“R.U.R. – Rossum’s Universal Robots” has been one of the most relevant texts in science fiction, a classic so to say. It influenced books (many of Asimov ones), films (“Metropolis”, or the most recent “Ex Machina”), and TV series (the HBO contemporary series, a version of the 1973 long feature “Westworld”). Unfortunately, its relevance has been forgotten, at least in Portugal. The author, Karel Čapek (1890 – 1938, Czech Republic) has wrote extensively on science fiction themes, predicting nuclear weapons and its menace before they were a real threat (novel “Krakatit”, 1922), approaching the exploitation and slavery by the humans of an intelligent breed of “newts”/salamanders (novel “War with the Newts”, 1936), and even themes of extending the human life span (play “The Makropolous Affair”, 1922), or the control by the “power” in place of an incurable disease that selectively kills people (play “The White Disease”, 1937).
There is no known registry of a professional company playing “R.U.R.” in Portugal up to now, Teatro Estúdio Fontenova will premiere the play on the 31st of October, at 21h30 in Fórum Municipal Luísa Todi. And, as a lover of theatre, arts, science fiction (and even the Czech Republic), this is a great achievement and challenge, in different ways.
Firstly, the text (although written in 1920), is extremely contemporary. It is good to mention by now that this was the first time in History that the word “robot” was used as we know it nowadays, “the automaton”, the electronic being with the capacity to replace us. From the old Czech, “robota”, it evokes the meaning of a “forced labourer”, but it also drinks from other Slavic languages simply meaning “work”. As the story goes, Karel had an idea for a short story that came from how he felt about “how modern living situations made people unconcerned about their normally accustomed living comforts”. Basically, the system made work and life evolve in such a way, that the routines made people look more like machines than humans. In a conversation with his brother (painter, designer and set designer), Josef Čapek came up with the idea to call these new people “robots”. From 1920 to now, the world evolved a lot… and probably Karel Čapek would be even more shocked with what he would see. Forced labourers still exist, in one way or another. Precarious workers in western societies, exploited workers in factories around the world, and even child work. And still, the rise of the robot started to be real, in a way that Čapek might have never imagined. Robots and technology as we know, are actually replacing human labour, and the question prevails, how will we survive?
So, this contemporary message of the text is political, economic, but obviously philosophical. In the play, the factory named Rossum’s Universal Robots is led by the General Director Harry Domin, who nowadays would be a modern CEO. At the beginning of the story, he receives the “daughter of the President Glory” (what he presides is never mentioned), Helena Glory, that comes to protect the robots from the conditions they are in, giving them the rights they should have, like salaries and work conditions. Helena, although full of will, is taken by the men that soon surround her, the Direction Board of R.U.R. At this point, still an introductory scene, the text has already given us some political ideas. We might relate to the times that were lived in 1920: the aftermath of a First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution, the fresh memory of the Industrial Revolution, and the Women’s Suffrage and fight for women’s rights at the end of the XIXth century, beginning of the XXth. At the same time, the play reflects the still sexist and even, racist, attitudes of the times. Helena is often diminished while talking, and references of other ethnicities as inferior as well.
After this introductory scene, the play goes on for more III Acts. Ten years pass, Helena marries Henry Domin, and it seems that somehow, with the evolution of the Robots and the will to make them more developed, the fear and presence of a Revolution has come to be a real possibility.
Dramaturgically and theatrically speaking, the play is also a reflection of what was common at the time of its making, being not only long (running it fully would be close to 3h), but it also involves a cast with a good number of actors (19, if each one would play only his role, not counting with all the extras that would be used in the Robot invasion – and yes, there will still be one).
Considering all of this, what choices to make when adapting this text to a contemporary theatre company. Text, budget and time and length: all things to consider and analyse. The first decision, not to alter the text, the text you will see on stage is the original one, but with some obvious cuts, so that the play would have not only a more considerate length, but also taking out some parts that might be already given by acting. As a modern-day theatre company, Teatro Estúdio Fontenova suffers from the same difficulties as any other, so the original 19 characters were summed up to 8 actors. We managed to only cut one character out, “morphing” him, or some of his cues, with another one. The Director, José Maria Dias, and these 8 fierce ones that evolve from humans to Robots in a glitch were amazed by the secularity of the text. Apart from this, the actor Fábio Nóbrega Vaz, that plays Alquist, highlighted how the text also manifests the stereotypes of each character: academia, labourer, businessmen, manager, etc. It is interesting to mention, at this point, that even the names of the characters have meaning in this play (“Domin from dominus for the general manager of Rossum’s (derived from the Czech word rozum: mind, intelligence, sense, reason), Alquist, head of the works department, from the Latin aliquis”). Ironically, he also identified ethically with his own character as the most humane one, the one that maintains his concern with society, even if his hands are tied to do anything. In a way, the actor João Jacinto refers, the text is also about the inevitability of the course of human evolution. In the end, he adds, the play does not give a moral conclusive point of view, taking sides with any human, or Robot. It’s a fact, that the human might commit mistakes, or even crimes, that one day might even lead to its extinction, we are already witnessing signs of it with climate change. However, he sums it up: “That’s the way the human being is: wild and immature. And what can we do? I don’t know, but if we do nothing it will not be a question of ‘if’ it might happen, but ‘when’.” But the team is also made of other elements, like the director of video and photography and technician, Leonardo Silva, underlines the social meaning of the text, in a world where corporations rule and there is a growth in the devaluation of human life. The “Robots” could also be us, the 1%, “the nobodies” as Eduardo Galeano calls them. In 1920 as today, we see the growth of strikes and struggles for human and work rights all over (ex. of Chile) in a world that has become unbearable for the life of the many to serve only profit.
Apart from this, what to bring anew? Two strong ideas came out. José Manuel Castanheira, renowned architect and set designer, proposed for the set the idea of a circus, it might seem farfetched, but the link goes to the world we have lived in and the “tricks” world leaders play to control the system. Every day we see it on the news, how political measures are taken into action in front of our eyes and treated as entertainment. So, colours will come alive, in the set and in the costumes (with the help of the talented Zé Nova).
The other idea, the creation of a choir, with the composition of original music to the play. Almost epically, the Robot invasion will not only acted, but sung by more than 20 participants. And here, the link to Czech Republic remains, the Czech Markéta Chumová (singer and conductor) has been rehearsing and leading these brave ones, in songs composed by André Mota.
At the end of this already long article, we give you a treat. We do not
only invite you to come and see our show playing from the 31st of
October, until the 3rd of November at Fórum Municipal Luísa Todi, but we inform you that
the book will also be published in Portuguese by não edições, in a translation from Czech and English, for the first time since 1965
(where it was compiled with other texts of science fiction). The publication
will be presented on the 1st of November, at 17h00 in Casa da
Cultura – Sala José Afonso, in a panel with the editor, João Concha; Manuel
Araújo, architect and art critic; Alexandre Bernardino, professor of systems
and robotics at the Technical Superior Institute; Tiago Lapa, professor at the
School of Sociology and Public Policies (ISCTE – IUL), and João Santos, PhD
student at the Institute of Contemporary History moderating the debate.
 Margolius, Ivan. “The Robots of Prague” in “The Friends of Czech Heritage Newsletter Issue 17 – Autumn 2017”, p. 4 https://czechfriends.net/images/RobotsMargoliusJul2017.pdf
By Patrícia Paixão – Teatro Estúdio Fontenova Producer