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Karel Čapek (1890-1938)


Czech novelist, short-story writer, political thinker, playwright, and teacher. Karel Čapek's play R.U.R.: Rossum's Universal Robots (1920) added to Oxford English Dictionary a new word, "robot." It was derived from the Czech "robota", meaning someting like "work" or "serf", "forced labor", referring originally to dull work. Čapek's robots were not mechanical but humanlike beings of flesh and blood – now they would be called androids. Later the term was applied to machines. Along with Kafka and Jaroslav Hasek, the author of The Good Soldier Svejk, Čapek is among the great figures of modern Czech literature.

"Young Rossum invented a worker with the minimum amount of requirements. He had to simplify him. He rejected everything that did not contribute directly to the progress of work. He rejected everything that makes man more expensive. In fact, he rejected man and made the Robot. My dear Miss Glory, the Robots are not people. Mechanically they are more perfect than we are, they have an enormously developed intelligence, but they have no soul. Have you ever seen what a Robot looks like inside?" (in R.U.R., 1920, translated by Paul Selver)

Karel Čapek was born in Malé Svatonovice, Bohemia, Austria-Hungary (now in Czech Republic). His father, Antonín Čapek, a country doctor, was a voracious reader whose own library was filled with books of history, philosophy, general  culture, world literature, and also fairy tales. The children were encouraged to use it. Čapek's mother Božena Capková pampered her son in his otherwise normal, happy childhood. Josef (1887-1945), Čapek's elder brother, became known as a painter, novelist, and dramatist who occasionally collaborated with his younger brother. Their sister, Helena (1886-1969), wrote a few novels.

While still at a grammar school in Hradec Králové, Čapek started to write poetry and short stories. To his first love, the beautiful "Anielka," the daughter of the local organist and music teacher, he wrote letters. She later married his school mate. Some ofČapek's poems were published in a student magazine. In 1909 he entered Charles University in Prague, where he studied philosophy, and then continued his studies in Berlin at the Frederick William University (now the Humboldt University of Berlin), and at the Sorbonne in Paris, receiving his doctorate in 1915. His thesis on "Objective Methods in Aesthetics, with Reference to Creative Art" (Objektivní metoda v estetice se zrením k vytvarnému umení) was extremely well received by his professors. Čapek's first book, Zárivé hlubiny, written with Josef, came out in 1916. It was followed by Boži muka (1917, Wayside Crosses), a collection of gloomy stories. Josef illustrated many of the books, including Zahradníkuv rok (1929, The Gardener's Year), a several times reprinted collection of gardening pieces.

During World War I Čapek worked temporarily as a librarian at the Museum of the Bohemian Kingdom in Prague and as a tutor in Žlutice to the son of Count Vladimir Lažanský, an outspoken nationalist who ordered only Czech to be spoken in his household. Due to his physical disabilities, delicate constitution and spondyloarthritis of the vertebral column, he was found unfit for military service. In 1917 Čapek setted in Prague, where joined the editorial board of the Národ weekly and became editor of the newspaper Národní listy. When his brother was dismissed from the paper as a result o his political views, Čapek left as well. He then began to contribute to the, Lidové Noviny, Brno's liberal and popular daily paper, where he stayed until his death.

In his columns Čapek's often wrote in a familiar tone about such issues as frost flowers forming on a windowpane, or how humankind would move more efficiently if people had wheels instead of legs. A majority of his essays were playful or humorous, but he also dealt with politics, mysteries, and aesthetic life. Čapek's satirical view in the story, 'War With the Newts,' was praised by Thomas Mann. Articles on Nazism and racism, and crisis of democracy in Europe, have not lost their topicality.

