Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University


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Insect characters star in "The Insect Play"

Czech brothers Karel and Josef Capek had teamed up often to produce works for the stage. In 1921, their last collaborative effort resulted in what became their most famous play.  As the title suggests, "The Insect Play" uses insect characters. These anthropomorphized insects portray the follies of humans and human society. While the play is set in post World War I Czechoslovakia, the satire is still relevant today.

The inspiration for using insects as characters in the play apparently came from the works of French entomologist Jean Henri Fabre. Fabre wrote volumes of popular text about insects and was not above suggesting that insects, on occasion, displayed human characteristics. For sure, the biology of the insects included in the Capek's play was detailed in the works of Fabre.

Karel Capek followed "The Insect Play" with two other works that could almost be considered what today is known as science fiction. Rossum's Universal Robots, known generally as "R.U.R." premiered in 1921.  The story is about a factory that makes artificial people called robots. The term was based on the Czech word robota that meant forced labor, such as was done by serfs. The play introduced the now widely used word "robot" to the world.

"War with the Newts" is a 1936 story about the discovery of a type of salamander on a Pacific island. The newts are enslaved by humans but eventually acquire human knowledge and rebel. The result is a global war between -- you guessed it -- the newts and the humans.

So what kinds of insects did the Brothers Capek use to portray humans in "The Insect Play?" Well, the first act is about love and the pursuit of the opposite sex. In this act, the insects are all butterflies. The butterflies flit about the stage while the females flirt and the males pursue. At one point, the use of an odor to attract the opposite sex is suggested. Today, such odors are called pheromones and are frequently used by insects for mate attraction.

The second act is about money and possessions. Several types of insects are depicted. There is an older couple whose behavior toward each other suggests Archie and Edith Bunker of "All in the Family" TV fame. The duo are dung beetles that have constructed a ball of dung, which they consider their "capital." The dung beetles bicker over whether to bury their dung ball as an investment or construct another dung ball.

Also in this act are crickets. The crickets, a young couple expecting their first baby, have just purchased their first house. There is also an ichneumon fly. For the record, the insect known as an ichneumon fly is not a fly but a wasp. Ichneumon flies are parasites of other insects, and the one in the play is no different. This ichneumon fly has a daughter, a larva, who is very demanding. Nonetheless, her father is proud of her and tries to please her, especially by providing plenty of food consisting of killed insects.

Act 3 is about war. Ants are the starring insects. In this act, there is a war going on between two groups of ants that are engaged in a life or death battle over a small area of grassland. The ants of the Ant Realm have defeated the black, the brown, and the gray ants and are now in combat with yellow ants.

In addition to the military, the industrial complex is helping with the war effort. Ant engineers are trying to develop more efficient methods for conducting the war. An inventor ant has come up with a new war machine. The tide of the war ebbs and flows until the yellows eventually defeat the Ant Realm, whereupon the yellow ant leader declares himself the ruler of the world. It turns out to be a short-lived reign.

Another insect appears throughout the play. This insect is a chrysalis, the pupal stage of a butterfly. It is in the chrysalis stage where what was once a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. This is the final step in the process known as insect metamorphosis. The chrysalis is looking forward to being born, to being able to experience the world. Unfortunately, her life as an adult turns out to be brief, a victim of the cruel world.

"The Insect Play" was first performed in Czechoslovakia in 1922, in New York the same year and in London a year later. The play is still being produced around the world, allowing humans to see themselves through a batch of insects cavorting on stage! 


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox