FEBRUARY
2003

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

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Check out these books by Tom Turpin:

Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?

 

 

 

2-27-03

Download the audio of On Six Legs: MP3, WMV.

Insects Creep Into Theaters -- Sometimes in Starring Roles


Insects, it seems, are everywhere in nature. The same could also be said about insects in literary works. These six-legged creatures can be found in surprising numbers creeping about in music, prose, poetry and movie scripts. Sometimes insects are the focus of the work. At other times, the insect presence is a minor one.

Insects are also associated with stage productions -- not so much as characters in the production as pests in the venue! But in one legitimate play, insects are the lead characters.

That play, written in 1922 by Josef and Karel Capek is entitled "The Insect Play." The Brothers Capek, as they were known in their native Czechoslovakia, collaborated on several productions. Karel was a novelist and short-story writer, as well as a playwright.

Capek's plays often focused on large, philosophical themes in which elements from science fiction and fantasy were incorporated. One of these plays, "R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)," introduced the term robot to the common language. It was derived from the Czech "robota," which referred originally to dull work. Capek's robots, however, weren't machines; they were "simplified" beings.

But back to the creatures that some people consider living robots -- insects. The three-act play of the Capeks involving insects is a satiric comedy, which is still produced around the world. It is a work in three acts.

The playwrights give a whole band of insects human qualities. Through those insects, we catch a glimpse of human lives, often our own. The prologue of the play features an encounter between a sleeping vagrant and a butterfly collector bent on adding a few more specimens to his collection. The need to collect and kill butterflies isn't apparent to the vagrant, even though the collector explains it is for the love of nature. A contradiction for sure, but one of many that the vagrant will encounter as he views insects living lives with human frailties throughout the play.

Act 1 is about love and pursuit of the opposite sex. The insects chosen for this activity are butterflies. Wonderful casting, I say. After all, most of us have noticed the butterflies chasing each other in sport as they go through mating rituals. The characters include flirts, teases, romantics and macho males. It is a soap opera fitting for daytime television.

Act 2 is about the material things in life. There is a middle-aged couple of dung beetles that push a ball of manure around, looking for a place to invest their nest egg. These insects remind some folks of Archie and Edith Bunker, at least in the way they address each other in not-so-endearing terms. Mr. and Mrs. Cricket, a young couple expecting their first child, are in search of their first home. Also in the act is a father who dotes on his daughter. It is a sad act where few achieve their goals. All of the outcomes in this act prompt the vagrant to wonder about the meaning of it all.

The final act features yellow and red ants engaged in a life-and-death struggle for a piece of land. This is a depiction of the issues surrounding war. The choice of ants for this act is perfect. Ants, as social creatures, go to war with each other about as frequently as do humans.

In the end, the vagrant -- well, I don't want to spoil the ending. After all, who knows when this insect play will show up in a theater near you.

 

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox