Alec McCowen is so good at playing Alec McCowen that it's a bit of a shame to find the British actor tied down by Rudyard Kipling in "Kipling," a one-man play by Brian Clark that served to open a new Broadway season last night at the Royale.
Clark's commissioned effort for the star dwells on the contradictory nature of the once-celebrated writer who, in Clark's words, "loved soldiers and hated war, (was) a passionate patriot who described England as his favorite foreign country, an imperialist who refused to accept a knighthood," and who appeared to straddle the fence in many other respects. As a result, we're left with no very clear picture of a man who determinedly tried to draw attention away from himself while directing it toward his work.
And that's the way McCowen plays him, stepping from the wings to address us somewhat testily and to let us know that, whether we like it or not, he's not going to indulge in many personal disclosures, instead letting his case rest on his writings. This odd introduction is meant to circumvent the fact that Kipling, unlike such practiced platform performers as Twain and Dickens, was a very private person.
In addition to some less familiar material, including a description of a childhood of which six years were passed in the absence of his parents, we get a generous helping of the Kipling hits: "If," "Gunga Din," "Tommy," "Boots," "Mandalay" and, of course, "Gentleman-Rankers."
McCowen's (Kipling's) indignant correction of the changes made in the last-named verse to create "The Whiffenpoof Song" is one of the evening's high spots. His moving address to any children who happen to be in the house - "The Children's Song," following "When Earth's Last Picture is Painted," at the very close - is another.
McCowen, gifted and versatile performer that he is, uses the stage with full assurance under Patrick Garland's artful direction and in Pamela Howard's simple but evocative set, the large rearwall scrim allowing for apt and often striking projections. Whether sounding off splenetically about politicians who first lose wars (and young soliders) before winning them, and the privileged classes who inherit the earth anyway, or bemoaning the loss of the British Empire and the advantages it brought to its peoples, he is always in total command of his material. And that goes for his Cockneyish readings of the barracks ballads, along with Kipling's detestation of the Boer "racialists" and his jingoistic conviction of how much better off South Africa might have been under British rule.
But aside from Kipling's contrariness, emphasized by Clark at almost every turn in his script, there is a tediousness about the evening that all of the star's considerable skill cannot allay. It isn't surprising that Kipling is so little read today. He was good, but not quite good enough. And, as if realizing it, he waves aside the lined-up volumes on his desk at the beginning when, having told us to consult them instead of him, he admits we're not going to read them anyway.
"Kipling," which comes to us following a successful London engagement, is scheduled for a limited run here. I'd catch it, if I were you, to watch a fine actor exploit his technique gratifyingly, but for a little more than that, too.
He enters brusquely shy, takes off a raincoat, and faces the audience with a hostile stare.
It is Rudyard Kipling, arrived last night at the Royal Theater. Well, to be factual, it is Alec McCowen reliving Rudyard Kipling in his one-man show, called very simply Kipling, but you get the idea.
Kipling is here to tell us about himself - almost to defend himself, certainly to explain himself. Because nowadays we take a somewhat jaundiced view of that balladeer of Queen Victoria, the British Empire and the common man.
Kipling is scarcely typical of the revered unread, because while largely unread he is also largely unrevered. A figure of fun, a misfit of history. Even his name has been transformed into an adjective - Kiplingesque, with all its overtones of jingoism, flag-waving and drum-beating. An unfortunate symbol.
Despite the efforts of such as T.S. Eliot, no one has quite rescued his verse from the realm of doggerel. Or his prose from the domain of children.
This play has been devised and written by Brian Clark, author of Whose Life Is it Anyway? Here there is no doubt that the life is Kipling's, but it is Kipling, as he tells us, seen through "my books and only my books."
Fortunately, the book - including the Collected Letters and his memoir, Something of Myself - are remarkably illustrative of the man, his life and thoughts. For most people the results will be unexpected. There was a great deal more to Kipling than Gunga Din and If.
He was a man of his time with some singular prejudices. He honestly believed that the English were heaven-sent to rule the world for the world's benefit, and he had an unhealthy hatred of the Germans, whom he habitually referred to as Huns.
However, that said, the man was remarkably free of prejudice and cant, and he had an abiding and unpatronizing respect for the common man, particularly perhaps the common soldier.
During this evening Kipling emerges in full fig. He justifies Eliot's claim that he was indeed a "great verse writer," and the prose shows Kipling as a writer of unpretentious clarity and charm. Shaw despised Kipling - one can see why.
But what makes this bouquet of Kiplingiana such an enchanting theatrical experience is the grizzle-haired, steel-spectacled presence of Mr. McCowen, once again showing that as the single master of the stage, he now has no peer.
Perhaps this is not an evening of such unvarnished virtuosity as he displayed in his spectacular reading some seasons back of the St. Mark's Gospel.
But as adroitly directed by Patrick Garland, this Kipling is a portrait totally endearing and quite indelible. You will never feel quite the same about Kipling again, you will never be able to think of him without recalling McCowen's jauntily wary, Cockney-sparrow-like combativeness, or the restless insight he offers into Kipling's different-drummer mind.
