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)
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.
Photography of the Czech author Karel Čapek.
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.