still, the play is rescued from the banality that such a plot would suggest by the well-controlled wit of the brothers Capek, who used the dialogue as a means of ridiculing and poking fun at the theater itself. Particularly engaging is a love scene in which Scaramouche announces that the theater is on fire, tacitly suggesting that the audience might flee and leave him alone with his ladylove, Isabella.

The play begins with a verse prologue that continues until Gilles interrupts in prose. He refuses to speak in verse, although reminded of his obligation to do so, and the play proceeds with an intermixture of versified dialogue and prose, as suits the satiric nature of the production. Although not a notable artistic achievement, this play shows two significant wits working harmoniously to produce a delightful entertainment with a cutting edge of irony throughout.

The Robber

Capek’s first full-length play, The Robber, was begun in Paris in 1911, when the author was visiting his brother for the summer. The play apparently passed through a number of distinct versions before it was finally produced by the Prague National Theatre in 1920. The drama moves from realism to Symbolism and back again; it also moves from prose to verse, often without adequate preparation. The story is an old one: Mimi is dominated by her overly protective parents, who already have lost one daughter to an elopement with a man who quickly abandoned her. The father, a stuffy professor, and his wife have to go away on a trip, but the father fortifies the house against intruders and leaves Mimi in the capable hands of their trusted erstwhile servant, Fanka.

The robber is a rather typical hero: His background is unknown; he appears on the scene briefly, bringing about significant changes in the action; and he disappears almost as suddenly as he appeared in the first place. As soon as the parents have left, he makes his move. While Mimi tells him of her troubles, his understanding of and sympathy for her plight lead the hapless Mimi to lose her heart to him. He responds by instigating a fight with Mimi’s suitor, a local bumpkin, who, being quicker on the draw than the robber, wounds him. The injured interloper leaves Mimi, promising to return, and being only slightly wounded, he returns that very night, meeting Mimi, who tiptoes past the sleeping Fanka, outside into the moonlight. The parents, who have premonitions of trouble, hurry home unexpectedly and send the robber off.

Mimi’s parents exact from her a promise that she will never speak to the robber again, but as soon as he returns in the morning, she violates her promise. In a scene that is almost slapstick, Fanka and the parents come out to try to drive the robber away from outside the fortified dwelling, but he slips past them and into the house, locks the door, and takes to the balcony, gun in hand, ready to fight to the death if necessary to defend Mimi’s right to make her own decision about whom she will marry. By this time, Mimi is hopelessly in love with the robber, although there is no suggestion that he reciprocates this love.

After one false start, the professor and his cohorts retake the house and the robber runs off to escape injury at the hands of Fanka, who is shooting at him. He does not leave, however, until the audience learns that Mimi’s parents suffered through eight years of courtship before they married and that Mimi’s father, the professor, assumes that such deprivation and suffering are what love is all about. Mimi’s mother, though, questions the wisdom of their having been forced to wait so long. Mimi’s sister returns, her face covered with a veil, to tell Mimi her tale of being deceived by the man she loved.

Though the play is somewhat lacking in substance, it provided a pleasantly diverting evening for audiences. It presents essentially several faces of love and the contrast between youth and age in matters related to the heart. It attacks the question of the rights of the young over the rights of their elders and examines several sets of rights quite closely. The setting had about it certain gothic elements that were well suited to the romantic tone of the play.

The Insect Play

Capek is often at his best dramatically when he is not writing about human beings, who often turn out to be unconvincing in his plays. In his collaboration with his brother Josef on The Insect Play, Capek wrote a virtual medieval morality play. The insects are presented allegorically, and the whole action is unified by the tramp, who, in his role as stranger, serves the function of seer.

The play is divided into three acts, the first called “Butterflies,” the second called “Creepers and Crawlers,” and the last called “The Ants.” Through these sets of characters, and through their notable characteristics, the brothers Capek depicted a coherent and quite pessimistic view of human beings. Questions of family organization are central to each act, as are questions of greed, pride, vanity, and other deadly sins.

In the first act, two aging butterflies compete for the affections of the youthful poet, Felix, also a butterfly, who has the reputation of being a Lothario but who is really shy at heart. The butterflies, ethereal and lovely, are subject to the same whims as anyone else. They experience rivalry in love, and their actions are misinterpreted. They contrast sharply with the beetles in the next act, whose family exclusivity is limiting and ultimately cruel.

