The play had its world premiere on 2 January 1921 in Hradec Králové; it introduced the word "robot" to the English language and to science fiction as a whole. R.U.R. soon became influential after its publication. By 1923 it had been translated into thirty languages. R.U.R. was successful in its time in Europe and North America. Čapek later took a different approach to the same theme in his 1936 novel War with the Newts, in which non-humans become a servant-class in human society.
The play begins in a factory that makes artificial people, called roboti (robots) who humans have created from synthetic organic matter. (As living creatures of artificial flesh and blood rather than machinery, the play's concept of robots diverges from the idea of "robots" as inorganic. Later terminology would call them androids.) Robots may be mistaken for humans and can think for themselves. Initially happy to work for humans, the robots revolt and cause the extinction of the human race.
Parentheses indicate names which vary according to translation. On the meaning of the names, see Ivan Klíma, Karel Čapek: Life and Work, 2002, p. 82.
Helena, the daughter of the president of a major industrial power, arrives at the island factory of Rossum's Universal Robots. Here, she meets Domin, the General Manager of R.U.R., who relates to her the history of the company. Rossum had come to the island in 1920 to study marine biology. In 1932, Rossum had invented a substance like organic matter, though with a different chemical composition. He argued with his nephew about their motivations for creating artificial life. While the elder wanted to create animals to prove or disprove the existence of God, his nephew only wanted to become rich. Young Rossum finally locked away his uncle in a lab to play with the monstrosities he had created and created thousands of robots. By the time the play takes place (circa the year 2000), robots are cheap and available all over the world. They have become essential for industry.
After meeting the heads of R.U.R., Helena reveals that she is a representative of the League of Humanity, an organization that wishes to liberate the robots. The managers of the factory find this absurd. They see robots as appliances. Helena asks that the robots be paid, but according to R.U.R. management, the robots do not "like" anything.
Eventually Helena is convinced that the League of Humanity is a waste of money, but still argues robots have a "soul". Later, Domin confesses that he loves Helena and forces her into an engagement.
Ten years have passed. Helena and her nurse Nana discuss current events, the decline in human births in particular. Helena and Domin reminisce about the day they met and summarize the last ten years of world history, which has been shaped by the new worldwide robot-based economy. Helena meets Dr. Gall's new experiment, Radius. Dr. Gall describes his experimental robotess, also named Helena. Both are more advanced, fully-featured robots. In secret, Helena burns the formula required to create robots. The revolt of the robots reaches Rossum's island as the act ends.
The characters sense that the very universality of the robots presents a danger. Echoing the story of the Tower of Babel, the characters discuss whether creating national robots who were unable to communicate beyond their languages would have been a good idea. As robot forces lay siege to the factory, Helena reveals she has burned the formula necessary to make new robots. The characters lament the end of humanity and defend their actions, despite the fact that their imminent deaths are a direct result of their choices. Busman is killed while attempting to negotiate a peace with the robots. The robots storm the factory and kill all the humans except for Alquist, the company's chief engineer. The robots spare him because they recognize that "he works with his hands like the robots."
Years have passed. Alquist, who still lives, attempts to recreate the formula that Helena destroyed. He is a mechanical engineer, though, with insufficient knowledge of biochemistry, so he has made little progress. The robot government has searched for surviving humans to help Alquist and found none alive. Officials from the robot government beg him to complete the formula, even if it means he will have to kill and dissect other robots for it. Alquist yields. He will kill and dissect robots, thus completing the circle of violence begun in Act Two. Alquist is disgusted. Robot Primus and Helena develop human feelings and fall in love. Playing a hunch, Alquist threatens to dissect Primus and then Helena; each begs him to take him- or herself and spare the other. Alquist now realizes that Primus and Helena are the new Adam and Eve, and gives charge of the world to them.
The robots described in Čapek's play are not robots in the popularly understood sense of an automaton. They are not mechanical devices, but rather artificialbiological organisms that may be mistaken for humans. A comic scene at the beginning of the play shows Helena arguing with her future husband, Harry Domin, because she cannot believe his secretary is a robotess:
DOMIN: Sulla, let Miss Glory have a look at you.
HELENA: (stands and offers her hand) Pleased to meet you. It must be very hard for you out here, cut off from the rest of the world.
SULLA: I do not know the rest of the world Miss Glory. Please sit down.
HELENA: (sits) Where are you from?
SULLA: From here, the factory.
HELENA: Oh, you were born here.
SULLA: Yes I was made here.
HELENA: (startled) What?
DOMIN: (laughing) Sulla isn't a person, Miss Glory, she's a robot.
HELENA: Oh, please forgive me...
His robots resemble more modern conceptions of man-made life forms, such as the Replicants in Blade Runner, the "hosts" in the Westworld TV series and the humanoid Cylons in the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, but in Čapek's time there was no conception of modern genetic engineering (DNA's role in heredity was not confirmed until 1952). There are descriptions of kneading-troughs for robot skin, great vats for liver and brains, and a factory for producing bones. Nerve fibers, arteries, and intestines are spun on factory bobbins, while the robots themselves are assembled like automobiles. Čapek's robots are living biological beings, but they are still assembled, as opposed to grown or born.
The play introduced the word robot, which displaced older words such as "automaton" or "android" in languages around the world. In an article in Lidové noviny, Karel Čapek named his brother Josef as the true inventor of the word. In Czech, robota means forced labour of the kind that serfs had to perform on their masters' lands and is derived from rab, meaning "slave".
The name Rossum is an allusion to the Czech word rozum, meaning "reason", "wisdom", "intellect" or "common sense". It has been suggested that the allusion might be preserved by translating "Rossum" as "Reason" but only the Majer/Porter version translates the word as "Reason".
The work was published in Prague by Aventinum in 1920, after being postponed, and, premiered at the city's National Theatre on 25 January 1921, although an amateur group had by then already presented a production.[notes 1]
R.U.R. was translated from Czech into English by Paul Selver and adapted for the stage in English by Nigel Playfair in 1923. Selver's translation abridged the play and eliminated a character, a robot named "Damon". In April 1923 Basil Dean produced R.U.R. for the Reandean Company at St Martin's Theatre, London.
The American première was at the Garrick Theatre in New York City in October 1922, where it ran for 184 performances, a production in which Spencer Tracy and Pat O'Brien played robots in their Broadway debuts.
In 1989, a new, unabridged translation by Claudia Novack-Jones restored the elements of the play eliminated by Selver. Another unabridged translation was produced by Peter Majer and Cathy Porter for Methuen Drama in 1999.
Reviewing the New York production of R.U.R., The Forum magazine described the play as "thought-provoking" and "a highly original thriller". John Clute has lauded R.U.R. as "a play of exorbitant wit and almost demonic energy" and lists the play as one of the "classic titles" of inter-war science fiction. Luciano Floridi has described the play thus: "Philosophically rich and controversial, R.U.R. was unanimously acknowledged as a masterpiece from its first appearance, and has become a classic of technologically dystopian literature." Jarka M. Burien called R.U.R. a "theatrically effective, prototypal sci-fi melodrama".
On the other hand, Isaac Asimov, author of the Robot series of books and creator of the Three Laws of Robotics, stated: "Capek's play is, in my own opinion, a terribly bad one, but it is immortal for that one word. It contributed the word 'robot' not only to English but, through English, to all the languages in which science fiction is now written." In fact, Asimov's "Laws of Robotics" are specifically and explicitly designed to prevent the kind of situation depicted in R.U.R. – since Asimov's Robots are created with a built-in total inhibition against harming human beings or disobeying them.