GUYANA: Extraordinary People – Frank Thomasson – By Ian McDonald

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It happens. It is life. Great contributions are made. Years go by and they are forgotten and those who made them are forgotten too. But perhaps theatre veterans in Guyana and the Guyana diaspora will still remember Frank Thomasson who died years ago at the age of eighty-eight. He in England, land of his birth, but I dare say his heart was left in Guyana where he lived and worked when he was young long, long ago. I recall so vividly my old friend Frank.

Sixty years ago I met Frank Thomasson in Georgetown and he became my dear friend and though after he left Guyana we lived in different lands we never lost touch and we were as close as brothers. When he grew very old and no longer knew anyone I sent messages through his wife Aileen to say hello and give him a died tight hug from me because I felt somewhere deep in my friend there might remain a spark that let him remember me as I will always remember him.     

He was a lovely, effervescent, interesting, intelligent and abundantly creative man. People loved to be with him. Fun and laughter and the infinite joys of life always accompanied his presence. He nudged all our lives in the right direction. He gave a jolt of energy and love to anyone whose life he touched. The ten years I knew him in Guyana were years of a great friendship for me. I was his best man when he married beautiful, beloved Carlotta Croal and I always loved them like my own. When my wife and I visited them in England in years afterwards they surrounded us with the warmth of their hospitality and their love. I see Frank now as I knew him – vividly alive, always helpful and encouraging, full of zest and joy and originality and tears cannot help come in my eyes.

Frank had a remarkable and wonderfully successful career – service in the Royal Navy followed by varied and highly creative corporate jobs in half a dozen major companies as an innovative expert in the practice and development of human resources. There was an important interlude in Rome where he was Personnel Director of the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation and adviser on the creation of the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development.

No period in his life can have given him more satisfaction than the ten years he spent in 1956-1965 as Deputy then Chief Personnel Officer and afterwards Personnel Director of Bookers Sugar Estates in Guyana. In his work for Bookers he played a very important role in the “Jock Campbell Revolution” which completely reformed and modernized the sugar industry in Guyana and in particular hugely improved the way its workers were treated and its Guyanese managers trained and promoted to positions of authority.

While Frank played an active role in Guyanising management in the sugar industry, Frank himself was well and truly Guyanised. In these ten years Guyana entered his bloodstream, his mental make-up and, I dare say, his soul. Forever afterwards Guyana became his adopted country which he never forgot and which he always sought to assist. And ties to his adopted land were doubly secured by his marriage first to Carlotta Croal, with whom he had two sons, and, after Carlotta died, in due time his link with Guyana again renewed with Aileen Morgan – both Carlotta and Aileen springing from famous Guyanese families and themselves celebrated in the theatre.

So we come to the theatre. Frank’s life was full of achievements but in the world of the theatre he was outstanding and he left in Guyana, as we shall see, an indelible mark.

In his years in Guyana Frank played a major role in the great days of the original Theatre Guild. He was a member of the Executive Committee, Secretary of the Theatre Guild 1957-1960 and Playhouse Director 1960-1965. This was a period of theatrical flowering which stands out in the cultural history of Guyana. One of the Guild’s basic aims was “To encourage the development of the theatre in all its aspects in Guyana” and this it did in full measure in those exciting days. Not only were productions staged in remarkable profusion by an unusually talented and dedicated group but workshops and training courses were initiated to unearth newcomers, drama festivals and playwriting competitions organized, a dance group formed.

It was a heady time and theatre became part of education as well as entertainment in the nation. In all this amplitude of activity Frank Thomasson was a driving force – though he did not highlight his own role and always gave abundant credit to the hard work and inspired creativity of those in the whole team of players and helpers who brought about those glory days of the theatre through the sheer love of what they were doing and a conviction that it was important in the national scheme of things.

Then, much later in life, memories of that glory time no doubt never far away, Frank came to research and write his magnum opus, A History of the Theatre in Guyana, 1800-2000. This is what I wrote about that great work for which he will be remembered by generations to come:

“Frank Thomasson’s “A History of Theatre in Guyana, 1800-2000” immediately establishes itself as an indispensable part of the cultural history of the nation. Scholars no doubt will add and amplify, provide further valuable information and extend the story of the performing arts in Guyana. But this history will stand as an incomparable pioneering endeavour. Guyanese, now and to come, who love the theatre, Guyanese who take pride in the country’s record of cultural achievement, Guyanese who care for preserving what is an essential element in their heritage will always be in debt to Frank Thomasson. And his History will add an extremely valuable account to the larger, glorious story of theatre in the West Indies. At an age when the vast majority are at ease in slippered retirement Frank Thomasson set himself the task of telling the fascinating story of theatre in Guyana with enthusiasm, energy, intelligence and dedication. He has succeeded in producing a work which greatly honours his subject and himself – a golden achievement in his golden years.”

In that history Frank undertook a very serious task. In the writings of W.B. Yeats there is an eloquent phrase: “a country bound together by imaginative possessions.” Yeats used the phrase in the context of discussing the importance of a National Theatre for his beloved Ireland. Yeats also wrote in this context that nationhood was impossible to exist if there were “no national institutions to reverence, no national success to admire, without a model of it in the mind of the people.”

I cannot doubt that in his heart of hearts Frank Thomasson in his serious task was driven partly by such thoughts and inspiration. By a wonderful coincidence, just at the time when this great history of the theatre in Guyana was being published a completely restored Playhouse and a newly vibrant Theatre Guild was coming into existence. Fifty years after Frank Thomasson participated in a great blossoming of theatre in Guyana, his book appeared to bless the coming of a new birth of theatre in the land he loved.

I will always remember the launching of Frank’s History. It was during the Caribbean Festival of Arts, Carifesta, held in Guyana in 2008 at the restored Playhouse of the Theatre Guild which Frank had done so much to pioneer 50 years before. There was an audience of great distinction in attendance. The shadows had already begun to close on my dear friend but in a burst of heroism, and helped with infinite love by Aileen and the beautifully discreet assistance of Emcee Ron Robinson, he was able to give his speech at the event. Who will ever forget that wonderful and moving moment?

Frank will always be remembered in Guyana for his great History. But I return again to the man himself – this joyous, wonderful, remarkable, great-hearted and inspiring human being. And a flood of memories come back to me – all good, all full of the abundant promise of life which he encouraged everyone never, never to forget.

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