Banged down into a reconstruction of his Sussex study by Pamela Howard, this Kipling is pure delight. Whether he is deploring the havoc wreaked on the poem Ba Ba Black Sheep by Yale's Whiffenpoof song, or grumbling about the politics of the '30s, McCowen and Kipling are deliciously entertaining in this portrait of the curmudgeon as a forgotten artist.
This not only brightens the theater season, it virtually starts it.
If you're hankering to hear one of England's best actors, Alec McCowen, speak the words of one of England's second-best writers, you'll enjoy ''Kipling.'' With his close-cropped silver hair, gold-rimmed spectacles and pugnaciously tilted chin, Mr. McCowen looks the very model of a reborn Rudyard Kipling. The actor's eloquent readings - always intelligent and dynamic, sometimes beautiful - serve the writer's verses with the greatest possible sympathy. Even as Mr. McCowen makes the well-trod ''If'' into a hushed psalm, he infuses the martial cadences of a Cockney Barracks Room ballad with rollicking music hall gusto.
It's a flawless performance - and also, through no fault of the star's own, a static one. Because of a paltry script by Brian Clark, ''Kipling'' succeeds mainly as a recital, not as a monodrama; we often feel that we're attending a Caedmon recording session rather than a show at Broadway's Royale Theater. Kipling's most theatrical (and arguably his best) works - his novel ''Kim'' and his longer stories - are given short shrift here, presumably because of time constraints. Yet the vacuum isn't filled by another compelling tale - that of Kipling himself.
There's something perverse about the tack that Mr. Clark, the author of ''Whose Life Is It Anyway?,'' has taken in composing this anthology: He spends more time dampening an audience's expectations than attempting to fulfill them. When we first meet Kipling in his Sussex study, he confides right off that he has no intention of telling us anything about his private life. His life, he explains, can only be found in his books.
Kipling would have endorsed such sentiments: An intensely private man, he took elaborate pains to ward off posthumous investigations into the secrets of his soul. But Mr. Clark is being disingenuous when he uses Kipling's reticence as an excuse to avoid a full-blooded dramatization of his subject. Several biographers, notably Angus Wilson, have penetrated Kipling's reserve since his death in 1936 - and there's no discernible reason, other than laziness, why a contemporary playwright would pretend that the story can only be told sketchily today.
Mr. Clark does provide some facts and anecdotes to stitch the readings together - often culled from Kipling's own memoir, ''Something of Myself.'' So parsimonious and disembodied are these passages, however, that ''Kipling'' seems to assume that an audience is already familiar with the writer's emotionally straitened childhood or formative journalistic stint in India. Nor do the poems and meager prose excerpts add the personal revelations that we're initially promised they will. Kipling's talent and ideas are in his works, but he was surely the least introspective of writers.
This is why Mr. McCowen's performance ultimately seems repetitive: He can't develop a character and instead must settle for cyclically reshuffling the writer's literary poses, with occasional time out to shed a perfunctory tear over the deaths of his otherwise uncharacterized children. His Kipling comes in several vibrant rhetorical colors - the irascible imperialist, the fierce champion of the common soldier, the kindly storyteller to the young. Such guises constantly restate the writer's various voices without ever forming an involving portrait of the man behind them.
The evening's only real stab at drama is Mr. Clark's superficial regurgitation of the debates about Kipling's seemingly rigid reactionary credos. We're reminded that the writer in fact hated war - and that his colonialism may be justifiable in light of some governments (such as South Africa's) that followed in the Empire's wake. Lest we conclude that Kipling was a racist, it's recalled that ''Gunga Din'' celebrated a virtuous ''bhisti'' (however paternalistically). ''Don't half-quote me to reinforce your own prejudices!,'' cries out Mr. McCowen. To prove the point, he humorously demonstrates what Kipling really meant by ''The Ballad of East and West'' and by ''Gentlemen-Rankers,'' the bitter verse that Yalies sing as the lilting ''Whiffenpoof Song.''
Kipling's ideological complexities are not news. Perceptive writers of varied stripes and generations - Henry James, T. S. Eliot, Bertolt Brecht, Evelyn Waugh - have selectively championed his double-edged saber-rattlings. Perhaps George Orwell summed it up when he noted that Kipling was ''a jingo imperialist . . . morally insensitive and esthetically disgusting'' - but a writer certain to survive his ''enlightened'' critics. Indeed, at the performance of ''Kipling'' I attended, the audience laughed loudest at a ribald stanza about ''yellow and brown'' prostitutes.
The show's director is Patrick Garland, who metronomically sends the star back and forth between stage right and stage left, with occasional seated respites at the desk stage center. The designer, Pamela Howard, summons up the days of the raj with rear-projected slides that could well be grainy cutting room floor footage from John Huston's film version of ''The Man Who Would Be King.'' Through it all, the bristling and valiant Mr. McCowen remains the man who would be Kipling, whenever ''Kipling'' gives him a fighting chance.