By Dr Stephanie Fullerton-Cooper
When I first made enquiries about Caymanian writings many years ago, Time Longer Dan Rope was one of the first works of which I was told. Written by Sociologist, Dr Frank McField, this is one of two plays, published together, which gives a glimpse at the man behind the works, the other being Downside Up. McField is one of a special group of local writers, as, whereas Cayman boasts many poets and novelists, there is not many playwrights. In addition to these two, McField has a number of unpublished plays, among them One White One Black and No Place to Be Nice. McField shared with me that Time Longer Dan Rope started as a manuscript when he was a student at University of York in the 1970s. He was attempting to write poetry and he aimed to capture its emotions more so than its style. McField admits that “I wanted to capture the catharsis of poetry … the loss of innocence. I wrote from the echoes of my own mind”. He admits that this had a lot to do with the period in which he was writing and his own loss of innocence through education. It is from this initial manuscript, from this grappling with self, grappling with the drama genre and with the challenges of the times, that both Time Longer Dan Rope and Downside Up emerged.
McField was one of the founders of the Inn Theatre Company in the late 1970s. In a 2017 article, co-founder Geoff Creswell said that the newly-formed Company was “aspiring to be a cultural catalyst for Cayman, changing the expatriate focus that had heretofore dominated local stage production”. Later, McField was also a founding member of the Cayman National Cultural Foundation. His passion for the arts and for theatre is clearly seen, and he even played the role of Beatman in the 1980 production of Time Longer Dan Rope. Written in 1979, this play tells the story of Ella, seafarer Beatman’s wife, who is ambitious for her children and who awaits her husband’s return. He returns, changed, and meets with friends who have ideas about Cayman’s future. Similarly, we meet Wilder, an American entrepreneur who wants to invest in Cayman, but seemingly for the wrong reasons. Ella works for Wilder and his wife, Katherine, to better her children’s lives. Their son, six-year-old Willie, dies, and though tragic, it forces Beatman to take a harsh look at himself. The story ends with characters and Cayman seemingly on the cusp of change. The reader cannot help but wonder, what will that change be, and will it be for good?
It is an understatement that there are vast aspects to this play that are interesting – like thematic concerns of womanhood and female relations as seen among Ella, Katherine, Granny - Ella’s mom - and even her eight-year-old daughter, Eveline. Also laudable is the writing style with its typical aspects of drama, like placing the characters in time-sensitive situations, evoking sympathy for the protagonists, and appealing to the audience’s emotions. The starkness of the set is also interesting, as Ella’s “small house with an attached ‘cookrum’”, the “small table with a wash basin” and its “three chairs and a ‘caboose’” are easy enough to re-present on stage. Not only do they evoke a 1970s Cayman authenticity, they reflect the poverty and dire circumstances that Ella and her children live under. McField’s presentation of their home, is reflective of the hut of St Lucian playwright, Derek Walcott’s Mother in Ti-Jean and His Brothers. The stark poverty that pervades that family is reflected here, but most notable is the indomitable strength of the Caribbean mother who will fight to offer her children more than she had, another leading theme in Walcott’s play. Also of interest is the language used in Time Longer Dan Rope, as McField attempts to capture the essence of the Caymanian accents of the late 1970s. According to McField, the Inn Theatre was welcomed in the ’70s, as “it offered a platform and a good way to produce and present local writings, as there was a belief that people of the Caribbean had a linguistic disqualification, that we could not speak standard English that would bring us to the stage”. His celebration of Cayman language in his works seems to be a defiance of this. Eveline asks, “Maama, who ya talking wit?”, and the Caymanian accent echoes in words like “’bout”, “ya daddy’s Maama house” and “I ga get a good learning’”. McField’s training as a Sociologist allows him to take a close look at Cayman’s society and to celebrate even as he decries so many aspects of it. It offers a glimpse at old Cayman – its family structures, superstitious beliefs with references to “duppy”, the 1970s Cayman man’s leisure activities whether in the bar or church, and the impact of seafaring activities on Cayman’s families.
Of particular interest is its title. Time Longer Dan Rope is named for a Caribbean proverb. The notion is that if something is tying you up and holding you back, it is not as strong as time itself. Therefore, time remains the master. This play is certainly about time. There is the notion of Ella ‘biding time’, waiting for a husband who left five years ago. It is about the time Beatman spends away from Cayman and what it made of him. Upon return, he feels he is wasting time and seems to be ‘passing time’ till he can resume seafaring. Ella also ponders time in the form of her children’s future. Playing on the idea of Cayman being “the island that time forgot”, time is also reflected here as the country becomes attractive to the foreigners because of its timelessness - which they conversely find attractive and repelling. The future of the country is clearly seen, and the play ends with Koolidge speaking of what will happen in time – as he mentions to Leigh his plan to go away for some time, and that he hopes that the next ‘time’ they meet, they will be on the same side. Laughingly, McField recalls that his aunt would often tell him “don’t worry – rope chafes, but time doesn’t”. Time is, indeed, the true Master, and the play effectively explores this concept.
Also of interest are the various themes and larger messages that pervade the play - McField’s preoccupation and presentation of classism, racism and colorism, Cayman’s seafaring history, investments, investors, and education. The themes of poverty and loss, marriage and domestic violence, cultural beliefs and death are particularly poignant and worth exploring. McField best presents these themes through characterisation, so we will explore his characters in part two of this paper in the next few weeks.
27 Jan, 2020
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15 Sep, 2021