St. Mark on Broadway

St. Mark’s Gospel

a solo performance by Alec McCowen

Alec McCowen has been doing his already celebrated one-man show, a performance of St. Mark’s Gospel, at the Marymount Manhattan Theater on East 71st Street. It is reopening for a three-week run at the Playhouse Theater on West 48th Street in New York on October 24. Mark’s is the shortest of the Gospels, and perhaps the only one that could be done in this way; it runs for over two hours, which is certainly enough for the actor, if not for the audience. The idea is full of interest, for the Gospels form a special class of narrative and are usually read silently or heard as part of the liturgy (in which, incidentally, Mark makes few appearances). We hardly think of them as stories, or of their alterations of voice and mood. McCowen compels us to do so. He is a player of dazzling accomplishment, and the first half of the show was a performance of such virtuosity as to seem pretty well beyond criticism.

The second was another matter. During the intermission I heard a woman saying she had enjoyed the show but found it rather brief. It was explained to her that there was more to come, including the principal events of the story; and she stayed on, to her great educational benefit no doubt, though I cannot say whether her stock of pleasure was increased. Mine was not, for McCowen’s method did not really work in the second half, and on reflection could hardly be expected to.

He began the evening with a few carefully casual remarks, which included a reference to Ruth Draper, not only because she pioneered the single-actor show but because she once told McCowen that the secret of her work was that she had preserved a childlike view of the world. This was a hint of how he proposed to do Mark. He came on as an inspired, simple-minded storyteller, uttering the words as if he were making them up as he went along, pausing sometimes as if to remember what happened next, and ending the pause with an anticipatory smile of amusement or triumph, since what was coming next was some really extraordinary miracle, or a splendid put-down for Jesus’ opponents, perhaps even for his disciples.

On the stage there is nothing except some chairs, a table, a carafe of water, and a glass, all put to use by a performer who represents something close to the utmost refinement of modern English acting technique. His little bursts of mime, his calculated expressiveness in face and gesture, are a source of sharp theatrical delight. Though the resemblance is a matter of technique rather than of personality, McCowen’s controlled spontaneity made me think of Alec Guinness’s remarkable Hamlet of 1951.

McCowen told us at the outset that Mark’s narrative is clear and sequential, and that he always lets us know exactly where we are. The purpose of this remark must have been to make us more receptive to …

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