Authors: Karel Čapek

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Czech novelist, journalist, and playwright.

January 9, 1890

Malé Svatoňovice, Austria-Hungary (now Malé Svatoňovice, Czech Republic)

December 25, 1938

Prague, Czechoslovakia (now Prague, Czech Republic)

Biography

Karel Čapek, a Czechoslovakian author and playwright, was born in 1890 in Malé Svatoňovice, Bohemia, then still part of Austro-Hungary. In a sense Čapek rose and fell with his country, for his death in Prague on December 25, 1938, fell during the brief existence of the Second Czechoslovak Republic—the result of Czechoslovakia ceding parts of its territory to Germany and Hungary—not long before its dissolution by Nazi Germany in March 1939. His last play, Matka (1938; The Mother, 1939), was anti-dictatorship and pro-pacifism.

Although they were sons of a doctor, Karel and his brother Josef followed their own inclinations; the latter came to be known primarily as a painter but was also his brother’s able occasional collaborator. With R.U.R. (1920; R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots, 1923), Karel Čapek amazed the world and gave his country its most famous play—and left a lasting neologism, "robot," in the world’s vocabulary. Expressionistic in technique, this brilliant play suggests that Rossum’s robots will replace humankind unless humanity rather than mechanization prevails. Čapek’s other plays, including those written in collaboration with his brother, also attacked modern trends and evils, but none measured up to the success of R.U.R.

Photography of the Czech author Karel Čapek.

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See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The other text for which Čapek is widely known is his novel Válka s mloky (1936; The War with the Newts, 1937), an allegorical satire. In the novel, humanity discovers a race of intelligent newts, which it seeks to use as organic robots. In actuality, people bring about and aid in their own destruction by the newts, as the latter cause the continents of the earth to sink, thus giving them more room to expand their population. The message, as in R.U.R., is that humanity must carefully watch itself and its actions or it will bring about its own destruction. Čapek was a lifelong supporter of fiction that would reflect the world in which it was written. At a time when Europe was being undermined from within, Čapek’s novel was a plea for action before it was too late.

Among Čapek’s other writings are novels and several very good collections of short stories as well as witty and interesting journalism, collected in such volumes as Italské listy (1923; Letters from Italy, 1929). He will be remembered chiefly, however, for his experimental plays, which tried to convey a feeling of impending doom. Even when disguised, as in Ze života hmyzu (1921; The Insect Play, 1923), Čapek’s view was that humankind’s greed and rapaciousness will bring on the annihilation of the species.

