A tent? In January? With the wind driving snowflakes clean through the canvas?

If you're going to be cultural in America, you don't fool around. And so the Friends of the Folger Shakespeare Library went all out last night to introduce the six-year project sponsored by the BBC and Time-Life to bring to TV all 37 of Shakespeare's plays -- and maybe the sonnets too.

What a scene: 250 people milling and shouting in this -- yes -- tent, heated at one end. Some wore period costume. The hatcheck girls wore overcoats.

At the warm end, spirits were high. We saw a Beefeater and a Beefeateress. We saw a lady in a pointed hat. We saw capes and feathers and wimples and a furious-looking man in dinner jacket, homburg and overcoat.

A guy in a Folger-supplied Elizabethan suit was being kidded. "Can you go to the bathroom in that thing?" he was asked. "Yeah," he replied, "but I'd hate to tell you how."

It was a great party, but it had to be the first time in human history that the cocktail hour ended when it was supposed to. Even before 8:30, people were leaking into the library where long Elizabethan tables were set up. The furious-looking man was among the first.

At a press luncheon there yesterday, word that James Earl Jones will be offered the title role in "Othello" ended for the moment a sputtering little controversy over lack of Americans in the casts.

Anthony Quayle was there, and Celia Johnson, and Helen Mirren, Richard Pasco and other British actors who are appearing in the first season's six plays.

It seems that Joseph Papp and some other figures in American theater are upset that a British production of Shakespeare should have only British personnel, and reporters belabored the question before baffled television officials.

As Quayle said later, "Would you want to see Englishmen playing 'Porgy and Bess?'"

At any rate, if the news about Jones -- who has done Othello many times already -- didn't stop the grousing, a half hour of excerpts from the plays surely did. The camera work was clean, the directing intelligent and the acting casually superb.

Michael Hordern's inspired capering as a jolly Capulet, the clear, lyrical voice of 14-year-old Rebecca Saire as Juliet, brilliant Derek Jacobi (known to Americans for his Claudius) -- it was just one marvel after another. Where do the British get them all?

The series, already playing in Britain, opens Feb. 14 at 8 p.m. with "Julius Caesar," followed every other Wednesday by "As You Like It," Feb. 28; "Romeo and Juliet," March 14; "Richard II," March 28; "Measure for Measure," April 11, and "Henry VIII," April 25. The second season opens this fall.

Grants from Exxon, Metropolitan Life and Morgan Guaranty Trust contributed to the American share of $3.6 million, about a fourth of the total cost of $13.5 million that the BBC is laying out. Although it is their biggest project ever, BBC executives made the decision to go ahead with "The Shakespeare Plays" in a mere 24 hours.

"We hope it will have a ripple effect," said John Jay Iselin, president of WNET and a key figure in public broadcasting, "and the effects begin to look like major waves."

For example, some 27,000 secondary schools are getting educational kits to go with the series; college courses are being built around the plays; National Public Radio is launching a parallel program on Shakespeare and his times, and there are the lecture series and viewer guides and other evidence of how seriously Americans take culture in general and Shakespeare in particular.

"I see an extraordinary return to the printed page," Iselin concluded, somewhat to one's surprise.

Celia Johnson, coming after a parade of TV executives, recalled that she once played Juliet, when she was 26. (She now plays Juliet's nurse.)

"It was a radio play," she said, "and I thought my voice sounded rather young. I got the worst notice that anh yone's ever had: it should be in the Guinness Book of Records. The headline was: 'Old Actress Spoils Play.'"

Quayle, who will play Falstaff in "Henry IV" (both parts) and "Henry V/," had a novel idea how to keep Shakespeare from becoming a bore and a trial to schoolchildren.

"Imagine what he himself would think if he knew people were being given examinations on him in school?Shocking. I don't believe young children should be allowed to read him. The plays should be strictly kept from them until they're 17. They should be forbidden to get at them, and you'd have this sort of secret society of Shakespeare lovers. Then everyone would fall over themselves to read him."

A lot of people will watch the series, he told the press, and it will go over their heads or they won't care. But maybe... maybe some youngster will catch fire, will be inspired to write some new plays....

Actors are real people, he said. They mustn't be lost sight of in the trappings of their roles. He pointed out Esmond Knight, a minor player in "Romeo and Juliet" and a veteran character actor who was partially blinded in the sea battle between the Prince of Wales and the Bismarck during World War II.

The real life of actors, he seemed to say, can add a special dimension to a play and can help us connect more deeply with the mind of the author.

Whereupon, after lunch, he and Celia Johnson took off for Mount Vernon because, as he told her, "you can't possibly understand Washington unless you've seen Mount Vernon."