Alec McCowen, last seen here in 1982 in his deeply impressive recital of ''St. Mark's Gospel,'' has returned to Broadway in a one-man show of a very different order. In ''Kipling,'' which opened last night at the Royale Theatre, the versatile Mr. McCowen portrays a latter-day British man of letters whose enormous fame and popularity rested on his treatment of temporal matters.
''English imperialist, poet, and writer of short stories and novels'' is how one reference work sums up his long career. Kipling himself might well have added ''journalist'' to that terse listing. In the fascinating stage portrait composed by Brian Clark, the Indian-born Rudyard acknowledges that it was as a journalist that he learned his trade.
The Clark-McCowen collaboration presents Kipling as a crusty, no-nonsense craftsman who takes a dim view of making any public appearance at all. The reluctance is an apparently accurate reflection of Kipling's attitude, and it gives a humorously contentious tone to this crisp but frequently impassioned recital.
Mr. McCowen's Kipling enters the stage briskly, doffs coat, hat, and gloves, and immediately gets down to business. He warns the audience that everything it is about to hear will be from his books, which he assumes none of those present have read. In any case, there will be no private revelations. Then, for approximately the next two hours, the slight, black-suited writer, with his close-cropped gray hair and military mustache, delivers a shrewdly excerpted anthology from his enormous body of work. (Bartlett's ''Familiar Quotations'' devotes 61/2 pages to Kipling, which gives some idea of the formidable task of selection confronting Mr. Clark.)
As a sample of bravura acting, ''Kipling'' marks a kind of double achievement. There is the stage portrait itself - Mr. McCowen's presentation of the persona of this foursquare, snappish literary man with his deep convictions, enthusiasms, and aversions. And then there is the accomplished actor reading what have come to be hackneyed Kipling verses with such vigor and vocal range that they strike the listener with a wonderful freshness. At the preview I attended, the audience applauded such oft-recited poems as ''If,'' ''Gunga Din, '' ''Tommy,'' and ''The Ladies.''
Messrs. Clark and McCowen have particular fun with ''Gentlemen Rankers,'' the ballad that became the Yale Whiffenpoof song. While the sound system amplifies a male choir in a glutinous rendition of the well-known confession, an outraged Kipling barks out a contrapuntal ''Baa, baa, baa!'' He also chides the audience for remembering only the early refrain of ''The Ballad of East and West,'' subsequently reminding them of the lines they have forgotten.
Along the way, ''Kipling'' scatters biographical details among the quotations. There are glimpses of a childhood in India, of a horror period when Kipling's parents had to board him in England, of adventures as a journalist (again in India) and as a correspondent in the Boer War. England's handling of the aftermath of its victory arouses some of Kipling's most scathing excoriations of the politicians and government authorities who ''sent our soldiers into the field to die needlessly.'' Kipling abhors their ''flumdiddle.'' ''Gethsemane 1914-18'' and ''Epitaphs of the War 1914-18'' record his bitter reflections on World War I.
Besides brief references to his parents, ''Kipling'' includes the writer's heartfelt acknowledgment of his debt to his American wife, Caroline.
A moment of wrenching agony recalls the death of his small daughter at the time the Kiplings were living in the United States. From the rich assortment of biographical fragments and quoted excerpts there emerges the portrait of a remarkable literary figure - and an eminent Victorian who survived not only beyond the Victorian era but well into the years between the two world wars. He passed on in 1936.
''Kipling'' has been designed by Pamela Howard to create a library setting whose upstage screen can serve the projections that illuminate the text. Neil Peter Jampolis's lighting makes its own subtle but dramatic contribution. As director, Patrick Garland keeps Mr. McCowen sufficiently on the move to fulfill the demands of a performance without indulging in mere busyness.
About halfway through the recital, Kipling breaks off to announce: ''I want a cup of tea. If you're not here when I come back, I shan't mind a bit.''
At the performance I attended, there were no defectors.