Čapek's work show the influence of William James, and the philosophers Ortega y Gasset and Henri Bergson. He was also interested in the works of H.G. Wells, who depicted future world, and Bernard Shaw, who examined in his plays social and philosophical problems. In the 1920s Čapek's translation of French symbolist poets influence deeply Czech poetry. A reader of mystery novels, he visited Baker Street and Dartmoor on his 1924 trip to England. While  in London, Čapek delivered a speech at the International PEN Club, and met H.G. Wells, G.K. Chesterton, and G.B. Shaw. Upon his initiative, the Prague branch of the PEN was established in 1925. Čapek was elected as its President.

In 1920 Čapek met a young actress, Olga Scheinpflugová, who had the central role in his play Loupežník. During the following fifteen years, she was the object of his passionate love and adoration. Čapek wrote her many letters, and eventually they married in 1935. Enchanted by the beauty of Věra Hrůzová, the daughter of a professor, he also corresponded with her for almost eleven years. She inspired the heroine of the novel Krakatit (1924). 

As a playwright Čapek collaborated with his brother in several productions. One of their mutual acquaintances was the composer Leoš Janáček. Josef designed the sets for Janáček's Prague 1925 production of The Cunning Little Vixen, his seventh opera, and Karel's Věc Makropulos (1924) provided the basis for Janáček's next opera. After Adam stvoritel (pub.1927), another collaboration, he wrote no more plays until 1937. His first stage work, The Fateful Game of Love, was written in 1910 and produced in 1930. Čapek worked also as the art director of the National Art Theater and was closely associated with the Vinohrady Theatre. In 1922, mentally and physically exhausted, he gave up his post at the Vinohrady Theatre, and left for Italy. Čapek's travel sketches were collected in Italské listy (1923, Letters from Italy). 

Čapek often focused on large, philosophical themes. Like his contemporary expressionist playwrights and filmmakers, he employed elements from science fiction and fantasy and was not particularly interested in portraying everyday life. In the three-act symbolic fantasy R.U.R. Dr. Gall, who works in the off-shore Rossum's Universal Robots company, has created robots which can feel pain; in this they differ from their predecessors, the Jewish Golem and the alchemical homunculus. The factory's manager, Domin, believes that robots can liberate humans from labour. A robot revolt breaks out, and the formula is burned. All but one human is killed. At the end, the robots discover love, making the discovery of new formula unnecessary. Čapek's play was an immediate success. In 1923 a public discussion about his robots was held in London featuring luminaries like G.B. Shaw and G.K. Chesterton. The French writer and Nobel laureate Romain Rolland came to Prague to see R.U.R. in 1924.

The film which popularized the idea of robots was Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926). Isaac Asimov's stories, collected in I, Robot (1950) made known the celebrated three laws of robotics. The word ''robot'' was coined by Čapek's brother Josef. The Absolute at Large (1922), Čapek's first novel, took up the theme of the end of the world. In the story a scientist invenst the Karburator, which product free energy but at the same time unleashes a destructive otherworldly force with the power to destroy the whole civilization.

The satiric comedy Ze Zivota hmyzy (1921, The Insect Play), written with Josef, was produced in 1922. Čapek depicted human vices through the dreams of a drunken tramp. A female butterflies flirt with males and kill one, a beetle steals a store of dung, and ants struggle for power. At the end a number of the flying and dancing insects die. The tramp, who wrestles with death, too, eventually faces a new day, saying: "Look--look at the world.  Look at how much there is to do." An eyewitness to the Prague production complained, that the constant "buzzing" of the actors made them all exhausted and sweaty.

Čapek's last drama, Matka (1938) was about a mother, whose husband and sons are killed fighting for their ideals. She refuses to allow her youngest son to go against an approaching army reported to be killing women and children. Finally she gives him a rifle so that he may join the struggle for humanity. Most of the story was presented in the form of a dialogue between the mother and the ghosts of her dead family members.

In The Insect Play, first performed at the National Theatre in Brno in 1922, and Power and Glory (1937), which was staged in Prague and Brno, Čapek examined how too much power can corrupt a political leader.  He was a friend and biographer of the first president of Czechoslovak Republic, Tomáš Masaryk, working with him to unify the country, and recording Masaryk's political ideas in Hovory s T.G. Masarykem, published in three volumes between 1928 and 1935.

