Archive | April 16, 2010

R.U.R. or R.U.Rn’t My Robot?

K.u.K. postage stamp

I very much doubt that I’m the first person to have thought of this, but I haven’t found it mentioned anywhere else, so I’ll put forward my conjecture: might the title for Karel Čapek’s most famous (though certainly not best) work, R.U.R., have been inspired by the formerly all-pervasive (see, e.g., the abbreviation on the postage stamp at right) K.u.K., official symbol of the Austro-Hungarian Empire? (“K.u.K.” stood for “Kaiserlich und Königlich,” or “Imperial and Royal,” signifying that the Habsburg monarch was both Emperor (Kaiser) of Austria and King (König) of Hungary.)

As you can see, it takes only minor editing to transform “K.u.K.” into “R.U.R.”:

K.u.K. into R.U.R.

If this was indeed Čapek’s inspiration, he would hardly be the only author in 1920s Czechoslovakia to be slamming the Austrian rule from which his country had just emerged; anarchist Jaroslav Hašek’s scathing satire The Good Soldier Švejk would be the most obvious example, though Franz Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle have likewise been interpreted as being in part (no one thinks this is the works’ sole meaning) a critique of quondam Austrian rule.

Could R.U.R., the firm that casually treats the “robots” (the term comes from a Czech word originally meaning “serf labour”) as a lower order that can be put to work, especially war work (as one character says: “It was criminal of old Europe to teach the robots to fight. … Couldn’t they have given us a rest with their politics? It was a crime to make soldiers of them”), be meant to symbolise, in part, the K.u.K. monarchy that casually treated the Czechs as a lower order that could be conscripted into a world war in which they had no stake? (Of course Čapek’s satire, like Kafka’s, tends to operate at multiple levels simultaneously, so his robots can still stand, in addition, for out-of-control technology, social dehumanisation, the oppressed proletariat, etc., etc.)

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