Alec McCowen
Alec McCowen; drawing by David Levine

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 the studied simplicity of the performance, and perhaps it succeeded; but it is a surprising thing to say about a document so strange and apparently confused as this Gospel’s opening chapters. A program note had already assured us that Mark lived in Palestine, son of a well-to-do lady, an acquaintance of Peter, and a companion of Paul on his first missionary journey. The object presumably was to suggest a simple relationship between the writer and his material, and stop us bothering about such matters; but these assertions, though of ancient provenance, are not likely to be true. Mark’s reasons for placing most of his story, up to the final visit to Jerusalem, in Galilee are endlessly investigated; but few believe that one of them was firsthand acquaintance with the region, for he makes several geographical mistakes. And anyway, a glance at the text would prevent one from supposing that Mark cared much about itineraries; when he wants a narrative transition he sends his characters back across the lake, or up a mountain, with the same readiness that he conjures up crowds. He doubtless assembled his incidents on some plan, but whatever it was it certainly did not include provision for plausible narrative sequence or accurate local detail.

Between the opening account of John baptizing and the moment of Peter’s recognition of Jesus as Messiah, with the accompanying injunction to silence—the point where McCowen broke for intermission—there are numerous miracles, sayings, parables, and controversies, to say nothing of the tall tale about Salome dancing; and they are usually in no obvious order: “a miscellaneous pile of healings, disputes, and journeyings,” as they have been called. Even the recognition of Jesus by Peter, generally held to be the keystone of whatever structure Mark has, is blurred in the telling. Yet McCowen made it hang together; he sought with cunning to create an effect of consequence and order, and the tone of childish naïveté and the simulated effort of memory might be seen to justify a certain disjointedness, if anybody noticed. He recounted the healing miracles almost as if he had seen them, with joy and amazement (which happens to be a favorite word of Mark’s). And so when we got to Peter’s “Thou art the Christ” we were able to feel that everything had somehow led up to these words. It was a triumph.


The second half of the book, though it begins with further transferable incidents, moves into more obviously ordered narrative, and with the story of the trial and the Crucifixion we are in another mode altogether. In each of the Gospels this section is the most highly developed; it concerns the end of the life of Jesus, which was the most important part of it. McCowen seemed disarmed by this change of tone. The persona established earlier—confident, simple, happy in his own astonishment—is useless for this solemn, realistic report; and it was dropped. For the most part we now get straightforward recitation, until for the last twelve verses, with their assurance of the reappearance of Jesus after death, and promises for the future, the voice resumed its old tone of delighted conviction.

Yet these verses are almost certainly not part of the original Gospel, which is likely to have ended with the visit of the women to the tomb: “They trembled and were amazed, neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.”

The ending of Mark is perhaps the most notorious of New Testament puzzles. To have left out the spurious verses would have set the actor and his director a much greater and more interesting problem than any they faced. For they would have had to allow for the element of what has been called “systematic enigma” throughout Mark—for its tone of trouble, of reticence and even secrecy. That mysterious ending casts its shadow back over the whole, but it would not have been consistent with McCowen’s treatment of the first half. We should have lost the fun of that part of the show; but given this actor’s resources, we might have had a richer performance altogether if he had been required to end it with the terrified women.

In his opening remarks McCowen took out some modest insurance against members of the audience who knew more about the work than he did—perhaps with some irony, since very few of them can have known it, as he did, by heart. And no doubt somebody had mentioned that the last twelve verses should not be included. Actors and directors are always wary of such advice, fearing pedantry and a curb on inventiveness; and this is a very understandable attitude. But sometimes (and everybody will remember Shakespearian instances) this obduracy may result in a lowering rather than an enhancement of imaginative value. We are often told that we are lucky enough to be living in an age of great acting, and I believe this to be true. In such a time, the finest players, if they do things wrong, will nevertheless do them wonderfully; but they will be wrong just the same.

This Issue

November 9, 1978