Čapek's philosophical novel trilogy, Hordubal (1934), Povetron (1934), and Obycejný život (1934) tries to tell the same story from a different point of view, centering round problems of truth and reality. Hordubal was on its surface a story of crime. In Povetron Čapek studied how a few facts about an unknown man gives room to different interpretations, and in the last part of the trilogy an ordinary person discovers a complex combination of different personalities hidden in his own mind. Válka s mloky (1936) was again a satire on modern science and international politics. In the story nonhumans again adopt human traits, which lead to catastrophe – this time a sea-dwelling race of "newts" are discovered in the South Pacific and enslaved by human entrepreneurs. With their new führer the newts start a war agaainst their masters.

"Capek's greatness as a writer often depends not on the success of his conscious intention, but on what has slipped in, almost in spite of the author. In spite of his experimentalism, his use of scientific or philosophic themes, traditional literary values abound in his works. In spite of his determined effort to come to grips with life, and unconscious terror of life returns returns again and again in his work. Though he tried not to admit it, Capek kept stumbling over the tragedy of life. All his work after Wayside Crosses is in a sense a defense against the metaphysical horror which he perceived in that book." (William E. Harkins in Karel Capek, 1962)

The settlement at Munich of September, 1938, by the Western nations, in which Czechoslovakia was allowed to be overrun by Germany, was a severe blow to Čapek, an ardent spokesman for democracy who had strongly condemned war and Nazism. On 30 September, 1938, he signed the writer's declaration 'To the Conscience of the World'. Louis Aragon and other French writers nominated him for the Nobel Prize. At that time Čapek's health had rapidly deteriorated – partly perhaps weakened by his feverish writing and exhaustion. Suffering from fascist harassment, he took a refuge in Strž, where worked on his last novel, Život a dílo skladatele Foltýna (1939).

Čapek died of pneumonia on December 25, 1938, in Prague. After the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 his works were blacklisted by the Nazis. Čapek's brother Joseph was sent in 1939 to a German concentration camp and he died at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945. During the Communist reign Čapek's work did not gain a full favor of the government and he was considered having been too international. After S. V. Nikolskij's Karel Čapek (1952) the unofficial ban was lifted, but certain parts of his work were could not be mentioned. Among his most famous suppressed texts was 'Why I Am Not a Communist,' published in 1924.

For further reading: Karel Čapek by Václav Cerny (1936); Karel Čapek by W. E. Harkins (1962); Karel Čapek by Ivan Klima (1962); První rada v díle Karla Capka by Oldrich Králik (1972); Karel Čapek: In Pursuit of Truth, Tolerance and Trust by Bohuslava R. Bradbrook (1997); Karel Čapek: Life and Work by Ivan Klima (2002) 

Selected works:

