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Čapek, Karel

Entry updated 4 December 2023. Tagged: Author, Theatre.

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(1890-1938) Czech author and playwright, born in Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire; Bohemia became the largest region of the newly created country of Czechoslovakia after World War One. His pre-War career, which began in 1908, was almost entirely conducted in collaboration with his older brother Josef Čapek, with whom he remained on exceedingly good terms for the rest of his life; they often published as Bratří Čapkové ["The Brothers Čapek"], and are warmly portrayed together by David Herter in The Luminous Depths (2008), the second volume of his First Republic Trilogy. Čapek's subsequent career spanned the entirety of Czechoslovakia's first period of independent existence (1918-1938); after World War Two, the new Communist masters of his native land followed the example of their Nazi predecessors and rendered him as invisible as they dared; after 1990, his works have again been easily available in his homeland. He was exceedingly prolific; his oeuvre includes plays, novels, stories, much journalism, imaginative travel books, and at least two volumes written to publicize President Tomáš Masaryk (1850-1937) of Czechoslovakia in his daunting old age. Čapek's close and creative friendship with Masaryk, with the implication that it might be natural (at least in Czechoslovakia) for government and culture to mix, deeply influenced Václav Havel.

After publishing several volumes of stories (not all translated), including Bozí muka ["Wayside Crosses"] (coll 1917) and the partly retrospective Trapné povídky ["Painful Tales"] (coll 1921; trans Francis P Marchant and others as Money and Other Stories 1929) [for further details see Checklist below], Čapek produced the play for which he remains perhaps best known, R.U.R.: Rossum's Universal Robots: Kolektivni Drama (1920; performed 1921: trans Paul Selver with Nigel Playfair as R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots): A Fantastic Melodrama 1923 UK; new trans by Paul Selver alone 1923). R.U.R. introduced the word Robot (at Josef Čapek's suggestion) to the world. In Czech, robota can be translated as "statute (ie serf) labour", and in the play it applies not to robots made of metal, as we have come to think of them, but to a worker-class of persecuted Androids (see Slavery), whom Čapek thought of as biologically and chemically artificial, "but not [artefacts] in the mechanical sense". For him they were homunculi updated. The play itself, if performed faithfully as a lurchingly hilarious vaudeville, can nearly transcend its portentous scattershot symbolism, and the neo-Tolstoyan bathos of its life-affirming conclusion, where the surviving "robots", who will inherit the Earth, are declared to constitute a new Adam and Eve. Just as Čapek himself must be caught on the wing if he is to be read properly, R.U.R. must be performed at speed.

Čapek's next play was the much more sophisticated Že života hmyzu (1921; performed 1922: trans Nigel Playfair and Clifford Bax as And So Ad Infinitum (The World of the Insects) 1923) with Josef Čapek, writing together as Bratří Čapkové [for details see Checklist below]. In what has normally become known as The Insect Play, which is an adroit Beast Fable [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], various arthropods go through vaudeville routines explicitly related to cognate activities on the part of humans, to scathing effect. But it is only with the new unexpurgated translation by Tatian Firkusny and Robert T Jones of Act Two – in Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Čapek Reader (coll 1990) edited by Peter Kussi – that the reader can begin to assess the full impact of this extraordinary work.

A further play, Věc Makropulos (performed 1922: 1922; unauthorized trans by Randal C Burrell in novel format as The Makropoulos Secret 1925; authorized trans by Paul Selver of rev text vt The Macropoulos Secret 1927), similarly cloaks in comic routines the terrifying story of the alluring, world-weary, 300-year-old protagonist, the secret of her longevity (see Immortality), and her ambivalently conceived death (a new translation, by Robert T Jones and Yveta Synek Graff, also in Toward the Radical Center, does something to reveal the frightening pace of the play). The work is most familiar as the basis of a 1926 opera by the great Czech composer Leoš Janáček (1854-1928). A later collaboration with Josef Čapek, Adam stvořitel (1927; trans Dora Round as Adam the Creator 1927) with Josef Čapek, writing together as Bratří Čapkové, was less successful (for details see Josef Čapek). And Bílá nemoc (performed 1937; 1937; trans Paul Selver and Ralph Neale as Power and Glory 1938; new trans Michael Henry Heim as "The White Plague" in Cross Currents 7, 1988) has been available to an English-speaking readership, in anything like its original form, only since release of that second version; written late in the 1930s, the play exudes an air of foreboding that now seems proleptic: set in a Near Future country whose outlandish dictator is preparing for a final War of conquest, it traces the devastating effect of a mysterious Pandemic on the rotting land. No hope is offered.

