Robot Dawn: The Stage Origins of a Sci-Fi Idol
Nothing is more strange to man than his own image. —Dr. Alquist, sole survivor of the robot rebellion.
It's standard sci-fi melodrama now: The robots evolve and become indistinguishable from their creators. They rise up and in their revolt decide to eradicate the human race. Sound familiar? Well, before you start looking for Arnold Schwarzenegger, it's not 1984 and we're not in a movie theatre. The year is 1922 and it's all happening live on stage in an Off-Broadway theatre on 35th Street.
90 years ago today, the Theatre Guild's bold new stage production R.U.R. was unveiled at the Garrick Theatre. R.U.R., written by Czech playwright Karel Čapek, is one of the earliest science fiction stage plays and introduced the word robot to the English language*. Soon after the show opened, 'robot' would forever replace 'automaton' in common usage to mean a man-made artificial being. The 1922 production also marked the stage debut of Spencer Tracy (he and buddy Pat O'Brien were struggling actors in New York City when they got parts as non-speaking robots).
Interestingly, the robots of Čapek's conception aren't the tin clunkers of B movie fame, but are made of organic flesh and bone; Their body parts are synthetically grown, cultured, and assembled Ford Motor-style. These creatures resemble more the genetically-engineered clones of today or the replicants from Blade Runner, or even those impossible to detect Cylons of the recent Battlestar Galactica series. The play deals with the revolt of mass-produced worker robots against an oppressive corporation, R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots).
The play was written in 1920 and has been translated and performed all over the world to this day. It is notable for its critique of modern civilization and the Pandora's box of applied science. It is a dark Dystopian tale of rebellion where robots (spoiler alert!), reaching for a sense of individualism, rise up and kill their masters, only to fall into the same human dilemmas of creating a civilization. Lee Strasberg's revival in 1942 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre was more politically grounded. It interpreted R.U.R in terms of president Roosevelt's promotion of a new United Nations against the forces of Nazi tyranny:
We exult in the thought that it is the young, free men and women of the United Nations, and not the wound-up robots of the slave states, who will mold the shape of the new world.
Even today R.U.R.'s mordant themes remain great fodder for playwrights and screenwriters alike: genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, the uncanny valley between machines and human likeness, self-identity, free will, and a whole range of speculative scenarios involving sentient machines. I personally can't wait to see Cloud Atlas.
Happy birthday robot!
*A note on the historical usage of 'robot' for our logophiles and wordsmiths: Although 'robot' in the sense of an artificial human-like being was introduced into the lexicon in 1920 with the publication of R.U.R., the word had already existed in a different context in the 19th century. Robot also referred to the European system of serfdom, where tenants paid rent with service or forced labor.