What exactly is a robot?
Is it, specifically, a machine? Or is it, simply, characterized by being “artificial” or “non-living?” Can a robot be programmed to have feelings, and, if so, do humans become irrelevant?
All these, and more, are questions that Gamut Theatre Group explores in its upcoming production of “R.U.R.” by Karel Capek. R.U.R. stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots, the company the drives the entire story. While Capek’s story is best known for introducing the word “robot” to science fiction, the robots in Capek’s story are more similar to what we know as androids. That is, they look and act like humans and can speak and communicate with humans.
While Capek may have introduced the word into science fiction proper, robots of varying types had already existed. In fact, the word “robot” is nothing all that unique. It derives from the Czech word “robota,” which means “forced labor,” and is further derived from “rab,” meaning “slave.” The etymology of the word is incredibly important when considering the issues Capek raises in his play.
“R.U.R.” was written in 1920, but takes place starting in 1932 and seems closer to present day in its exploration of technology. It is about a company on an island that makes humanoid robots programmed to perform a specific task, by the thousands, and ships them out all over the world. One day, a woman named Helena (Michelle Kay Smith) comes to the island with idealistic visions of freeing what she views as enslaved robots, only to find out the robots lack a soul. Over time, Helena convinces scientists to program feelings into the robots. However, once the robots understand their position as slaves, they begin to rebel, and the resulting events put all of humanity at risk.
Gamut’s Associate Artistic Director Thomas Weaver, who also acts in the show, said that the play reminds him of the classic horror story, “Frankenstein.”
“There is a strong parallel in that, just because you are able to do something, does not mean you should do it, and then once you do it, you now have a responsibility to own what you did,” he said. “I think the moment when the scientists realize that the robots are a threat to their existence, what they feel is very similar to how I think Victor Frankenstein felt the moment his creature opened its eyes.”
In both stories, the creators face consequences brought about by having not taught their creations how to navigate their new, human-like feelings.
“For the robots, they now can do more than tasks like putting together a car,” Weaver said. “They now need a kind of parent.”
These issues have been addressed repeatedly in sci-fi. Where does the line get drawn between being a robot and being a human? What, really, separates us, once robots are sentient, and is it wrong to continue to oppress them when this happens?
Weaver said that he suspects that Capek and other science fiction writers of this era were “writing about a reality, but the only way they could write about it is to make it this fantastical story… and ‘R.U.R.’ was the safest way that he could make that statement.”
This oppression has many historical precedents, including in American slavery, which had only been abolished for 55 years. It would have provided a frame of reference to what happens when those in control deprive human beings of what makes them human and attempt to turn them into machines to do their work. The parallels exist in Rossum’s ideology behind the robots when he suggests that, if we make robots do all of our farming, humans will have more time to better themselves.
Even more prominent in Capek’s everyday life would have been the eugenics movement, which was in full force in Europe by 1920. The idea that one race—or a set of characteristics—made someone more “human” than another was the cornerstone, of course, of what was only a decade away: Nazi Germany and World War II. Primo Levi, a Holocaust survivor, has famously stated that concentration camps were a “great machine to reduce us to beast, and we must not become beasts.”
All of these connections can be made and should be taken as a warning, Weaver said.
“It’s interesting because the story was written in 1920, but it was written in the future so it’s actually a 1920s idea of what the ’40s would be like, and then what today would be like,” he said. “When you experience that now, it’s like a warning about what is happening around you, from people who saw it coming.”
This is why a story that raises such questions lives on—the issues are still relevant. “R.U.R.” may be exploring robots on the surface, but deeper, there is contemplation over what it means to be human and the potential problems that arise when humanity is repressed. Does Capek offer a solution or even hope? Yes, but you must see the show to find out what that hope is.
“R.U.R.” runs Feb. 11 to 26 at Gamut Theatre, 15 N. 4th St., Harrisburg. For more information, call 717-238-4111 or visit www.gamuttheatre.org.
Upcoming Theater Events
“R.U.R. Rossum’s Universal Robots”
By Karel Capek
Feb. 11 to 26
Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.
Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
Doors and bar open one hour prior to the performance.
Tickets are $30 on Fridays and Saturdays.
Bring your own price on Sundays, where any size donation buys your admission