Karel Čapek’s formative play R.U.R. (or Rossum’s Universal Robots) is commonly referred to as the first piece of science fiction theatre. More importantly, R.U.R. is also the text from which the well-known term “robot” originates. Written in 1920 in the Czech Republic, the play was the first of it's kind, and introduced robots a creature made of "paste," which was intended to look and feel very much like human flesh.
Capek was deeply influenced by a number of factors--most specifically, the horrors of WWI, and the terrors of modern technology, as well as Mary Shelley's famous novel Frankenstein. Capek took both of these things--a fear modern technology, as well as the uncanny terror of Shelley's half-human creation, and dreamed up the robot. It was ten years after those first few productions of R.U.R. in the early 1920s, that the robot became synonymous with a creature built of metal.
After the publication of R.U.R. in 1921, the play proved extremely popular (so popular in fact that toy robots were made to sell to children at the 1923 New York production!) R.U.R. was quickly translated a number of languages, and produced in Berlin, London, and New York respectively. Although no photos from the 1922 Berlin production exist, we do have a set rendering from the famous designer Frederick Keisler. Keisler was interested in designing for R.U.R. because of the new opportunities the play offered for stage technologies. Keisler's design was the first known theatrical production that included the use of a projection on stage.
Photographs from the the 1923 New York production are rare, but perhaps the earliest readily available. From these photographs, we can see some of the first design concepts used for the portrayal of robots on stage. In the photograph below, we see that the male robots are wearing identical metallic chest plates featuring hard, geometric shapes. These sharper shapes highlight both the idea that the robots are mass produced and used for difficult manual labor. Despite the fact that Capek's robots were actually made of "paste" within the context of the show, this particular costume design choice wound up having reverberating affects on the portrayal of robots throughout history.
In 1923, the only portrayal of a robot on film was The Mechanical Man (1921). The Mechanical Man was both written and screened in 1921, and never actually used the word 'robot' at all. The film premiered in the same month Capek's play premiered in New York City, and although it is we do not know if the film maker knew R.U.R., the film raises questions as to whether the idea for 'robots' was a part of the larger post WWI world consciousness.
The next time robots were seen on film was not until 1927 with Fritz Lang's masterpiece, Metropolis. Oddly enough, at this point, robots had finally take on their fully metal exterior. But how was this decision made? What reason or influence did the designers of the film draw on to decide upon a metal exterior? In Metropolis, one of the film’s main characters, Maria, is kidnapped by a mad scientist, and transformed into an evil robot version of herself. Not surprisingly, the visual imagery of Maria’s robot exoskeleton has a very similar design to the metallic chest plate from the 1923 production of R.U.R. Both designs have several long vertical lines that move down the body on a slight diagonal, creating a highly geometric, ordered, and economical appearance.
In Čapek’s play, the vertical lines are along the robot’s chest area, whereas in Metropolis, these lines have been moved to the midsection, arms and legs. The viewer can clearly see that the chest area of the robot in Metropolis has instead been given corresponding anatomy to the object’s sex. This is clearly an outward sexualization of Maria, whose robot counterpart is portrayed as being sexually deviant in the film. Despite this overt sexualization, the design influence from stage to film is clear.
The sexualization of robots is another interesting topic for critical inquiry that I will definteily cover in another blogpost soon! As always, dont hesitate to post questions or start a discussion.