"Heaven and earth shall pass away; but my words shall not pass away."
St. Mark 13:31
Alec McCowen isn't sure what the current status of heaven and earth is. But he knows that the words of Jesus as reported by Mark are doing just fine.
McCowen's humanized, memorized performance of "St. Mark's Gospel" has lifted the multitudes out of their seats in London and knocked them alive in New York. It has wowed them in Worcester and a couple dozen other British and American towns.
Tonight the Engish actor will do his rendition of the earliest gospel at the White House, as the born-again president and his guests commemorate National Bible Week. A week later another peanut farmer, one Hatcher Storey, has bagged McCowen for a one-nighter (sold out) at the high-school auditorium in Franklin, Va. A few other spots still to come on McCowen's wildly electric tour include Aspen, Colo; Vero Beach, Fla.; Westminister Abbey in London and a Warner Bros. television studio.
At Princeton University the other night, McCowen didn't miss a single syllable, although a nagging cold forced him to yield to an uncharacteristic cough during the resurrection. Backstage after the show, a Princeton seminary professor told McCowen he had bought 200 tickets because the show is "what I've been trying my damnedest to teach my students for 30 years."
A young man with a vacant grin approached McCowen, murmered "incredible . . . fantastic," and asked if McCowen believed in what he had spoken.
"Well, you can't do it so many times without some of it rubbing off," replied McCowen.
"Bt the way, what's your name?" asked the young man. McCowen rolled his eyes slightly and referred the chap to a program.
"Well, I'm Roger," said Roger, still smiling beautifully.
"Well, I'm Alec," said McCowen, backing into his dressing room.
"May God be with you," said Roger.
"Safe inside his dressing room," McCowen said. "Occassionally you get these ones with the gleam in their eyes.They can be very alarming. There was this man in Ohio who held my hand in a vise and went on and on about how Mark had misquoted Jesus."
Later, sipping his second Scotch in a hotel pub, McCowen said he finds it hard "when people come up to me and say, 'I'm a Christian.' I know what Christian behaviour is, but I can't say what a Christian is."
McCowen does not consider himself a Christian; "I don't consider myself anything," he said. "I don't behave like a Christian, and if I have a credo, it's that poeple are what they do. The adjective has to come out of the verb." He paused and then slyly mocked his own words: 'McCowen said, speaking in parables after his second scotch.' Did you get that down?"
Though McCowen's grandfather was a lay preacher, his parents were not churchgoers except when the local Congregational Church had "this wonderfully dramatic Welsh preacher," replied McCowen. "I think I learned a lot about overacting from him, as one does from one's Welsh colleagues."
McCowen's father, a pram shop owner, once began a campaign to unit various churches. But generally, recalled McCowen, "he was very religious in an extremely irreverent way. He often talked of Jesus as if he were a neighboring celebrity who might pop in for dinner. If something spilled on the table, he would say "Where's Jesus now?"
As McCowen became famous as an actor, many of his roles were ecclesiastical. He listed some of them: "There was the Pope in 'Hadrian VII,' I've played a man who thought he was God, I did a priest, and then I was the spiteful cardinal who shouted at Charlton Heston in 'The Agony and the Ecstasy.' You know, we spent a whole week shooting one of my big shouting scenes from all angles, and then when the movie came out it was just a close-up of Heston listening to me. I suppose Chuck had it in his contract."
But none of McCowen's stained glass roles prepared him for his jaunt through St. Mark. He doesn't like most "religious" movies - the "sentimental Technicolor stuff. Jesus is so boring in those movies. It's very touching that people want to play him as soulfully as possible, but he wouldn't have got anything done if he had been that way."
McCowen's interpretation of the gospel is sprightlier. His mother was a popular dancer, and his show seems derived more than the music hall than from the church. His contract forbids his hosts to erect religious symbols on their sets. He tries to keep the stage looking light and Mediterranean, and frequently he makes his listeners laugh.
"I never wanted to play Hamlet," he said, "but I did. It was boring, and I would much rather have been Jack Benny."
In fact, at Princeton he told his tales as if they were the gospel according to Jack Benny. Sometimes the arms were folded in the same perpendicular fashion. The punch-lines were given some of the same timing. The impatience with trivia and the astonishment at bixarre turns of events were Benny's.
"I was especially aware of Benny tonight," said McCowen. "I have to watch it. I did adore him. He had a way of talking to an audience that was so compelling."
McCowen wanted to talk to an audience like that, or like Julie Harris - "my favorite actress in the world, which I can say here but not in England" - did in "The Belle of Amberst." So he searched for material for a one-person show. When the idea to use the gospels occured to him, he had never read any of them from beginning to end. "Isn't that ridiculous?" he exclaimed.
He close Mark's gospel because it struck him as the most straightforward, the easiest to relate in front of an audience. "I don't have the intellectual equipment to deal with John, and Luke is almost too beautiful. The Voice Beautiful would creep in. Matthew needs editing. I don't think I could have held an audience through all that genealogy at the beginning. I arrived at Mark. It's easy, it flows, it has continuity."
Also, McCowen has learned that Christian Scientists love Mark because of all the miracles," and Jews find it "the least loaded" of the gospels.
He learned it over the course of 16 months, three verses a day. He typed his own script. "It was an absolutely private exploration," he recalled. He wished a few passages were clearer. The incident in which swine are driven into the sea "is like a scene from a Hammer horror movie," he said. "It's fun, but it doesn't advance the story." For this anecdote McCowen added an onomatopoeic word - "pun-choo" to depict how the pigs sounded when they took their dive.
Two stories of loaves and fishes are told, and he had trouble remembering the numbers in each case. But he appreciates the fact that "the second loaves and fishes story isn't nearly as impressive as the first. That's what's so disarming about Mark - his honesty about [WORD ILLEGIBLE] one who was trying to sell [WORD ILLEGIBLE] would have tried to build [WORD ILLEGIBLE] second time around."
McCowen keeps a paperback version of his script onstage with him but he has never had to use it. Sometimes, though, "I wake up in the middle of the night and I can't remember some verse. In my sleep the other night, I reached out to my check my script and my hand [WORD ILLEGIBLE] a Gideon Bible. It's marvelous [WORD ILLEGIBLE] to a script in every hotel room [WORD ILLEGIBLE] McCowen, Gideon uses the King James version.
There has been some criticism of McCowen's low-key tone during the events of the crucifixion. [WORD ILLEGIBLE] act it, I speak it," he acknowledges. A woman wrote and complained, "You did not make me cry."
"I get suggestions from [WORD ILLEGIBLE] to make that section more theatrical," he said. "One thought that when the world grows dark between the sixth an ninth hours of the crucifixion, the lights should go out. I think that would be in frightful taste."
Some of McCowen's gestures may change from performance to performance. "They should be newly thought out all the time," he said. The inflection of his voice may change, too. "Someone said 'A man is most alive when his security is taken away from him,' and I believe that," said McCowen.
Except for an occasional "puh-choo," however, the words themselves do not change. McCowen is making sure they do not pass away.