Today in the Wall Street Journal, theater critic Terry Teachout has a very positive review of Czech playwrite Karel Capek’s 1921 play R.U.R. , which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots and is the source of our word “Robot”, a word that would describe someone who slaves away at drudge. The play is currently being performed by Chicago-based Strawdog Theater Company.
I enjoyed Teachout’s interesting review because, while many of the books on robots I’ve read recently have mentioned this play as the source for our word “robot”, all but one has without discussed the play itse
In its day, Capek’s R.U.R was quite popular and influential and was performed all over the world and translated into many languages. In the book Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots, a social history of robots in Japan, author Timothy N. Hornyak discusses in great length the impact on Japanese society of this play when it was performed there in the 1920s, and he contrasts the very different Japanese response to the concept of robots with that of Europe’s and the western world. And he argues that this difference forms at least some of the basis for Japan’s different approach to and welcoming acceptance of robots in their culture.
Teachout, in his review, follows the western reaction, out of which grew our notion of robots learning to think and feel for themselves and growing out of control, such as HAL in 2001: A Space Oddysey, or the robots in the movie Blade Runner.
“R.U.R.” is a tale of modernity run amok, the story of Rossum’s Universal Robots, an island factory that manufactures lifelike but soulless artificial humans in vast quantities, then ships them all over Europe to grateful purchasers who use them to do their dirty work. This being science fiction, things inevitably go wrong: Dr. Gall (John Henry Roberts), one of the white-coated scientists in the employ of Rossum’s Universal Robots, makes the fatal mistake of building a few hundred robots that can feel emotions, upon which all hell breaks well and truly loose.
Hornyak writes about how the Japanese responded quite differently. The first Japanese robot was built, not built by engineers, but by a noted biologist and newspaperman, Makoto Nisimura. the first Japanese robot resembled a large golden, which was named Gakutensoku, meaning “learning from natural law” Buddha that would write Chinese characters. Rejecting the concept of the mechanical man performing drudgery…
Gakutensoku‘s job, however, was simply to be. It did not represent a new class of synthetic slave workers like Rossum’s robots. Like a giant … doll, Nishimura’s robot was created in the image of man, for the pleasure of man, … as “an attempt to set aesthetic robots free from being slaves to industry.” (Loving the Machine, p. 37)