Also of considerable sf interest are Čapek's sf novels, most readable as Scientific Romances, the first being Továrna na absolutno ["The Factory of the Absolute"] (21 September 1921-4 October 1922 Lidové Noviny; 1922; trans Šarká B Hrbková as The Absolute at Large 1927); like much of his fiction it is a deceptively light-toned Satire, told in the chatty, cosmopolitan, typographically experimental feuilleton format frequently exploited in Lidove noviny, the Prague newspaper for which Čapek wrote regularly. A scientist has invented the Karburator, an atomic Power Source which produces almost free power through the absolute conversion of energy, a process of atomic fission which unfortunately also releases the totalizing essence of God, causing a spate of miracles and other effects; ultimately a devastating religious Future War ensues, because everyone contaminated by God gains absolute knowledge of the truth, though sadly each recipient possesses (as in the real world) a different truth (see Religion).

Čapek's next novel, Krakatit (1924; trans Lawrence Hyde 1925; vt An Atomic Phantasy: Krakatit 1948), hearkens back to the fever-ridden brio of his stories and plays of the early 1920s, and serves to culminate this first – and in some ways most energetically dark – period of his creative life. Krakatit is both a quasi-atomic explosive and – by analogy – the sexual abyss into which its inventor, Prokop, topples. Neither the world nor Prokop emerges unscathed from the consequent acid bath of reality-to-excess. These novels are set in middle Europe, and the teasing adumbrations of apocalypse so conspicuous in them – most of his sf threatens or culminates in the destruction of humanity – works to transmit some sense of Čapek's sensitive political consciousness, identifiably Central European in its inherent assumptions about the precariousness of institutions and the dubiousness of their claimed benevolence. He has often (naturally enough) been likened to his fellow Czech, Franz Kafka; but the phantasmagoric mutual incriminations of Sex and Id-releasing Inventions in his work suggest that a closer affinity might be with the Austrian Leo Perutz, whose Saint Peter's Snow (1933) is a spiritual child of The Absolute at Large (see above). His Aftermath-tinged ambivalence about the virtues of Technological transformation is most clearly articulated, perhaps, in an essay (translator unknown) published in The New York Times Magazine in 1926:

There are people who wish that America would one day civilize old Europe as Europe once civilized the old empire of the Aztecs. I admit that this prospect terrifies me, as the cultural ideals of the European conquerors terrified the old Aztecs, and in my Aztec tongue I utter a war cry against this threat to our European reservation.

Čapek's first 1930s novels – the loose Noetic Trilogy comprising Hordubal (1933; trans M & R Weatherall 1934), Povětroň (5 November 1933-10 January 1934 Lidové noviny; 1934; trans M & R Weatherall as Meteor 1935), Obyčejný život (1934; trans M & R Weatherall as An Ordinary Life 1936) – are an essentially nonfantastic thematic sequence focusing on the epistemology and underlying problematics of Identity in an increasingly insecure world; the second tale features three ultimately incompatible identifications of a comatose man who has fallen from the sky, and comes close to sf when (according to one of the three versions) he may be the inventor of a new chemical formula (see Inventions). But Čapek's almost allergenic awareness of the fragility of civilization in the twentieth century is perhaps best summed up in his last sf novel, Vàlka s Mloky (1935-1936 Lidove noviny; 1936; trans M and R Weatherall as War with the Newts 1937; new trans Ewald Osers 1985), in which a strange, apparently exploitable sea-dwelling race of "newts" is discovered in the South Pacific – where Rossum's robots also "lived". The newts are immediately enslaved (again see Slavery) by human entrepreneurs (see Imperialism); but the resulting dramas of class struggle and social injustice are rendered with a high ashen ambivalence, for the newts, having gained the necessary human characteristics and a "newt Hitler" to guide them, turn with human savagery against their masters and flood the continents in order to acquire lebensraum [for Flood see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. This final siege – almost all of Čapek's sf features sieges of one sort or another, perhaps inevitable given his personality and his country's perilous landlocked state – ends in the effective erasure of Homo sapiens. The book chills with its seeming levity, though its English-language setting fails to represent the typographical exuberance of the feuilleton original, a format that continued to give Capek room to spoof some journalist conventions, and in this case in particular to convey an aura of documentary vividness that ominously fixes the story into the precarious present-tense of the Czech world, just two years before the real newt Hitler cancelled it. Čapek himself was scheduled for arrest, but died of natural causes before the Germans could reach him.