The natural order of things is presented without comment in the cricket scene, in which two crickets looking for shelter rejoice at finding the nest of another cricket who has fallen victim to a hungry bird that has gobbled him whole. Their good fortune is short-lived because they are barely installed in their new habitat before a cuckoo fly attacks and paralyzes them. The tramp ruminates on the cruelty and rapacity that he sees here. The cuckoo fly kills; the parasite eats the crickets and their larvae. In accord with Capek’s philosophy that drama should be objective rather than subjective, the authors present the facts of what has happened and leave the audience with these facts, although the tramp represents a subjective intrusion on the scene, somewhat in violation of Capek’s philosophy of objective realism in drama.

In The Insect Play, the brothers balance the actions of their three allegorical groups, using the tramp as a conscience, a representative of those who view the play. In the end, the tramp, begging for just a little more life, dies, his body left in a fen where slugs begin to feast on it. It finally is discovered by a woodcutter, and nearby, a group of schoolgirls on holiday, oblivious to the tramp’s death, play in the lustrous sunshine. The natural order is irresistible. Life goes on, with all its cruelty and suffering.

R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots

Capek’s reputation as a dramatist of international stature was assured by R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots, first performed in Prague early in 1921. The play was rapidly translated into many European and some Oriental languages. Foreign productions were staged as far away as the United States and Japan.

The play is concerned with the fate of humankind in the face of mechanization. The robots produced by the Rossum factory look and feel like human beings. They can experience pain, because were they not able to, they would soon be destroyed accidentally. They have no souls, not because souls are not manufacturable but because to give them souls would increase their price tremendously. They are good servants because they cannot feel fear, hatred, love, and sorrow, emotions that weaken human beings and divert them from their tasks.

Capek’s concerns in R.U.R. are broadly human and neither focus on any one nation nor point an accusing finger at the industrialized world; neither is R.U.R. a nostalgic looking back to more simple times. Rather, it is a quite objective statement of many of the problems brought on by industrialization, exaggerated just enough to make it seem slightly fantastic, yet based sufficiently in truth that its central message is not lost on audiences.

At first, the robots seem a great convenience. Soon there is no need for anyone to work. Robots do all the tasks, having been developed so successfully that they can perform in specialized, highly advanced occupations as well as in the menial occupations to which the early robots were consigned. Robots can typewrite and converse, and they provide specialized information in conversational tones. They are ever obedient, yet they have the ability finally to make discriminating responses.

Ultimately, however, the human race is threatened, first because it begins not to reproduce and then because the robots rebel and threaten to conquer the humans. The only advantage the humans have when the attack comes is that the robots do not know how to reproduce, how to make more robots, and their typical life span is only thirty years. This bargaining chip is lost, however, because Helena has burned the papers in which Rossum details how robots are made. With this act, all hope is lost.

R.U.R. harks back to the suggestion in The Insect Play of the specialized function of all creatures. In seeing the robots going about their specialized duties, one thinks back to the ants, beetles, and butterflies of the earlier play. Capek is dealing conceptually with the whole question of purpose—not human purpose alone, but the purpose of all life. In R.U.R., Capek the philosopher achieved an ideal harmony with Capek the dramatist. The play is filled with philosophical portents, yet it is good theater. If it avoids preaching, it probably does so because Capek employed literary techniques that he learned as a child listening to fairy tales.

The fact that Helena Glory, when she appears early in the play, cannot distinguish between robots and humans suggests that Capek thought the dehumanization of humankind was already well advanced. He sensed distant, indistinct rumblings on the international scene that were to spring full-blown on the world when Hitler began to take over Eastern Europe. It is not surprising that Capek died shortly before the Nazi invasion of his own country. In some ways, the macabre fantasies that his plays had presented were now being acted out in ways more horrible than he could ever have imagined they would be. His spirit broken by the certainty of impending conflict, Capek could no longer face the struggle, and his health, never very robust, failed utterly.

By the end of the second act, the robots in R.U.R. have killed all the humans except for Alquist, a construction engineer who may be their only hope. Alquist tries to unlock the secret of making robots, but he cannot. Finally, it is suggested that he dissect living robots to see how they are put together. He has trouble doing this. He then notes that two of the robots who serve him, Primus and Helena, have fallen in love, a contention he confirms by suggesting that he dissect one of them, only to have the other volunteer to be dissected instead. Alquist gives the two his blessing, and presumably there is some distant hope that a new race will come into being.

The play is structurally interesting. Its prologue is comic, while the rest of the play is solidly dramatic in a serious sense. The main action is over by the end of the first act. The two succeeding acts are anticlimactic and need dramatic alternatives.

