Capek, Karel

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Čapek, Karel

Čapek, Karel (käˈrĕl) (chäˈpĕk) 1890–1938, Czech playwright, novelist, and essayist. He is best known as the author of two brilliant satirical plays—R. U. R. (Rossum's Universal Robots, 1921, tr. 1923), which introduced the word robot into the English language, and The Insect Play, written with his brother Josef (1921, tr., 1923). These plays embody Čapek's criticism of technological and materialistic excesses. Of his other plays The Makropoulos Secret (1923, tr. 1925) satirizes the human search for immortality and yearning for titanistic greatness. Janáček used it as the basis for his opera The Makropoulos Affair (1925). Čapek's Power and Glory (1937, tr. 1938), condemns totalitarianism and war. He also wrote travel sketches, romances (e.g., Krakatit, 1924, tr. 1925), essays, and short stories. His three volumes of conversations with Thomas G. Masaryk (1928–35, tr. 1934, 1938) form a political biography. Čapek's three philosophical novels, Hordubal (1934, tr. 1934), Meteor (1934, tr. 1935), and An Ordinary Life (1935, tr. 1936) are profound and even mystical in tone. Distinct from his other works, they constitute Čapek's masterpiece.


See biography by I. Klima (2002); studies by W. E. Harkins (1962) and B. R. Bradbrook (1998).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Čapek, Karel


Born Jan. 9, 1890, in Malé Svatoňovice; died Dec. 25, 1938, in Prague. Czech writer.

Čapek graduated from the faculty of philosophy of Charles University in 1915. He was first published in 1907. Most of his early stories, dating from the years 1908 to 1913 and later included in the collections The Garden of Krakonos (1918) and The Luminous Depths (1916), were written with his brother Josef Čapek.

The tragic events of World War I caused Čapek to undertake an intense search for the criterion of truth, to meditate on philosophical problems, and to seek the source of life’s contradictions—as evidenced in the short-story collections Crucifixion (1917) and Money and Other Stories (1921). In such works Čapek came close to expressionism. At the same time, however, he came under the influence of pragmatism and relativism; specifically, he was influenced by the notion of a multiplicity of truths, or the idea that “everyone is right in his own way.” Rejecting revolutionary struggle, Čapek tended toward moral and ethical humanism. Many of his works, including the poetic comedy The Robber (1920), are based on the juxtaposition of several “truths.” Čapek conceives, as it were, of various alternatives simultaneously, but without relinquishing his own ethical ideal.

Čapek achieved world fame through his socially oriented works of science fiction, as represented by the play R. U. R. (1920) about a robots’ rebellion (the word “robot” was coined by Čapek), the play The Macropoulos Secret (1922), and the novels The Absolute at Large (1922) and Krakatit (1924; English translation under the title An Atomic Phantasy, 1948). On the assumption that a discovery or invention can rapidly alter mankind’s living conditions, Čapek’s science fiction constructs a kind of imaginary sociophilosophical experiment, creating an artificial situation in which certain philosophical problems and modern trends are made particularly evident.

Much of Čapek’s work is critical of inhumanity, militarism, and the church; nevertheless, the elemental nature of bourgeois socioeconomic processes is presented by him in absolute terms as a common feature of human development. Čapek’s plays and novels are ironic and satirical utopias, warning against the danger of dehumanizing trends and the catastrophic potential inherent in contemporary social and international conflicts. His writings, while tending toward realism, occasionally show evidence of preconceived philosophical ideas.

Čapek’s travel sketches of the early 1920’s, such as Letters from Italy (1923) and Letters from England (1924), are outstanding for their realistically picturesque characterizations and poetic humor.

In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, Čapek was close to T. G. Masaryk; the writer’s bourgeois democratic illusions gained in strength, the marks of crisis grew more pronounced in his work—for example, in the play Adam the Creator (1927), which he wrote with his brother. Withdrawing temporarily from large-scale social and political problems and conflicts, Čapek now concentrated on writing short humorous works, such as those collected in Tales From Two Pockets (1929). His Apocrypha (1932) is a collection of humorously philosophical reinterpretations of familiar stories from the Bible.

The intensification of social conflicts and the “brute doctrine” of fascism revealed to Čapek the unfoundedness of the idea that “everyone is right in his own way.” His philosophical victory over relativism is reflected in his trilogy—Hordubal (1933), Meteor (1934), and An Ordinary Life (1934). Faced with the renewed threat of war, Čapek turned toward active antifascism and voiced his criticism of Czechoslovakia’s ruling circles. He openly expressed his sympathies toward the USSR.

Čapek’s highest achievement was the novel The War With the Newts (1936), in which his traditional protest against the dehumanization of human relationships is channeled into a satire against bourgeois society, against militarism, and against the racist theories and policies of fascism. The novel combines the characteristic mystifications of science fiction and the genres of the animal parable, fictional social utopia, and political pamphlet. Čapek’s antifascism and antimilitarism and his search for the ideal “whole man,” capable of struggle, shaped the content of the play Power and Glory (1937), of the novel The First Rescue Party (1937), and of his last play, Mother (1938).

The suffering that Čapek experienced as a result of the Munich Pact of 1938, along with his persecution at the hands of fascist and profascist elements during the “second republic,” aggravated the writer’s ill health and hastened his death. Čapek’s work has been an important influence in modern social science fiction and represents a notable contribution to classic world literature. There are two Čapek museums in Czechoslovakia—the suburban Čapek house Na Strži and the memorial museum at the writer’s birthplace.


Spisy br. Čapků, vols. 1–51. Prague, 1928–49.
Dílo br. Čapků, vols. 1–26. Prague, 1954–71.
Výbor z díla K. Čapka, vols. 1–10. Prague, 1972–74.
In Russian translation:
Sobr. soch., vols. 1–7. [Introduction by B. L. Suchkov.] Moscow, 1974–77.
Soch., vols. 1–5. [Introduction by S. V. Nikol’skii.] Moscow, 1958–59.
lzbr. Moscow, 1950.
Ob iskusstve. Leningrad, 1969.


Shevchuk, V. I. Karel Chapek: Antyfashysts’ki ivory. Kiev, 1958.
Malevich, O. Karel Chapek: Kritiko-biograficheskii ocherk. Moscow, 1968.
Nikol’skii, S. V. Roman K. Chapeka “Voina s salamandrami.” Moscow, 1968.
Nikol’skii, S. V. Karel Chapek—fantast i satirik. Moscow, 1973.
Bernshtein, I. A. K. Chapek: Tvorcheskii put’. Moscow, 1969.
Volkov, A. R. Dramaturhiia K. Chapeka. Lvov, 1972.
Suchkov, B. “Karel Chapek: Opyt sovremennogo prochteniia.” Znamia, 1974, nos. 6–7.
Mukařovský, J. Kapitoly z české poetiky, vol. 2. Prague, 1948. Pages 325–400.
Harkins, W. E. Karel Čapek. New York-London, 1962.
Janaszek-Jwaničková, H. Karol Čapek czyli dramat humanisty. Warsaw, 1962.
Matuška, A. Človek proti zkáze: Pokus o Karla Čapka. Prague, 1963.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.