In the end, Čapek is perhaps less memorable for his sf innovations, which do not comprise the heart of his speculations, than for his rendering of the cultural fragility of his native land – and of the increasing hysteria of the world surrounding Czechoslovakia – that so illuminates his tales of displaced, terminal civilizations. Though he remains acutely contemporary in his sensibility and his dread, he may now most vividly be thought of as a recognizer: one of relatively few authors between 1920 and 1940 whose work always embodied a deep proleptic terror at the tragic progress toward self-destruction of Europe Between the Wars (see again Scientific Romance). [JC]

see also: Automation; Czech and Slovak SF; History of SF; Mecha; Machines; Flann O'Brien; SF Music.

Karel Čapek

born Malé Slatoňovice, Bohemia, Austria-Hungary [now Czech Republic]: 9 January 1890

died Prague, Czechoslovakia [now Czech Republic]: 25 December 1938



Noetic Trilogy

  • Hordubal (Prague, Czechoslovakia: Nakladatel Fr Borový, 1933) [Noetic Trilogy: hb/]
    • Hordubal (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1934) [trans by M & R Weatherall of the above: Noetic Trilogy: hb/]
  • Povětroň (Prague, Czechoslovakia: Nakladatel Fr Borový, 1934) [first appeared 5 November 1933-10 January 1934 Lidové noviny: Noetic Trilogy: hb/]
    • Meteor (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1935) [trans by M & R Weatherall of the above: Noetic Trilogy: hb/]
  • Obyčejný život (Prague, Czechoslovakia: Nakladatel Fr Borový, 1934) [Noetic Trilogy: hb/]
    • An Ordinary Man (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1936) [trans by M & R Weatherall of the above: Noetic Trilogy: hb/]
    • Three Novels: Hordubal; An Ordinary Life; Meteor (New York: A A Wyn, 1948) [omni of the above three: titles printed in correct order: possibly simultaneous with UK edition: all trans by M & R Weatherall: Noetic Trilogy: hb/nonpictorial]

individual titles

  • Továrna na absolutno ["The Factory of the Absolute"] (Brno, Czechoslovakia: Polygrafia, 1922) [first appeared 21 September 1921-4 October 1922 Lidové Noviny: hb/Josef Čapek]
  • Krakatit (Prague, Czechoslovakia: Aventinum, 1924) [hb/]
    • Krakatit (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1925) [trans by Lawrence Hyde of the above: hb/Kenneth Romney Towndrow]
  • Vàlka s Mloky (Prague, Czechoslovakia: Nakladatel Fr Borový, 1936) [first appeared 1935-1936 Lidove noviny: hb/nonpictorial]
    • War with the Newts (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1937) [trans by M and R Weatherall of the above: hb/?Kirby]
    • War with the Newts (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1985) [new trans by Ewald Osers of the above: hb/Chris Lione]



about the author

  • Ivan Klíma. Velký věk chce mít též velké mordy: život a dílo Karla Capka (Prague, Czech Republic: Academia, 2001) [nonfiction: pb/]
    • Ivan Klíma. Karel Čapek: Life and Work (North Haven, Connecticut: Catbird Press, 2002) [nonfiction: trans by Norma Comrada of the above: hb/photomontage of Čapek]
  • Robert M Philmus. "Karel Čapek's Can(n)on [sic] of Negation" in Visions and Re-Visions: [Re]constructing [square brackets sic] Science Fiction (Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 2005) [nonfiction: coll: discusses Meteor (see text above): pp79-113: hb/]


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