The Macropulos Secret

In The Macropulos Secret, first produced in Prague in November, 1922, Capek created perhaps his most memorable character, Emilia Marty. This protagonist is more than three hundred years old when the play opens, having been given a secret formula to ensure longevity by her father, physician to Emperor Rudolph II. This formula assures not only long life but also continuing youth, so that Emilia, who has now lived many lifetimes, all under different names, is not decrepit. She is merely bored at having been around too long. Life has lost all interest for her. The excitement is gone from it, and the audience is led to the inevitable conclusion that too long a life is far worse than death. Indeed, Capek wrote, “A short life is better for mankind, for a long life would deprive man of his optimism.”

As The Macropulos Secret develops, Emilia Marty tries to give the secret formula away. Various people want it, some for selfish and others for generous purposes. None, however, is to have it, because Kristina grabs the formula and burns it in a candle’s flame, much as Helena in R.U.R. burns Rossum’s formula for making robots.

Adam the Creator

In 1927, Karel and Josef Capek again engaged in a collaboration, Adam the Creator, which, although promising dramatically, was not successful. The play’s basic idea is an intriguing one. Adam, not pleased with the world as his God has made it, destroys it with the Cannon of Negation when humankind fails to listen to him. In his haste to do away with an unsatisfactory world, however, Adam has forgotten to include himself in the destruction, so that now he alone exists in a solipsistic state. God calls on Adam to rebuild the world he has destroyed, and he gives him a heap of dirt with which to accomplish his task.

Adam fails utterly to accomplish his deed and in desperation creates someone in his own likeness, Alter Ego. As similar as they first seem, the two are not compatible, and they quarrel bitterly and often. Alter Ego has an accountant’s mentality. He wants his share of everything, including the Clay of Creation. When he and Adam set about remaking the world, Adam creates individuals, whereas Alter Ego creates nothing but hordes of undistinguished and undistinguishable beings, products of a mechanistic and materialistic mind. Alter Ego’s creations are all the same; Adam’s, on the other hand, are all different.

As might be predicted, the world that Adam and Alter Ego create is unbearable, and the two, now wholly discredited by their fellows, seek refuge in the hole from which the Clay of Creation originally came. Just a smidgen of earth remains in the hole. Alter Ego kicks it, and there being too little clay to make a whole man, the pile produces an unsightly dwarf, Zmeten, whose name means monster.

Adam and Alter Ego decide to destroy the world they have created, but Zmeten, who now has six children, will not hear of such a thing. He threatens them with their own Cannon of Negation, which he has now turned into a cookpot. As the play ends, a shrine marks the spot in which creation began, and the Cannon of Negation has been melted down and made into a bell. As the bell clangs, God speaks to Adam, who responds by saying that he will not tamper further with God’s creation. In other words, he accepts things as they are, settling for the status quo.

The play leaves little cause for hope. In fact, it ends with the sort of encompassing ennui found in Emilia Marty in The Macropulos Secret, with the important difference that the people living in the world Adam and Alter Ego have created are mortal and are only serving a term. Nothing is perfect; life, rather than being good or bad, just is.

Power and Glory

Power and Glory, written in 1937, was openly anti-Nazi in its original form. The Nazis had already infiltrated the Czech hierarchy by that time, and they refused to allow the play to be produced until it was made antiseptic by their standards. The title of the play refers to a horrible disease that decimates people past forty years of age by eating away at their flesh. Significantly, it is those over forty who conduct, but do not actively fight in, wars.

A brilliant physician, appropriately named Galén, has come up with a cure for the dreaded scourge, but he withholds his secret formula, demanding that in return for it the world must agree to live peacefully. The world is not ready to meet such a demand until the dictator, who, like Hitler, is preparing for an offensive war, develops the disease and is mortally ill with it. He concedes to Dr. Galén’s demands, but as Dr. Galén is rushing with his cure to the dictator’s bedside, he is waylaid by the mob and killed. The pessimism of the play presages the utter futility that was building in Capek and in many other European intellectuals in the years of Hitler’s rise to power.

The Mother

Capek’s last play, which was his favorite, is an estimable one. The Mother, written in 1938, the year in which Capek died, revolves around a mother, presented as the prototype of motherhood, who has stirred her five sons by telling them stories of their dead father’s heroism in dying for his country. The father was the typical patriot, and the sons each represent a different category of person. One is a physician who loses his life in the practice of his profession. The twins are Petr, a liberal, and Kornel, a conservative, who fight in different armies in the same war and die on opposite sides. Another son is a pilot who dies while flying his plane to altitudes not previously reached. The youngest son, the only survivor, aspires to be a poet.