Author Works Drama: Lásky hra osudná, wr. 1910, pb. 1916, pr. 1930 (with Josef Čapek) Loupežník, pr., pb. 1920 (The Robber: A Comedy in Three Acts, 1931) R.U.R., pb. 1920, pr. 1921 (R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots, 1923) Ze života hmyzu, pb. 1921, pr. 1922 (with Josef Čapek; The Insect Play, 1923; also known as And So ad Infinitum (The Life of the Insects): An Entomological Review in Three Acts, 1923) Věc Makropulos, pr., pb. 1920 (The Makropoulos Secret, 1925) Adam Stvořitel, pr., pb. 1927 (with Josef Čapek; Adam the Creator, 1929) Bílá nemoc, pr., pb. 1937 (Power and Glory: A Drama in Three Acts, 1938; also known as The White Plague, 1988) Matka, pr., pb. 1938 (The Mother: A Play in Three Acts, 1939) Long Fiction: Továrna na absolutno, 1922 (The Absolute at Large, 1927) Krakatit, 1924 (English translation, 1925) Hordubal, 1933 (English translation, 1934) Povětroň, 1934 (Meteor, 1935) Obyčejný život, 1934 (An Ordinary Life, 1936) Válka s mloky, 1936 (The War with the Newts, 1937) První parta, 1937 (The First Rescue Party, 1939) Jak se co dělá, 1938 (How They Do It, 1945 Život a dílo skladatele Foltýna, 1939 (The Cheat, 1941) Short Fiction: Zářivé hlubiny, 1916 (with Josef Čapek; The Luminous Depths, 1916) Bozí muka, 1917 Krakonošova zahrada, 1918 (with Josef Čapek) Trapné povídky, 1921 (Money and Other Stories, 1929) Povídky z jedné kapsy and Povídky z druhé kapsy, 1929 (Tales from Two Pockets, 1932) Devatero pohádek, 1931 (Fairy Tales, 1933) Apokryfy, 1932, and Kniha apokryfů, 1945 (Apocryphal Stories, 1949) Bajky a podpovídky, 1946 Nonfiction: Pragmatismus čili filosofie praktického zivota, 1918 Kritika slov, 1920 Italské listy, 1923 (Letters from Italy, 1929) Anglické listy, 1924 (Letters from England, 1925) Jak vzniká divadelní hra a prvodce po zákulisí, 1925 (How a Play Is Produced, 1928) O nejbližších věcech, 1925 (Intimate Things, 1935) Skandální aféra Josefa Holouška, 1927 Hovory s T. G. Masarykem, 1928–35 (3 volumes; President Masaryk Tells His Story, 1934; also known as Masaryk on Thought and Life, 1938) Zahradníkův rok, 1929 (The Gardener’s Year, 1931) Minda čili ô chovu psů, 1930 (Minda; or, On Breeding Dogs, 1940) Výlet do Španěl, 1930 (Letters from Spain, 1931) Marsyas, 1931 (In Praise of Newspapers, and Other Essays on the Margin of Literature, 1951) Dášeňka čili život štěněte, 1932 (Dashenka; or, The Life of a Puppy, 1933) O věcech obecných čili Zóon politikon, 1932 Obrázky z Holandska, 1932 (Letters from Holland, 1933) Legenda o člověku zahradníkovi, 1935 Cesta na sever, 1936 (Travels in the North: Exemplified by the Author's Own Drawings, 1939) Měl jsem psa a kočku, 1939 (I Had a Dog and a Cat, 1940) Kalendár, 1940 O lidech, 1940 Sedm rozhlásků Karla Čapka, 1946 Ratolest a vavřín, 1947 Obrázky z domova, 1953 Veci kolem nás, 1954 Sloupkový ambit, 1957 Poznámky o tvorbě, 1959 Viktor Dyk, St. K. Neumann, bratři Čapkové: korespondence z let 1905–1918, 1962 Na břehu dnů, 1966 Místo pro Jonathana! Úvahy a glosy k otázkám veřejného života z let 1921–1937, 1970 Poetry: Vzrušené tance, 1946 Drobty pod stolem doby , 1975 Translation: Francouzská poesie nové doby, 1920 (of French poetry) Bibliography Bradbrook, Bohuslava R. Karel Čapek: In Pursuit of Truth, Tolerance, and Trust. Sussex Academic Press, 1998. A critical reevaluation of Čapek’s work. Discusses Čapek’s many intellectual interests, including his search for truth and his appreciation of science and technology. Includes a bibliography and an index. Bradbrook, Bohuslava R. “Karel Čapek’s Contribution to Czech National Literature.” Czechoslovakia Past and Present, edited by Miloslav Rechcigl Jr., vol. 2, Mouton, 1968, pp. 1002–11. Places Čapek high on the list of notable Czech authors, demonstrating how much his writing affected other literary production in the country as well as making a political impact. Remarks perceptively on Čapek’s inventiveness and on his ability to work in several genres. Doležel, Lubomír. Narrative Modes in Czech Literature. U of Toronto P, 1973. Advanced students should consult “Karel Čapek and Vladislav Vančura: An Essay in Comparative Stylistics.” Includes a bibliography. Harkins, William Edward. Karel Čapek. Columbia UP, 1962. A carefully researched and well-written critical biography of Čapek, still one of the best available full-length sources on the author. Klíma, Ivan. Karel Čapek: Life and Work. Translated by Norma Comrada, Catbird Press, 2002. A critical biography commissioned by an American publisher of Czech literature in English translation. Klima, a Czech novelist and authority on Čapek, analyzes Čapek’s work, relating its themes to events in the author’s life. Kussi, Peter, editor. Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Čapek Reader. Foreword by Arthur Miller, translated by Norma Comrada et al., Catbird Press, 1990. A collection of Čapek’s fiction, plays, and other work, with an introduction by the editor that provides an excellent brief overview of Čapek’s career. Includes a chronology and a helpful list of English translations of Čapek’s writings. Makin, Michael, and Jindřich Toman, editors. On Karel Čapek: A Michigan Slavic Colloquium. Michigan Slavic Publications, 1992. A collection of conference papers examining Čapek as a modern storyteller, his versions of dystopia, his early work, his short stories, and his reception in the United States. Mann, Erika. “A Last Conversation with Karel Čapek.” The Nation, 14 Jan. 1939, pp. 68–69. A brief account by Thomas Mann’s daughter of her last meeting with Čapek that comments on the pressures Čapek found building up all around him, causing him to undergo a physical decline that eventually led to his death. Mann senses and comments on Čapek’s sickness of the spirit that left him unwilling to continue living in the face of Adolf Hitler’s growing fanaticism and power. Matuška, Alexander. Karel Čapek, an Essay. Translated by Cathryn Alan, Artia, 1964. An excellent account of Čapek’s artistry. Discusses how he develops his themes, shapes his characterization, fashions his plots, and handles the details that underlie the structure of his work. This book remains a valuable resource. Pynsent, Robert B., editor. Karel Matěj Čapek-Chod: Proceedings of a Symposium Held at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, 18–20 September 1984. The School, 1985. A collection of papers presented at a symposium on Čapek at the University of London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies. Index. Schubert, Peter Zdeněk. The Narratives of Čapek and Čexov: A Typological Comparison of the Authors’ World Views. International Scholars Publications, 1997. A somewhat difficult work for beginning students that nevertheless proves valuable for its discussion of the themes of freedom, lack of communication, justice, and truth. Includes a separate section discussing the critical views of Čapek. The comprehensive bibliography alone makes this a volume well worth consulting. Wellek, René. Essays on Czech Literature. Mouton, 1963. Includes an essay on Čapek originally published in 1936, one of the most searching pieces written about the author during his lifetime. Wellek comments on Čapek’s relative youth and considers him at the height of his powers. When these words were written, Čapek had less than three years to live.

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