Prepare for rebellious automatons, a 300-year-old opera singer, and a pack of newts taking a page from Ira Glass. These and other inventions will unfold locally this fall courtesy of the Czech writer Karel Capek (1890-1938), with help from other artists.
Capek is the focus of the Mutual Inspirations Festival 2015, led by the Embassy of the Czech Republic and offering films, theater pieces, lectures, art exhibits, and — for children — a Lego Robotics Workshop. Now in its sixth year, the festival pays tribute to an influential Czech figure, such as Antonin Dvorak (2011), Vaclav Havel (2013) or Franz Kafka (2014).
Capek is best known for coining the word “robot” in his play “R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots),” first produced in 1921. Capek wrote scripts, novels, stories and essays that explored philosophical ideas and social issues. Some of his works warned of the threat posed by Nazism. His 1922 play “The Makropulos Case” — a fantasy that touches on the ramifications of artificially prolonging human life — became the basis for an opera by Leos Janacek.
“He was not only very prophetic but also a very deep thinker” and a “fighter for democracy,” says Robert Rehak, cultural attache at the Czech Embassy. Capek predicted not only the dangers of Nazism but “also the danger of communism, which was not so usual in his day. Many writers were very enthusiastic about communism” at the time.
Capek’s treatment of scientific themes may be particularly timely today. Almost a century before rogue drones — before it became possible to wirelessly hijack a Jeep — Capek had cottoned on to the downside of technological progress. “R.U.R.” imagines the dramatic aftermath of a laboratory coup. Two inventors have discovered how to manufacture intelligent working machines: robots. Soon monetized by a corporation, the breakthrough promises to bring about a drudgery-free utopia — or does it? Would a work-free life even be utopian? As the human birthrate plummets, A.I.-enhanced war becomes crueler, the robots themselves seem to develop autonomy, and the fate of the planet hangs in the balance.
“R.U.R.” and other Capek works point out that unchecked technological hubris could result in the destruction of humanity, Rehak observes. Given that we all increasingly depend on smartphone apps and other technological conveniences, “it is again a message that is speaking to people,” he says.
“R.U.R.” is “a very prescient piece,” agrees writer and director Susan Galbraith, who has collaborated with local composer Maurice Saylor on “R.U.R.: A Retro-Futuristic Musical,” the latest project of the Alliance for New Music-Theatre, which Galbraith heads. The show will appear in a reading-with-music form, first on Monday at the Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival and then at the Czech Embassy on Thursday. Galbraith says Capek’s play was tempting source material for her company because of the possibility of creating contrasting sonic language for the robot and human characters. (A full production of the musical is planned for 2016.)
Meanwhile, local theater visionary and Georgetown University associate professor Natsu Onoda Power has been working on a stage adaptation of Capek’s 1936 satirical novel “War with the Newts,” in which human characters train a species of salamander to serve as cheap labor. Onoda Power and a group of Georgetown students will unveil a sneak peek at the show at the Czech Embassy on Oct. 8, before a world-premiere run at Georgetown in November.
“War with the Newts” is “really biting parody,” says Onoda Power, noting that, while the original novel responded to the dark political clouds gathering over Europe in the 1930s, the story also speaks to recent American concerns about racial injustice, wage inequity and abuses of migrant labor.
Onoda Power, who is adapting and directing, has decided to tell the story from the newt perspective, with a flavor of reportage. A live “This American Life” episode staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014 will be a model. “Journalism turned into a stage production — hosted by a newt,” she explains.
Other highlights of the Mutual Inspirations Festival (which launched on Thursday) include the Czech movie “Krakatit,” adapted from Capek’s 1924 speculative novel about a terrible scientific discovery; a lecture on Capek’s spiritual and philosophical legacy by Templeton Prize winner Tomas Halik; a concert of arranged selections from Janacek’s “The Makropulos Case” featuring pianist Karolina Syrovatkova; and exhibits about both Karel Capek and his brother, Josef Capek, a painter and writer who died in a concentration camp during World War II.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Mutual Inspirations Festival 2015: Karel Capek Through Nov. 21 at various locations. Many events are free. Visit www.mutualinspirations.org.