  • Lásky hra osudná, wr. 1910 (with Josef Capek, prod. 1930) - [The Fateful Game of Love]
  • Zářivé hlubiny, 1916 (with Josef Capek)
  • Boži muka, 1917 - Wayside Crosses (tr.  Norma Comrada, in Cross Roads, 2002)
  • Pragmatismus čili Filosofie praktického života, 1918
  • Krakonosova zahrada, 1918 (with Josef Capek)
  • Kritika slov, 1920
  • Loupežník, 1920 (prod.) - [The Outlaw]
  • Kritika slov, 1920
  • O nejbližších vecech, 1920 - Intimate Things (translated by Dora Round, 1935)
  • Trapné povídky, 1921 (in Money and Other Stories, 1929) / Painful Tales  (tr.  Norma Comrada, in Cross Roads, 2002)
  • R.U.R.: Rossum's Universal Robots, 1920 (prod. Prague National Theatre, January 25, 1921) - R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots: A Fantastic Melodrama (translated by P. Selver, 1923) / R.U.R. (translated and introduced by Cathy Porter and Peter Majer, in Capek: Four Plays, 2000) / R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots (tr. Claudia Novack, 2004) - Rossumin Universaalit Robotit (suom. Jalo Kalima, teoksessa Maailmankirjallisuuden kultainen kirja: slaavilaisten kirjallisuuksien kultainen kirja, 1936)  / R.U.R.: Rossum's Universal Robots: kollektiivinen draama, jossa on alkukomedia ja kolme näytöstä (suom. Eero Balk, 2009)
  • Věc Makropulos, 1920 (prod. 1922; opera by Leoš Janáček) - The Makropoulous Secret (tr. 1925; adapted by Randal C. Burrell, 1965) / The Makropulos Case (opera libretto, tr.  Norman Tucker, 1966) / The Makropoulos Case (translated and introduced by Cathy Porter and Peter Majer, in Capek: Four Plays, 2000)
  • Ze života hmyzu, 1921 (with Josef Capek) -  The Insect Play (tr.  Paul Selver, 1923; Cathy Porter and Peter Majer, in Capek: Four Plays, 2000) / And So Ad Infinitum (Eng. tr. 1923) / The World We Live In (the Insect Comedy): A Play in Three Acts with Prologue and Epilogue (tr. 1933)  - Hyönteiselämää: libretto Kalevi Ahon kaksinäytöksiseen oopperaan (1996)
  • Továrna na absolutno, 1922 - The Absolute at Large (Eng. tr. 1927)
  • Italské listy, 1923 - Letters from Italy (Eng. tr. 1929)
  • Angliké listy, 1924 - Letters from England (translated by Paul Selver, 1925)
  • Krakatit, 1924 - Krakatit (translated by Lawrence Hyde, 1925) / An Atomic Phantasy (translated by Lawrence Hyde, 1948) - Insinööri Prokopin aivokuume (suom. Martti Jukola, 1944)
  • O nejbližších věcech, 1925 - Intimate Things (translated by Dora Round, 1935)
  • Skandální aféra Josefa Holouška, 1927
  • Adam stvořitel, 1927 (with Josef Capek) - Adam the Creator (translated by Dora Round, 1929)
  • Spiskybratrí, 1928-47 (51 vols.)
  • Hovory s T.G. Masarykem, 1928-1935 (3 vols.) - President Masaryk Tells His Story (Eng. tr. 1934); Masaryk on Thought and Life (translated by M. & R. Weatherall, 1938)
  • Povídky z jedné kapsy and Povídky z druhé kapsy, 1929 - Tales from Two Pockets (translators: Paul Selver, 1932; Norma Comrada, 1994)
  • Zahradníkův rok, 1929 - The Gardener's Year (translators:  M. and R. Weatherall, 1931; Geoffrey Newsome, 2004) - Puutarhurin vuosi (suom. Toivo Kalervo, 1961)
  • Výlet do Španěl, 1930 - Letters from Spain (translated by Paul Selver, 1931)
  • Money and Other Stories, 1930 (tr.  Francis P. Marchant et al., with a foreword by John Galsworthy)
  • Minda; cili, O chovu psu, 1930 - Minda; or, On Breeding Dogs (Eng. tr. 1940)
  • Marsyas čili na okraj literatury(1919-1931), 1931 - In Praise of Newspapers and Other Essays on the Margin of Literature (tr.  M. and R. Weatherall, 1951)
