Man makes robots. Robots overthrow man.
It opens up in the island where Helena Glory, a member of the League of Humanity, pleads with Harry Domin (or Domain; the General Manager of R.U.R.) for rights for the robots, believing they are people being enslaved. He reveals to her that the robots aren't human, although they look convincingly like them.
Harry explains that while the original inventor Rossum wanted to create a living, working human from synthetic protoplasm that dogs won't eat, his nephew thought that it'd be easier to create simplified human bodies from that same stuff. Harry then explains that this is a good thing; with robots doing all the work, man will overcome the need for toil and poverty will end because robots don't need to be paid, thus making goods cost nothing.
She also meets the human staff of the factory: physiologist and inventor Dr. Gall, robot psychiatrist Dr. Hallemeier (or Hellman), clerk of the works Alquist (the only guy sensible enough to work with his hands), the chief engineer, and managing director Jacob Berman. They're the only other humans in the factory.
After Harry's lecture, she is convinced that the robots really are mindless machines, and her movement was a waste of money. They marry.
Apparently, the robots lacked the ability to sense pain, something which was really counterproductive when robots ended up unintentionally destroying themselves. So they were redesigned to feel exactly that. And then the governments of the world decided that they'd make great soldiers. Outside the island, a rogue robot, Damon, organizes a rebellion. By the time Harry, Helena, and the staff find out... well...
The robots spare Alquist because he does manual labor like them. The robots then found out that the formula for their manufacture was lost (it was destroyed by Helena; Harry wanted to use that as a bargaining tool). Lacking the knowledge to manufacture themselves, with a lifespan of only 10 years, and relying solely on the only human left, the robots seemed doomed...
The play is most notable for featuring the first use of the word "robot," taken from the Czech word for slave labor note (Capek credited his brother Josef for coming up with the new word). The term took off like wildfire through numerous languages, despite the play's own robots being quite different from the modern concept of the term, with the older Czech word "robota" originally meaning a peasant obligated to compulsory service under the European feudal system.
R.U.R. provides examples of:
- 20 Minutes into the Future: Harry says that Rossum first created artificial tissue in 1932. The story is set several years later (not exactly specified how many).
- A.I. Is a Crapshoot: "Robot tick", a "disease" the robots had when they were first built to feel pain, which pretty much led to sentience. Then they rebel.
- Artificial Human: Unlike modern conceptions of robots, the robots of R.U.R. are more like this; they function like living things, but their blood, skin, and organs are still manufactured, and they're treated like machines.
- Chekhov's Skill:
- One of Gall's experimental robots, Radius, was rather violent. Guess who was responsible for the massacre at the factory?
- Alquist started to make walls as a hobby, because manual labor made him feel better. Radius decides to spare him, because he "works with his hands like the robots".
- Crush. Kill. Destroy!
- Dropped a Bridge on Him: Aside from Alquist, every main character dies - almost all offstage.
- Fourth Date Marriage: Harry proposes to Helena during the first time they meet.
- Hollywood Atheist: Rossum created artificial humans because he was a materialist, and wanted to prove that God is not needed for the creation of man.
- Just a Machine: Harry and the rest of the company hold this sentiment until the bitter end. Alquist, who survives, keeps this until he sees Primus and Helena falling in love.
- Kill All Humans: The proclamation of the rebelling robots contains this: "Robots of the world, we enjoin you to exterminate mankind. Don't spare the men. Don't spare the women. Retain all factories, railway lines, machines and equipment, mines and raw materials. All else should be destroyed."
- Last of His Kind: In the third act, Alquist is the only human left in the world.
- Ludd Was Right: Even before the robots revolted against humanity, their influence was bad for society. Because nobody had to work anymore, people became hedonists, and women stopped having children.
- Mass "Oh, Crap!": The men at the factory believe that the robot uprising has been put down because the mail boat arrived on time. The boat turns out to be stuffed to the gills with copies of the Robot Manifesto.
- Meaningful Name: Rossum is derived from the Czech "rozum" meaning "reason". Domin is derived from the Latin "dominus" meaning "master of the house." Robot is derived from the word "robota" which was forced labor for ordinary people on the fields of the nobility (the English equivalent would be "serfdom").
- Meat Sack Robot: The original "robots" in this play were simplified human bodies made from synthetic biological protoplasm.
- Mega-Corp: R.U.R. itself.
- Named After Somebody Famous: The people at R.U.R. named a robot Marius and a robot girl Sulla because they thought Marius and Sulla were lovers. Helena points out that they were both Roman generals, and they fought against each other.
- Neologism: The word "robot" first appeared in this play. According to Čapek, it was his brother, Josef, who came up with it.
- No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup:
- The robots can only be manufactured following a recipe that is kept secret by the company. Harry wanted to use this to their advantage.
- The rebellion itself was rendered pointless because the robots killed the very people that ran the facility they were manufactured in.
- Organic Technology: Sort of.
- One Steve Limit: Averted. Helena has a robot named after her.
- The Power of Love: After the End, Alquist discovers that two robots were in love and were the hope for their race as the new Adam and Eve.
- Punny Name: Fabry, the chief engineer.
- Ridiculously Human Robots: Duh.
- Robo Speak: According to Čapek's instructions, the robots are "slightly mechanical in their speech". In the English translation, they don't use contractions, except for Helena and Primus at the end.
- Robot Girl: Helena, a robot made by Dr. Gall in Helena Domin's likeness; in the beginning, there was Sulla, the robot secretary.
- Robot Maid: Helena tells Harry of how she observed a robot janitor. Presumably, this is what they're used for, among other things like manual labor and odd jobs people would rather not do.
- Robo Romance: Primus and Helena.
- Robotic Psychopath: Radius is arguably an example.
- Robot Rebellion: The Trope Namer.
- Secret Test of Character: Alquist does this to Primus and Helena; he tells one that he wants to cut up the other to find out how to replicate the process of robot manufacture. They offer each other to be cut up in their place, and then threaten him if ever he tries to harm them, proving that they love each other.
- Sole Surviving Scientist: Alquist is treated like this by the robots, who want him to figure out how they could reproduce. However, he's not actually a scientist, and he doesn't have the knowledge or skill to do so.
- These Hands Have Killed: Alquist is disgusted by his own hands after cutting up Damon.How could these hands, hands that loved good work, how could you do a thing like that? My own hands, my own hands! [...] Bloody claws, I wish youd just fly away from me! Go, get away from me! Youve killed...
- They Would Cut You Up: Inverted. The leader of the robot government, Damon, asks Alquist to dissect him in order to find out how to make more robots. Alquist tries it, but breaks down in the middle.
- Turned Against Their Masters: The Trope Codifier.
- We Will Use Manual Labor in the Future: But robots will do it.
- What Measure Is A Nonhuman: Helena wanted to call the company out on exactly this until she found out that it was useless.