R.U.R. at 100

You don’t likely encounter Czech writer Karel Čapek‘s Rossum’s Universal Robots while studying theatre as an undergraduate. It’s a bit idea driven for programs that rightly stress character work for directors, actors and writers. I’m sure there are myriad exceptions out there, but the script doesn’t show up in the survey anthologies of drama that I’ve lugged around since the 1990s. It’s just not canon.

Most people I’ve met who know this play found R.U.R. as I did — through science fiction’s accounting of the concept of the robot in fiction. Though the concept of a soulless tool in human form dates at least to Greek mythology and to Aristotle, and though som credit L. Frank Baum’s heartless Tin Man as the first robot in modern fiction (The Wizard of Oz, 1900), Čapek is credited with first use of the term “robot” in his corporate tale of a company that manufactures lifelike humanoid servants who inevitably rise up to polish off humanity and to rule the world (but only for a tragically short spell as they wipe out the secret of their own creation along with their creators).

Modernist fun!

This is the archetypal robot tale — through science of magic, people devise a way to effortlessly and ethically shift the burdens of work and suffering to a capable but inanimate worker class, but those workers inevitably realize their sorry lot, rise up and deliver comeuppance. The real story here is, of course, not so much how humanity would treat robots but how poorly we treat each other in the hierarchies of our economies. Forget about the robots we’ll exploit in the future — you’ve already forgotten to think about who made your sweater, for what pay, under what conditions. As Ursula LeGuin characterized modern, developed economy living, every comfort rests on the suffering of an unseen, unheard and unmentioned child. We tolerate it through willful ignorance. Where did the sweater come from? A cardboard box with an Amazon smile, of course.

In the lore of science fiction, the next major evolution of the fictive robot came from Isaac Asimov who sought to cut himself off from the typical “robot revolution” narrative by inventing and applying his “Three Laws of Robotics.” These are the rules that govern all tools, he argued. Robots may not harm humans or allow them to be harmed, robots must follow all human instructions and robots must not harm each other or themselves. Where those rules contradict, they are ordered. Not harming humans takes first priority, then obedience, then their own safety. A robot will save you from a burning building even if another human tells them not to and even if that robot will be destroyed in the adventure.

Our friend Čapek invented the word “robot” and Asimov invented the word “robotics.” It’s amazing to me that two concepts so ingrained in modern life emerged starkly modernist European theatre and the pulp magazines of science fiction’s golden age.

Technologists have largely taken Asimov seriously, though arms manufacturers around the world have been and are developing robotic killing machines that flout the first law. Still, as Asimov intended, our automated factories are not designed to rise up and kill us because they’re tired of manufacturing Teslas.

What’s changed is that the concepts of automation and even bots has moved well beyond the physical. If the old nightmare was a robot we’d built to serve us running amock, the new one are unseen algorithms, directing our thoughts and appetites without us knowing (perhaps even directing you to read this, though it’s unlikely, as I’m not paying anybody for the privilege — a whole other matter!)

The promise of ther robot is embedded in industrialization — greater efficiencies will spare people from the drudgery of work. In RUR the result of this is that the robots take on all tasks from farming to manufcaturing, driving down the costs of everything to the point where people don’t need to work to survive. Rather than create a Utopia of plenty, Čapek imagines that people would stop breeding and become infertile.

The flipside is that we’d cease our pointless and physical toils and could all devote ourselves to higher, more thoughtful endevours — philosophy, science and the arts. Would we, though? Or would we binge on relaxing entertainments?

All of these other pursuits are also work, though they are rewarded unevenly by the economy. The rapid development of artificial intelligence (in all of its forms) and the mass collection and analysis of unfathomable data, allows us to also outsource the work of human perfection, from policy to poetry.

The robots of older fictions kicked us out of the factories and then the world. Perhaps this new breed will start by throwing us out of the schools and libraries.

Logical Loops With Georges Perec

In delightful translation by David Bellos (he uses the word circumperambulate a lot), The Art of Asking Your Boss For A Raise by French experimental author Georges Perec is best read aloud. It’s a theatrical piece with dazzling, recursive language that evokes laughter and pity at “your” plight as you tackle the practical and emotional burden of asking for a much needed (if not deserved) pay increase while in the employ of. one of France’s largest companies.

Avec Perec!

The entirety of the books 80 pages are one sentence, without punctuation, capitalization or spatial breaks. Reading the text aloud pulls you right through and makes you wonder how much we need the adornments of commas, periods or paragraph breaks. Perec wrote this short book, which also factors into the full-length novel, Life: A User’s Manual as one of its later chapters, specifically to resemble a computer algorithm. Algorithms have become a larger part of our lives since Perec wrote this in the 1970s, so it’s partially a survival guide to live in the 2020s.

The piece would make a fine one man show and also reminds me very much of Mac Wellman‘s Terminal Hip which, if you have forty minutes, you can watch:

Terminal Hip was one of the last live shows we saw in New York City, pre-COVID, at the legendary Dixon Place. We learned that Panda are bears and NOT raccoons, in a revival produced by Jeffrey M. Jones, curator of the Little Theatre series.

I digress, but thats part of the fun of Perec’s short book. Digressions and regressions are progress. Give it a read and you’ll see.

