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RIP, Alec McCowen, who performed St. Mark’s Gospel in a one-man tour de force

Deacon Greg Kandra - published on 02/08/17

From The New York Times:

Alec McCowen, the acclaimed British character actor whose gallery of roles on both sides of the Atlantic ranged from St. Mark to the Fool in “King Lear,” and from Rudyard Kipling to James Bond’s ever-inventive outfitter, Q, died on Monday at his home in London. He was 91.

A nephew, the Rev. Nigel Mumford, confirmed the death.

Over the course of a protean half-century career in film, television and theater, Mr. McCowen’s greatest triumphs were on the stage, often in classical roles. But movie audiences knew him as well.

He was a young house master in Tony Richardson’s schoolboy drama “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” (1962). In “Travels With My Aunt” (1972), directed by George Cukor and based on the novel by Graham Greene, he had a lead role as a bank manager with a highly eccentric aunt (Maggie Smith).

…Even more significant was “St. Mark’s Gospel,” a one-man show that proved to be successful both in London and on Broadway. As he told The New York Times in 1984, he found the prospect of a solo performance daunting but irresistible.

“I wanted to be an entertainer, not an actor, when I was young,” Mr. McCowen said. “I wanted to be Jack Benny, and I’m still dazzled, still fascinated, by the audacity of a Judy Garland or a Lena Horne or a Frank Sinatra going out there all by themselves and holding an audience’s attention.”

He had turned to the Bible as a possible source of theater in 1976, when he was searching for a challenging new stage vehicle. He found it when he began reading the Gospel According to Mark.

“I started learning little passages to see if it would come alive, and instantly realized it was absolutely right,” he told The Times in 1990. “The style had a blunt, astringent quality which suited me. And it was a Gospel of action, not teaching, one which had plenty of episodes and dwelt on none for too long.”

He began a daily routine of memorizing the Gospel’s verses, a few every day, for nearly a year and a half, and gave his first public performance in 1978. On a bare stage, in casual clothes, he brought the Gospel to life, embodying multiple characters, including Mark himself, Pontius Pilate and Jesus.

In his 1980 memoir, “A Double Bill,” Mr. McCowen noted that Mark had “constructed his Gospel with the skill of a great dramatist.”

He performed the show in London and then in New York in 1978, where he received his second Tony nomination. He also took “St. Mark’s Gospel” to the White House, where the audience included President Jimmy Carter. He returned the show to New York for a limited Off Broadway run in 1990.

When he performed the Gospel, he always brought on stage one particular prop: a copy of the Gospel, for reference, just in case he got stumped.  I don’t know if he ever did. But his performance has become the stuff of legend. You can see excerpts in the clip above.

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