Karel Capek's R.U.R & The Robber: A collage by Voyen Koreis, made mainly from the lithographs of Josef Capek





THE ROBBER  of Karel Čapek

From the Introduction and Translation Notes to the new English translation of the two plays by Čapek - R.U.R (Rossum's Universal Robots) and The Robber, translated by Voyen Koreis and issued in 2008 by Booksplendour Publishing)

The Robber is a comedy, or so the author says. In fact it moves between romantic comedy and tragedy, with a pinch of melodrama and even farce thrown in here and there. On top of all this, some passages are in verse.  The play’s development probably has a great deal to do with this. Čapek began to work on it as early as 1911, when he was only twenty one. It went through several metamorphoses, which were all cast away by the author as unsatisfactory. Čapek returned to the theme again by the time he was nearing thirty. The Czech word used in the title is “Loupežník”, which literally translates as robber, brigand, bandit, outlaw, or similar. The real meaning though could be more like “untamable or indomitable man”, or perhaps even “a young man in a hurry”. The translation in the book closely follows the original, except for short passages in which the birds of the forest communicate and offer insight to the play’s characters. Though highly poetical, they are far too reliant on the sound of the Czech language, and had to be left out in the English translation, as they would lose much of their charm. Some cuts were also made in the Second Act love scene, which many more recent productions have also done.

The Robber gives the audience a distinct impression of being a lament over the exuberance of youth that is rapidly disappearing, if not gone altogether. In the note he wrote for the first night programme, Čapek says something to the effect that had he postponed completing the play any longer, it would have had to be called The Professor, instead of The Robber. The former is a rather tragic figure of an elderly man, who in the course of 24 hours has taken away from him everything he believes to have gained in his life, including his daughter, his wife, even his house. The robber, who imposes himself on the professor’s life in such intrusive manner, is a young man, who simply wonders in from the forest. A confrontation of the spontaneously acting, but thoroughly arrogant and irresponsible youth, with the conservative attitudes and set principles of the elderly academic, soon develops. It reaches its climax when the robber locks himself inside the house with the professor’s younger daughter, who became hopelessly infatuated with the youthful hero. In the farcical scenes that follow, the professor calls for help from the local villagers and dignitaries, some of whom would rather side with the young outlaw, as it turns out. To every character in the play, the robber resembles some kind of a hero they have worshipped in their youth, but in the end the protagonist himself is forced into a somewhat ignoble exit, making only a hollow sounding promise that he will be back.

Though certainly far less successful internationally, the play has proven a big hit with the audiences on the domestic scene. Even in the 21st century, nearly a hundred years after Čapek had begun to work on the first version, a year would hardly roll by without at least one important Czech company coming up with a new production. Čapek himself thought of The Robber as his only “true Czech” play, and apparently he valued it more than his other, technically perhaps more advanced, and on the world stage certainly much more successful plays. He was naturally present at the first performance of The Robber in March 1920, and he saw it for the last time in September 1938, when a new production was staged, again at the Prague National Theatre. This coincidentally happened on the same night when the representatives of the four superpowers had met in Munich, to sign and seal the infamous agreement, which eventually lead to the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Germany, in a prelude to the Second World War.