  • Obrázky z Holandska, 1932 - Letters from Holland (translated by Paul Selver, 1933)
  • O věcech obecných čili Zoon politikon, 1932
  • Devatero pohádek a ještě jedna od Josefa Čapka jako přívažek, 1932 - Fairy Tales With One Extra As a Makeweight (Eng. tr. 1933)
  • Dášeňka čili život štěněte, 1933 - Dashenka: The Life of a Puppy (tr.  M. & R. Weatherall, 1933)
  • Hordubal, 1933 - Hordubal (translated by M. and R. Weatherall, 1934) - Kotiinpaluu (suom. Reino Silvanto, 1937)
  • Povětroň, 1934 - Meteor (translated by M. and R. Weatherall, 1935)
  • Obyčejný život, 1934 - An Ordinary Life (tr.  M. and R. Weatherall, 1936)
  • Legenda o cloveku zahradníkovi, 1935
  • Mlčení s T. G. Masarykem, 1935
  • Válka s mloky, 1936 - The War with the Newts (translators: M. & R. Weatherall, 1937; Ewald Osers, 1985) - Salamanterisota (suom. Reijo Silvanto, 1938)
  • Cesta na sever, 1936 - Travels in the North (tr. M. & R. Weatherall, 1939)
  • První parta, 1937 - The First Rescue Party (translated by M. & R. Weatherall, 1939)
  • Bílá nemoc, 1937 (produced) - Power and Glory (tr.  Paul Selver and Ralph Neale, 1938) / The White Plague (tr. Michael Henry Heim, 1988; Cathy Porter and Peter Majer, in Capek: Four Plays, 2000)
  • Matka, 1938 (produced) - The Mother (tr.  Paul Selver, 1939) - Äiti (suom.)
  • Jak se co dělá, 1938 - How They Do It (translated by M. and R. Weatherall, 1945) 
  • Život a dílo skladatele Foltýna, 1939 - The Cheat (Eng. tr. 1941)
  • Měl jsem psa a kočku, 1939 (with Josef Capek) - I Had a Dog and a Cat (translated by M. & R. Weatherall, 1940)
  • Kalendář, 1940
  • O lidech, 1940
  • Kniha Apokryfů, 1945 - Apocryphal Stories (translated by Dora Round, 1949; Norma Comrada, 1997)
  • Vzrušené tance, 1946
  • Bajky a podpovídky, 1946
  • Sedm rozhlásků Karla Čapka, 1946
  • Ratolest a vavřín, 1947
  • Obrázky z domova, 1953
  • Velká kočičí pohádka, 1954 - A Long Cat Tale (tr. 1996)
  • Sloupkový ambit, 1957
  • Poznámky o tvorbě, 1959
  • Viktor Dyk, St. K. Neumann, bratři Čapkové ; korespondence z let 1905-1918, 1962
  • Nabrehu dnu, 1966
  • Divadelníkem proti své vůli, 1968
  • V zajetí slov, 1969
  • Čtení o T. G. Masarykovi, 1969
  • Misto pro Jonathana, 1970
  • Listy Olze, 1971
  • Good Men Still Live! ("I Am the Other Karel Capek."): The Odyssey of a Professional Prisoner, 1974 (by Alan Levy)
  • Drobty pod stolem doby, 1975
  • Neuskutecneny dialog, 1978
  • Univerzitní studie, 1987
  • Three Novels: Hordubal, An Ordinary Life, Meteor, 1990 (tr.  M. and R. Weatherall)
  • Toward the Radical Center, 1990 (foreword by Arthur Miller, translated by Norma Comrada et al.)
  • Nine Fairy Tales and One More Thrown in for Good Measure, 1990 translated by Dagmar Herrmann)
  • Talks with T.G. Masaryk, 1995 (tr.  Dora Round)
  • V hluboké úctě a oddanosti, 1999 (ed. Vojtěch Fejlek)
  • Pseudonymní a anonymní tvorba Karla Čapka v týdeniku Nebojsa, 1918-1920, 2000
  • O Edvardu Benešovi / Karel Čapek, 2000
  • Capek: Four Plays, 2000 (translated and introduced by Cathy Porter and Peter Majer)
  • O demokracii, novinách a českých poměrech: výbor z publicistických prací uspořádal Ivan Klíma, 2003
  • Believe in People: The Essential Karel Capek, Previously Unstranslated Journalism and Letters, 2010 (selected and translated with an introduction by Šárka Tobrmanová-Kühnová)

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