In the course of the play, each of the dead sons returns as a spirit and engages in dialogue with the mother. It is she who has made these youths, she who has shaped their values and ideals. Without her encomiums about the heroism of their father, her four dead sons might not have made the sacrifices they did and might still be alive. Her motherly love makes her wish that they were, and she cannot understand why they have sacrificed as each has. Having lost four sons, she first hides her youngest, trying to save him. Finally, however, she gives him a rifle and sends him off to fight. Capek, never a pacifist, was not a warmonger either. The events through which he was living in Czechoslovakia in 1938 led him to the inevitable conclusion that under some sets of circumstances, people must fight.

Kornel and Petr seem like offshoots respectively of Alter Ego and Adam in Adam the Creator. Kornel, in rearranging a room, would keep everything as it had been, whereas Petr would arrange things as they should be. The mother represents the synthesis of these two opposing stands and would put things where they belong, where they can prosper.


Principal drama
Lásky hra osudná, wr. 1910, pb. 1916, pr. 1930 (with Josef Capek); Loupezník, pr., pb. 1920 (The Robber, 1931); Ze zivota hmyzu, pb. 1920, pr. 1922 (with Josef Capek; The Insect Play, 1923; also known as And So Infinituam: The Life of the Insects, 1923); V0c Makropulos, pb. 1920, pr. 1922 (The Macropulos Secret, 1925); R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots, pb. 1920, pr. 1921 (English translation, 1923); Adam Stvoritel, pr., pb. 1927 (with Josef Capek; Adam the Creator, 1929); Bílá nemoc, pr., pb. 1937 (Power and Glory, 1938; also known as The White Plague, 1988); Matka, pr., pb. 1938 (The Mother, 1939)

Other major works
Long fiction: Továrna na absolutno, 1922 (The Absolute at Large, 1927); Krakatit, 1924 (English translation, 1925); Hordubal, 1933 (English translation, 1934); Pov0tron, 1934 (Meteor, 1935); Oby5ejný zivot, 1934 (An Ordinary Life, 1936); Válka s mloky, 1936 (The War with the Newts, 1937); První parta, 1937 (The First Rescue Party, 1939); Mivot a dílo skladatele Foltýna, 1939 (The Cheat, 1941).
Short fiction: Zárivé hlubiny, 1916 (with Josef Capek; The Luminous Depths, 1916); Bozí muka, 1917; Krakonošova zahrada, 1918 (with Josef Capek); Trapné povídky, 1921 (Money and Other Stories, 1929); Povídky z jedné kapsy and Povídky z druhé kapsy, 1929 (Tales from Two Pockets, 1932); Devatero pohádek, 1931 (Fairy Tales, 1933); Kniha apokryfu, 1946 (Apocryphal Stories, 1949).
Nonfiction: Pragmatismus, 1918; Kritika slov, 1920; O nejblizších vecech, 1920 (Intimate Things, 1935); Musaion, 1920-1921; Italské listy, 1923 (Letters from Italy, 1929); Anglické listy, 1924 (Letters from England, 1925); Hovory s T. G. Masarykem, 1928-1935 (3 volumes; President Masaryk Tells His Story, 1934; also as Masaryk on Thought and Life, 1938); Zahradníkuv rok, 1929 (The Gardener’s Year, 1931); Výlet do Špan0l, 1930 (Letters from Spain, 1931); Marsyas, 1931 (In Praise of Newspapers, 1951); O v0cech obecných: Cili, Zóon politikon, 1932; Obrázky z Holandska, 1932 (Letters from Holland, 1933); Dášenka, 1933 (Dashenka, 1940); Cesta na sever, 1936 (Travels in the North, 1939); M0l jsem psa a ko5ku, 1939 (I Had a Dog and a Cat, 1940); Obrázky z domova, 1953; Veci kolemnás, 1954; Poznámky o tvorbe, 1959; Viktor Dyk-S. K. Neumann-bratrí C.: Korespondence z let 1905- 1918, 1962.
Translation: Francouzská poesie nové doby, 1920 (of French poetry).

Bradbrook, Bohuslava R. Karel Capek: In Pursuit of Truth, Tolerance, and Trust. Portland, Oreg.: Sussex Academic Press, 1998.Makin, Michael, and Jindrich Toman, eds. On Karel Capek: A Michigan Slavic Colloquium. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1992.Pynsent, R. B., ed. Karel Matel Capek-Chod: Proceedings of a Symposium Held at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies 18-20 September, 1984. London: The School, 1985.Schubert, Peter Z. The Narratives of Capek and Cexov: A Typological Comparison of the Authors’World Views. Bethesda, Md.: International Scholars Publications, 1997

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature, Philosophy

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