Study Questions for Karel Capek's R.U.R.[1921]

Capek's play is notable for introducing the world to the word "robot," despite the fact that his artificial beings are not mechanical but organic. Masri explains that the Czech word "robota" means "worker," but that is a bit of a simplification of the etymology of the term. "Robota" comes from a Proto-Slavic term, "orbota," which derives from the stem, "orb," meaning forced worker or slave. It's origin is in a feudal period and referenced serfs, who were indeed workers, but in reality indentured servants or slaves to their lords. In addition to introducing the word "robot," Capek's play addresses fundamental issues that later become central to the genre of science fiction: the god complex, tensions between utopian dreams and dystopias, whether an artificial being can have a soul, etc. The later issue, for example, is a central theme in Anthony Boucher's Hugo winning story, "The Quest for St. Aquin" [1951], Isaac Asimov's robot stories and novels, and Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?[1968], as well as in Blade Runner [1985]. Here are a few issues to consider as you review the play:

  1. Capek raises notions of paradise and a return to the garden of Eden. What role does Helena Glory play relative to that thematic concern? How would you characterize her and how is she significant to the plot? What gender stereotypes govern Capek's depiction of Helena?
  2. While the term, dystopia, really doesn't exist until the early 1950s--after the publication of George Orwell's 1984 [1949] and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World [1931]--it certainly is relevant to Capek's play. What are the forces that result in the undermining of utopian desire in the play, resulting in a dystopian society?
  3. Mr. Alquist, the architect/builder, seems to have a different perspective than the other managers at the factory. Does he in some ways function as a voice of reason--perhaps as the voice of the playwright? How would you summarize his positions, especially near the end of the play?