Karel Čapek is remembered today for his popularization of the word “robot,” actually first used by his brother Josef in his short story “Opilec” (1917) and used by Karel in R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots, which was first produced in Prague in January, 1921. The word is from the Czech robota, meaning compulsory service or work. Popularizing this word, however, was certainly not Čapek’s most notable professional achievement. A deeply philosophical man, professionally trained as a philosopher, Čapek was the first Czech writer to attract a broad international audience for his works, particularly for his expressionist drama, which has been translated into many languages and has been performed all over the world.
A versatile intellectual, Čapek, during his years on the staff of Lidové noviny, the most influential Czech newspaper, demonstrated by the excellence of his writing that journalism can be an art. He wrote on a broad range of subjects, from Persian rugs to gardening to drama and art. Čapek was also an incisive political thinker who wrote stirring political essays, but his political sentiments achieve a more universal expression in his plays and novels, particularly in such plays as R.U.R., The Insect Play, and Power and Glory and in the novels of his trilogy comprising Hordubal, Meteor, and An Ordinary Life. His novel most familiar to English-speaking audiences is The War with the Newts, which builds directly on much of the social criticism found in R.U.R. and in The Insect Play and which presents one of the earliest direct literary attacks on Hitler. His trilogy has attracted considerable interest for its manner of dealing with the infinite diversity of the human personality.