First, a few real-world facts: The Czech word robota means “work.” It implies drudgery and servitude, not work that’s creative or fulfilling. From it, the Czech painter and writer Josef Capek (1887–1945) coined the word “robot,” which came into worldwide use thanks to Josef’s younger brother, Karel Capek (1890–1938), whose 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) became hugely popular, inaugurating a new chapter in the classic sci-fi struggle of human scientists with their rebellious creations and joining Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein among the subgenre’s keystone works.
Though not as well-known today as he might be, Karel Capek was one of the seminal figures of European literature between the world wars, prolific in a wide range of genres: plays, novels, political essays, fairy tales, travel books, even a tome on gardening. Two of his other excursions into sci-fi prophecy, his play The Makropoulos Case (1923, familiar today in Leos Janacek’s operatic adaption) and his novel War With the Newts (1936), both still command attention. The latter, like R.U.R., ends in a global cataclysm that leaves behind a tiny ray of hope.
The young playwright Mac Rogers’s Universal Robots, now being presented by Gideon Productions at the Sheen Center, tackles the ominous implications of R.U.R. in an intriguing way, suitable to a generation weaned on magical realism and thoroughly briefed on the potential encroachments of a.i. Roughly following the narrative arc of Capek’s play, Rogers’s recension mixes some of the original’s human characters with reworked versions of Capek himself and other figures from his life, weaving the historical events of their era into the plot and turning Capek’s fantasy future into an unnerving alternative past.
As Rogers tells it, convivial Capek (Jorge Cordova) and his shy, serious-minded sister, Jo (a heartfelt performance by Hanna Cheek), are among the happy bohemians who gather at a literary café on Friday nights. Because the Capek siblings have written a play that imagines a genetically engineered race of drudges to rescue mankind from humdrum tasks, one Friday night, their circle gets an unexpected visitor who’s seen the show: Helena (Brittany Williams) wants their help in promoting an invention by her mother, a widowed scientist named Rossum (Tandy Cronyn, radiating droll crankiness), who’s in the process of inventing automata that will do precisely what Capek has been daydreaming about.
Since Rossum needs funding to perfect her automata, Karel, impressed, arranges a meeting with Masaryk (Sara Thigpen), president of the newly hatched republic of Czechoslovakia. (The historical Tomas Masaryk, an important moral force among Europe’s statesmen, was in fact close friends with Capek, who published a volume of their conversations.) Rogers’s Masaryk buys into the deal, Jo Capek coins the name “robot,” and soon we learn that offstage assembly lines have made little Czechoslovakia into an economic miracle, exporting human simulacra to do the world’s dirty work.
But as in the real world, prosperous little Czechoslovakia has big, scary neighbors, the scariest of all being Nazi Germany, getting ready to invade its largely German-settled western region, the Sudetenland. Defensively, Rogers’s Masaryk makes a fatal decision that the real Masaryk would probably have refused. It’s hard to describe without spoiling the play’s most startling set of surprises, but sci-fans who know Isaac Asimov’s classic story collection I, Robot (1950) will understand when I say that Masaryk authorizes programming that will allow robot soldiers to circumvent the First Law of Robotics. That choice, we learn, has epically lethal consequences, paving the way for the violent upheaval with which Rogers’s play, like R.U.R., arrives at its wipeout climax.
Where the final ray of hope in R.U.R. seems simplistic, Rogers adds several ingenious twists to it, as well as an epilogue that endows the ending smartly with a larger moral perspective. Rossum’s efforts to make her robots as human-seeming as possible turns the piece into a parable not only on the conflict between human science and its inventions but on the nature of humanity itself: Unable to control our own extreme impulses, how can we possibly teach our creations to control theirs?
The implied moral is particularly apt to Rogers’s historical sources: The real-life Capek, a deeply reflective humanist with a passionate concern for spiritual values, used both his fantasies and his political writings to grapple with exactly the kind of moral dilemma that Rogers’s ending invites us to ponder. Capek, like his friend Masaryk, was a prime embodiment of the distinctive Central European sensibility that resists all forms of regimentation and extremism, left or right.
For over a century, Prague, the small capital of what is today an even smaller country, has been the literary locus of that uneasy position. Czech writers have cultivated an ironic acceptance of tragedy. They see that humanity, in any situation, will most probably make the worst possible choice, but that they themselves can do little about it beyond pointing out the fact and greeting misfortune, when it strikes, with a shrug and a rueful smile. Reading Capek, it’s easy to imagine him inhabiting the same Prague as Franz Kafka or the hero of Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Schweik — and to see his influence on such later masters of Czech ironized idealism as Ivan Klima, Milan Kundera, Josef Skvorecky, and the playwright-politician Vaclav Havel.
It would be gross exaggeration to claim that Rogers and the raffish troupe that Gideon Productions has assembled for Universal Robots can rank with these august names, but the event has the advantages that come with and justify Off-Off theatergoing. The slapdash imprecision of Jordana Williams’s production would probably have delighted the Capeks; its elaborate but clearly makeshift set, by Sandy Yaklin, prods audience imagination rather than stifling it. The lack of polish, and sometimes of subtlety, in Rogers’s writing never diminishes its seriousness of purpose: The script is philosophic without being pompous.
And in addition to strong performances like Cronyn’s and Cheek’s, there’s a fearsomely forceful one, by Jason Howard in the pivotal role of the robot Radius, of a quality that would make any production a major one. When he turns on his human masters with the cry “You do unessential things!” the moment kicks Universal Robots up to that higher level Capek’s writing aimed for, where the free play of fantasy makes us question our predetermined sense of reality, revealing our own lives as the subject of an escapist trip to elsewhere.
By Mac Rogers
The Sheen Center
18 Bleecker Street