Josef Čapek & Karel Čapek



Voiyen Koreis
Voyen Koreis, administrator of these pages

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 Karel Čapek


Josef Čapek


Karel Čapek


Josef Čapek


Karel Čapek


J & K in caricature by Josef Čapek

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Karel Čapek - A Short Biography 

by Voyen Koreis

Karel Capek Karel Čapek was born on the 9th January 1890 in Malé Svatoňovice, then Austria-Hungary, now the Czech Republic. His father Antonín was a country doctor. Karel's elder brother, Josef (1887-1945), was similarly talented and became known mainly as an abstract painter, but also as a novelist, and dramatist. Josef Čapek’s paintings have recently been selling at art auctions for over a million dollars. The brothers have written several works together. Their older sister, Helena (1886-1969), was also a published novelist.

Like many aspiring authors, Čapek began his literary career by writing poetry while still in the high school, which he attended in Hradec Králové and later in Brno. From about the age of nineteen he had been publishing, mainly essays, short stories and articles, often in collaboration with brother Josef. In 1909 Čapek entered the Charles University in Prague, where he studied philosophy, aesthetics, and French, German and English philology. He continued his studies in Berlin and in Paris, eventually receiving his doctorate in Prague in 1915. Changing jobs several times, he settled in Prague by 1917, after which he embarked on a journalistic career, writing columns and essays for Lidové Noviny, the leading Czech daily newspaper.

To this creative period also belong some of Čapek’s translations, many of them important, particularly those of the modern French poetry (Baudelaire, Apollinaire, etc.), published around 1920, which strongly influenced the post-war generation of the Czech poets of the avant-garde, such as Vítězslav Nezval or Jaroslav Seifert (the 1984 winner of the Nobel Price in Literature).

While throughout his career he had always displayed a great versatility, it was the theatre that would bring Čapek his first breakthrough, and eventually the lasting success, nationally and internationally. The early twenties were most fructiferous for him as, apart from the two plays appearing in this volume, he also completed The Insect Play (Ze života hmyzu – this in collaboration with brother Josef, premiered in 1921), and The Makropulos Case (Věc Macropulos, 1922). All these works were highly successful, with the latter having been made (in 1926) into an opera by Leoš Janáček, one of the composer‘s most famous. During these years (1921-1923), Čapek was also active as a dramaturg and director at the prestigious Vinohardy Theatre, after the National Theatre traditionally the second best scene in Prague.

From about the mid nineteen twenties the author’s focus had begun to slowly change.  Thus far being known mainly as a playwright, he now aspired to also becoming a novelist, his first significant work in this genre being Továrna na absolutno (The Absolute at Large), which came out in 1922, followed by Krakatit in 1924, in which he saw the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe long before nuclear energy was discovered by scientists. The looming danger of disaster for mankind, brought about by unbridled technological progress, which was the main theme of R.U.R., was always very much on Čapek’s mind. However, the allegorical fantasy (or “utopia”, under which name this genre was known during the author’s life) eventually gave way to a more traditional literary style, culminating in the trilogy of philosophical novels Hordubal, Povětroň (Meteor), Obyčejný Život (Ordinary Life), all written around 1934.

The political developments in the neighbouring Germany certainly contributed to the author’s return to allegorical fantasy, this time also laced with political satire, in probably his second best known work, Válka s mloky (War with the Newts, 1936). In this novel, the sea-dwelling intelligent race of newts is exploited by the humans in a similar way the robots are being used in R.U.R. This time, however, the ending is less optimistic, as it is also in the play Bílá nemoc (Power and Glory, 1937). In both cases the audience is left with the impression that the forces of evil, lead by a dictator/führer, are likely to prevail.

The betrayal of his beloved nation by the Western superpowers in Munich had affected the writer badly. Čapek had always been an enthusiastic supporter of democracy, and a strong opponent to any type of dictatorial regime. For instance, his essay “Why am I not a Communist?”, written in 1924, caused his works to effectively be banned during the early years of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia in the 1950’s. The lid stayed on for several years, until the totalitarians realised that without harming themselves they cannot forever continue suppressing Čapek, who was far too well known internationally. While he was still alive, the author had been strongly condemning the Nazism, ever since it took foothold in the neighbouring Germany. His last play, The Mother (Matka, 1938) is a powerful statement about the necessity of struggle against the forces of evil, which he had seen inexorably gathering strength in the lead-up to the war. Čapek’s health was never particularly strong (all his life he suffered from an incurable spinal disease), and now it had begun to deteriorate rapidly. He died in Prague on the Christmas Day of the same year, apparently as a result of combined effects of pneumonia and kidney infection. Immediately after the German army occupied Czechoslovakia several months later, the Nazis, unaware of his death, tried to arrest Karel Čapek, who had been on their blacklist for a long time. They however arrested his brother Joseph, who was eventually sent to the concentration camp, where he was to die, at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, only a few days before the end of war.

 

A caricature of G. B. Shaw, Karel Capek made while having a discussion with the writer

As I mentioned before, Čapek was an extremely versatile and highly productive writer. Throughout his career, which barely spans two decades, he had produced more works than perhaps had most writers blessed with the working life twice as long or longer. From the young age he was active as a journalist. His articles and feuilletons, most of them written for the leading Czech dailies, usually in a light and humorous style, were always very popular. So were his travelogues, some of which he also illustrated with line drawings (displaying another of his many talents) of which he wrote five about the journeys he undertook to Italy, England, Spain, Holland and Scandinavia, between 1923 and 1936 – the last one in collaboration with his long time friend and one of the best known Czech actresses, who in 1935 became his wife, Olga Scheinflugová.

In 1924 Karel Čapek was in Britain, where as the “wonder boy from the Central Europe” he had met with a number of personalities from the exalted world of high literature, such as John Galsworthy, H. G. Wells, G .K. Chesterton and others. If only to demonstrate how truly multi-talented Čapek was, we have included here a caricature he had produced while meeting with George Bernard Shaw, the dramatist who very much influenced his work.