RUR (Rossum's Universal Robots

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Overview | Significance | Background | Plot | Notes

Overview

"R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)" is a classic, if little known, OTR drama. Adapted from the original play by Karel Capek and broadcast by The Columbia Workshop (episode #37), 18 April 1937, "R.U.R." asks the haunting question: "How does artificial life affect the fate of humankind?"

Significance

"R.U.R." is the first appearance of the term "robot" in English and the origin of discussions in science fiction regarding the uneasy relationship between humans and robots, androids, cyborgs, and lately, genetic modification and artificial intelligence.

Background

Czechoslovakian writer Karel Capek (1890-1938) wrote novels, stories, and plays. [1] He is best known for his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), which premiered 26 January 1921 at the National Theater, in Prague, former Czechoslovakia.

Capek derived the term "robot" from robota meaning "drudgery" in Czech and "labor" in Slovak. The origin of both the Czech and the Slovak word is the Old Church Slavonic rabota "servitude." Robot, as used by Kapek, represented someone or something that exercises labor.

Capek credits his older brother, Josef, the cubist painter and writer, with the actual creation of the word "robot." Explaining his story idea to Josef, Karel remarked that he did not know what to call the artificial workers. Josef suggested calling them "robots."

"R. U. R." asks the question that haunts science fiction: How does the creation of artificial life affect the fate of humankind? Capek's answer has contributed to resistance to artificial life ever since.

Timeliine

1921: Premier performance at the National Theater, Prague, former Czechoslovakia.
1923: Translated into English by Paul Selver as R.U.R.: A Fantastic Melodrama (New York: Samuel French). Read the play as originally written in Czech
9 October 1922-February 1923: Performed at The Garrick Theater, New York City. Produced by The Theater Guild, directed by Phillip Moeller and Agnes Morgan, "R.U.R." ran for a total of 184 performances.
1923: Published in English (New York: Doubleday). Soon, the word "robot" was known in every language around the world.
27 November 1933: Allegedly broadcast by National Broadcasting Network (NBC Blue network) as a 60-minute episode of the Radio Guild series, 14 July 1929-*** 1940. [2]
18 April 1937: Broadcast by The Columbia Workshop (Episode #36); thirty minute radio drama adaptation.
1938: Broadcast on BBC Television, a thirty minute adaptation, one of the earliest examples of televised science fiction.
1941: Broadcast as a BBC radio adaptation.
1948: Broadcast in its entirety as a ninety minute adaptation on BBC Television.

Plot

Rossum's Universal Robots manufactures artificial humans, called "Robots" (always capitalized), in quantity. Assembled from organic materials kneaded in large vats, Rossum's Robots behave exactly like living matter. But, they are designed to work as slaves for humans, and so have no feelings.

Helena Glory, the plant manager's wife, pities the Robots and persuades the head scientist at R. U. R., Alquist, to give them feelings. Subsequent Robots created with feelings resent their subservience to humans and revolt.

Robots kill all humans on Earth save one, Alquist, who is known to work with his hands, a noble trait to the Robots. The Robots cannot continue replicating themselves, however, because Helena destroyed the formula for Rossum's organic substance. Alquist sees that one pair of Robots have fallen in love and blesses them, implying they will found a new race. Script available here.

Notes

[1] Capek is also noted as the author of The Absolute at Large (1922), a satire in which an atomic device, the Karburator, produces power through the conversion of energy. The device releases the essence of God, causing miracles and other effects, and ultimately, a religious war.

In War with Newts (1937) a sea-dwelling race of "newts" is enslaved by humans. The newts overthrow their masters and humanity is doomed. In the end, the novel functions as a chilling drama of class struggle and social injustice, as well as a prediction of the end of Czechoslovakia two years later.

[2] The Radio Guild offered adaptations of works by William Shakespeare and other classic drama from college reading lists around the country and original radio dramas. Schools used these radio dramas to augment classroom studies. Radio Guild also offered performances of experimental, original radio drama. Only two episodes are thought to survive,
"The Man Who Was Tomorrow" (14 May 1939; written by Ranald R. MacDougall)

and, "The Ineffable Essence of Nothing" (13 April 1940; written by Ranald R. MacDougall)

Great Plays, also broadcast on the NBC Blue network, performed drama classics from 1938-1942 and succeeded Radio Guild. It is easy to confuse these two, different, series.