Dramatic enactment of the Gospel of Mark by actor Max McLean

A YouTube search yields several dramatic readings of the Gospel of Mark, including an excellent one by actor David Suchet. But the dramatic enactment of the Gospel of Mark by actor Max McLean is in a class by itself. McLean dramatizes the dialogue. He uses the stage and all of the actor’s craft to keep the audience interested and engaged. His performance is a tour de force. It is well worth watching simply as a piece of theater. But I have an additional reason to recommend it. The dramatic enactment of the Gospel of Mark by actor Max McLean is the closest we can come to the performance of Mark’s full play. His performance and my reactions to it offer some support to my theories in The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text about the dramatic origin of the Gospel of Mark.

McLean’s performance supports my identification of editing in the Gospel of Mark

McLean uses the received text of the Gospel of Mark. There are several features of his performance that support my claims that the text has been edited. Here are two examples. First, Jesus is on the stage without interruption from Chapter 1 to Chapter 6. Suddenly the text transitions to a flashback about Herod, and a description of Herod’s banquet (Chapter 6 of the Gospel). Jesus disappears from the story. McLean handles this shift of emphasis as well as he can, but the backstory is obviously not dramatic. No playwright would insert a chunk of such alien material. The drama picks up again only when the dramatic banquet scene gets underway. (I think that the current Herod material is by an editor: in the play, a messenger told the actors onstage about Herod’s relationship to John the Baptist, and John’s death.)

Second, when McLean performs the Olivet Discourse (Chapter 13 of the Gospel), he presents the text up to and including 13:20 in a level voice. Obviously, McLean recognizes that this part of the Olivet Discourse doesn’t build emotionally. Yet the words warn of apocalypse! McLean begins to speak dramatically at 13:21. His enactment of the Olivet Discourse is consistent with my analysis in the book. There, I propose that most of the material before 13:22 was added by an editor, and only at 13:22 does dramatic momentum start to accrue.

Third, McLean ends the performance with Mark 16:9-20. I am sure he recognized that a 90-minute dramatic performance needed more closure than that provided by the anti-climactic empty-tomb scene (Mark 16:1-8). My solution is that the empty-tomb scene is an editor’s replacement for Mark’s original ascension scene. (I discuss the ascension scene in my book The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text.)

McLean’s performance supports my proposal that Mark wrote two texts

McLean’s enactment is shorter than the performance of Mark’s play. Based on my experience of being enthralled by McLean’s enactment, I cannot imagine that the audience at the play noticed more than a few references to Scripture. Like me, the audience was engaged by the actors and the action onstage moment by moment. McLean uses sound, music, and visuals in addition to acting. A full-scale play also had costumes, props, backdrops–and other actors. The audience was absorbing, not thinking. If Mark wanted his audience/readers to appreciate the Scriptural sources of (some) dialogue and scenarios in his play, Mark had to create a text for readers. Only readers could stop and reflect, and check the other texts for themselves. In the book, I propose that Mark wrote two texts: a playscript and a secondary, narrative text that preserved the performance (but prevented restaging it) and gave readers pointers to Mark’s sources in Scripture. It was the first draft of a myth, a candidate for Judean Scripture. (After all, somebody wrote the Books of Samuel and Kings. They didn’t fall from the sky!)

McLean’s performance routs Biblical Performance critics

McLean’s performance is more dramatic than a dramatic reading, the hypothesized genre of Mark’s gospel according to Biblical Performance critics. But McLean’s performance has dramatic weaknesses (as we saw above). Undramatic passages show where the received text has been edited (these undramatic passages were inserted for a reader, not for an audience).

Furthermore, a dramatic performance involves the audience emotionally, not intellectually. It is impossible that Mark intended his text to be used only for dramatic reading. His careful references toi Scripture imply that he expected to have Scripturally literate readers who would analyze his text.

revised and expanded April 2, 2021

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