Poet Ezra Pound is the subject of Kenneth Arnold's "The House of Bedlam" at the New Playwrights' Theater.

To some, Pound was a genius, and, at the same time, an anti-Semitic pawn of Mussolini who broadcast against his native American during World War II. Tried for treason, he was judged insane, spent 12 years in Washington's St. Elizabeth's Hospital and after his release returned to Italy, where he died in 1972.

Arnold's play, presented "not as a photograph but a painting," does not attempt to supply answers for a man whose meaningful work was done long before the play's period. Critics agree that after his early leadership of Imagism, his poetry became murky and his historial allusions wholly unreliable.

Instead, Arnold poses this questions: How can a man write so beautifully and be so unbeautiful a person? That he wrote arrestingly is assumed; that he was an unbeautiful person is blindingly clear. Dramatically, Arnold places the play's action in Pound's home shortly before his arrest, and, simultaneously, in the open-air cage where he was confined before trial.

With Pound in the Rapalle flat are Olga, his mistress for 20 years; Dorothy, his wife for far longer, and joining them, Mary, his young daughter by Olga. Arnold creates the idea that it was stern Olga, boastful after having met "Benito," who swerved Pound into fascism and his hate-mongering broadcasts.

Arnold does his utmost forPound, viewing his rage as disgust over two world wars, but we still have to take his genius on faith. As a man he is shown in "The House of Bedlam" to be monstrously ego-centered, cruelly selfish and pliable to Olga's ego-massaging. Under Robert Graham Small's direction, there is a strong hint of an incestuous love for him by Mary. With the fewest illusions, wife Dorothy has mettle of love.

The clearest character at least the one with whom I personally can empathize, is Cpl. Whiteside, the sensible, kindly guard who lashes out at Pound's outrageous prejudices and asks: "You feeling sorry for yourself?" Inevitably one must ask: "If one knew noting about the real Pound, would this imagined one have interest?" This shadow is more appealing than the substance.

The production cannot be faulted. Bruce Daniel's setting is an ingenious marriage of realism and abstract. With each production NPT places its audience in a different area, a relatively minor but indicative aspect of this group's fervent ingenuity.

Jim Brady, a member of NPT's acting company since the days it had but 24 seats, comes well schooled for Pound with a substancial and bravura performance. Carol Ingram's Dorothy, Molly Smith's Olga and Jamieson Mclean as Mary get to the essence of their roles, and Fred Strother, another regular on Washington stages, is splendid as the corporal.