Trump as Pa Ubu

I know, I know, I said less politics. But, today’s the day that Joe Biden’s election as president has been certified by Congress and Donald Trump told his most fervent supporters to gather in Washington, D.C. to protest. Some breached the capitol, I saw reports of one person having been shot, Senators were evacuated and Trump… fled to the White House and seemingly went into hiding?

It’s amazing cowardice. Nobody is chasing Trump. Nobody is looking to arrest or harm him. What is he hiding from? It all reminds me of some of my favorite surrealist plays, the Ubu Trilogy by Alfred Jarry.

He even looks like Trump!

Pa Ubu, the main character, is the undeserved King of Poland. He’s a parody of Macbeth and Jarry’s math teacher. He has nothing but appetite for food and comfort. He murders only when he has ther advantage. He flees from any other foe. In the second play of the trilogy, he and his family decide that the work of ruling is too hard and that the prisoners, who never have to go outside and are fed daily, have it easy. So they storm the prison, kick out the inmates, and barricade themselves inside.

It leaps from the puppet stage of 1896 and right onto CNN, if you ask me.

The Evolution of a Joke Over 70 Years

From The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, 1920:

“It was one of the great liverystableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans wants to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.”

From Speed the Play, by David Ives, 1989:

“David Mamet knows that Americans don’t like to pay for parking. So he keeps his plays short.”

Huge Anniversary for Theatre, Film and Literature

Much thanks to LitHub for celebrating this today:

A major step forward for storytelling in any form.

A Czech refugee working in theater in England, Stoppard had been playing with language and writing metatexts for years, but without intellectual pretense — he came up in a theater full of demanding audiences who needed to be entertained, not lectured to. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead realized the best of this, with a fun riff on Hamlet and Waiting for Godot and mathematics and probability that’s genuinely touching and funny. It’s a rare achievement in art.

A low budget film version, starring Tim Roth and Gary Oldman helped usher in a vital 90s independent film movement and put Stoppard in a good position to write Shakespeare in Love another classic from the time.

Meanwhile, Stoppard became ever more ambitious in theater, perhaps topping R&G with the expansive Coast of Utopia trilogy and the fantastic Rock’n’Roll.

Happy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern day to you all!

Quarantine Theatre

On July 4th I was fortunate to be able to collaborate with London theatre-company “The Undisposables” for a “Digital Scratch Night” of new writing. It was an absolute pleasure and their production of my short play “The First Poet in Space” was dreamy and great.

My wife Natasha wrote about it the entire bill of plays for Forbes, where I once used to work, rushing from late night fact checking assignments to rehearsals in midtown and lower Manhattan as I tried and tried to establish myself as a playwright.

It’s funny how the world goes. For plays, I very much hope to concentrate on London going forward. Theatre has survived all manner of pandemic and it always comes back.

Soon!

Remembering “The Banquet Years”

I’m writing something about a bookworm character who is remembering the books specifically given to him by teachers in high school and college. Among the list are: The Complete Works of Emerson, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins, The Firebugs by Max Frisch, Strip Tease by Carl Hiassen, Side Effects by Woody Allen and this gem:

Published in 1955, Roger Shattuck’s vivid telling of the birth of French surrealism is a book I’ve read twice now and think about all the time. I remain sure that surrealism is the foundation of everything going on in the world today and not just in art, or even primarily in art, but in the communications of corporations and governments that are gleefully contradictory when they’re not completely free of information.

I highly recommend The Banquet Years. I may pick it up again soon.

Voltaire on Writing

A lot of Candide content coming up. For a Saturday, some writing (and playwriting) tips assembled from the Paris chapter of Voltaire’s masterpiece:

“How a play can be of some interest but of almost not merit:”

  1. It is not enough to contrive one or two situations found in any novel that always captivate audiences.
  2. One needs to be original without being far-fetched.
  3. Be sublime, but always natural.
  4. Write like a poet without letting the characters speak like poets.
  5. Never sacrifice sense to rhyme.

There are few good tragedies out there. These are the most common failures:

  1. Mere idylls in dialogue form.
  2. Political tracts in dialogue form.
  3. Addresses to gods by writers who cannot reach humans.

Voltaire intended a few shots at Corneille and Racine. Fun stuff.

A Trim and Taut Frankenstein at CSC

Classic Stage Company has a fantastic and advanced Frankenstein on stage right now, playing in repertory with a fresh adaptation of Dracula. The new telling if Frankenstein by writer Tristan Bernays presents the story of Frankenstein and his abandoned creature with just two actors one playing mostly the Creature (and sometimes Frankenstein) and the other a musician who represents a chorus of the books other characters, including the Blind Man, the child, and Frankenstein’s bride, Elizabeth.

The Bernay’s adapation really captures the origin the Mary Shelley’s story — it’s like being told a macabre tale in a darkened room on a winter night. The adaptation is a triumph.

In a two person show, the cast obviously has to be strong and versatile. CSC has access to the best talent so it’s no surprise that Stephanie Berry impresses with her range and stamina in the lead roles and Rob Morrison keeps the rhythm and atmosphere of the show as the chorus. Director Timothy Douglas ably leads a cast tasked with inspiring our imaginations.

It’s a page to stage triumph.

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