Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2022  Vol. 21  No. 2
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In the New York Theaters
Heywood Broun, the Kansas City Star, October 15, 1922.

New York, Oct. 14.—“R. U. R.,” the first offering of the Theater Guild this season, is an intellectual melodrama. As far as we can remember the American theater has had nothing quite like it. Here is a play which provides theatrical thrills as startling as those of “The Bat” and yet discusses extensively and profoundly the problems of modern society and more particularly the relation of man and machinery. “The Bat” spaced out its tingling moments by having May Vokes come on and be comic. “R. U. R.” uses sociological discussion as its element of relief.

It must be explained at the outset that “R. U. R.” is in full Rossom’s Universal Robots. That, of course, necessitates the further explanation that a Robot is a mechanical man. Old Rossom was a scientist who found that he could create life. His son was business man and incorporated. Using his father’s formula he turned out Robots by the millions and sold them all over the world. They provided cheap labor and gradually all hard toil was delegated to them.

Little by little the company managed to improve the model. At first the Robots were entirely insensitive to the pain, but it became necessary to change this. Having no nerves to warn them they were apt to run into things which cut and destroyed them or to be burned by fire. It was no trouble at all for one of the bright young men around the shop to perfect a type of Robot who could suffer and by suffering learn wisdom.

But none of the scientists were skillful enough to provide a Robot with a soul. Indeed there was no demand for any such commodity. The Robots were fashioned only for work.

They did not reproduce themselves. When a Robot wore out he was put in the stamping mill in the factory and reduced to raw material from which he, or a similar type might be renewed.

The place of manufacture is a lonely island. To this island comes a young woman intent on securing better treatment for the Robots, but this mission is somewhat lost sight of when she remains to marry the head of the company. Nevertheless she does not quite forget it. The differentiation between human beings and Robots seems monstrous to her and she wheedles one of the scientists in the shop to make them more like men. She feels that this will create better feeling between the men and the monsters. The obliging scientist does change the formula, but the result is not that which the young woman anticipated. The new Robots hate men more than ever. “It takes man to hate man,” Karol Capek, the playwright, explains.

The Robots all over the world begin to resent their burdens and rise in revolt. The island is completely cut off from all communication with civilization. By this time the Robots have learned to use firearms as among the disagreeable work to which many nations have assigned them is the business of war. During the period of isolation the men in the plant discuss the catastrophe and decide that once the revolt of the Robots is put down it need never happen again. They decide that hereafter they will make national Robots. These manufactured creatures will be of various colors and each group will speak a different language so that Robots will take out their hate upon other Robots and not upon man.

At last a war vessel comes in sight of the marooned manufacturers and they rejoice that rescue is at hand. But when the ship comes nearer they find that it is manned not by men but by Robots. Beyond the limits of the island all mankind has been destroyed by these machines created to save human beings from toil. The Robot army marches upon the house in which the last survivors wait. An act of extraordinary dramatic intensity follows. The host, a million strong, surrounds the house but the creatures do not make their expected rush. The garrison discusses ways and means to make a bargain with them. It is suggested that it may be possible to make peace by dickering with the Robots and giving them old Rossom’s formula so that they turn out new Robots and perpetuate themselves upon the earth. This is found to be impossible as the young woman in a fit of anger against the creation of Robots has burned the formula.


Next it is suggested that money may suffice and the treasurer of the company rushes out with billions in cash to buy off the invaders. Unfortunately he touches a fence animated by a defensive electric current and is killed. Finally, after a long delay the rush begins. Shots are heard and the men guarding the house run to their posts. Of course, they are powerless to check the march of the multitude. Against a bloody sky the audience sees the head of the Robot leader as he climbs up the balcony and then more and more sweep into the room and exterminate the feeble garrison. Not more than ten or twelve actors clad in the uniform blue of the Robots actually enter the room, but the director has managed to create the effect that millions are on the move. The moment is quite the most terrifying thing we have ever known in the theater.

In an epilogue we find that all human life has been exterminated with the exception of one old mason. The Robots turn to him and demand that he shall rediscover the formula for their manufacture so that they may reproduce themselves. Through pain and suffering they have become already almost human, but it is not enough. They do not desire that life shall die out from the earth. The old mason is not able to comply with their demands. The formula is beyond his power, although he experiments ceaselessly with chemicals in test tubes. But at length he finds a Robot and a Robotess who have a protective feeling for each other. When he threatens to vivisect the female the male Robot offers himself in her stead. Chivalry has been born into the world and the old man knows that it is no longer necessary for him to mess about with his test tubes. He greets the pair as a new Adam and a new Eve, and sends them away to found a new race.

This epilogue seems to us inconsistent and sentimental. Just what chivalry has to do with the origin of species is beyond us. Capek seems to have felt that he must add a little sweetness and light to his play because of the horrors which have gone before. His epilogue may bring sweetness but it hardly sheds light. Even with due allowance for a muddled finish “R. U. R.” remains the most distinctive play of the new season. There are stretches of it which are tiresome, but the mark of genius, or thereabouts, is also on it. For years the complaint against the theater has been that profundity was impossible because all drama must be developed in terms of action. Perhaps Capek has solved this problem with his formula—tell it in melodrama. We may now expect a thriller based upon the philosophic concepts of Bergson and another with no less than five murders in which relativity is brought home to the masses.

Karel Capek is a Czech and another play by him will be seen later in the season. This is a play in which all the characters are insects. It is to be done by William A. Brady.

After all we are going to have a season in which not every play will be about a young couple who come to New York and spend more money than they can afford.  

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