So many years ago, Francis Ferguson wrote that the theater, as well as the other arts, is a reflection of an age. By this, Fergusson meant that plays and playwrights are essentially capsules of the social and moral pressures of a period and a community. Possessed with diverse stirrings in the culture, Hamlet observes, theater is a mirror to nature.

Criticism regularly applies Ferguson's idea of the theater when making appraisals of plays, and through plays, of culture. A recent example is the conclusion that contemporary American theater is deficient in public values. American drama is, in what Tom Wolfe calls the "Me Decade," wholly indifferent to communal, public issues. Our theater prefers instead to honor the selfishness and conceit of the individual. It indulges in the narcisstic obsession of this culture with the domain of the self.

There is one great danger in this approach to criticism. Appraisals are often made on a narrow and prudish opinion of Fergusson's idea. Criticism erroneously focuses on the present, on American society and theater now, making judgments on what appears to be immediately or currently relevant. What this shortsighted criticism overlooks is the momentum of our theater and community as they evolve in history.

The momentum of our theater and its themes, like our community, moves by a ritualistic . pattern. It circulates through phases, passing gradually from low stations through limbo to high stations, back to low stations, and so on. These are phases of introversion and extroversion, private and public motifs.

This is the uneasy narcissicism, the indifference to public life, that our public plays reflect. The heroes

iheroes of these dramas, the characters who act out the internal turmoil of this culture, are troubled, passive activists. They struggle to redefine and relocate themselves in a quiet but agitated country.

If the heroes in contemporary American drama seem reflective and excessively introverted it is because ours is a decade of personal ceremonies and private rituals. When organized religion becomes an archaic union, when god dies, as he did in the late '60s and early '70s, congregations fall apart. Individuals invent religions out of their personal experiences. They find spiritual fulfillment in the self. Private rituals replace congregational worship. The process of redefining oneself in relation to nature becomes a personal mass. The heroes of contemporary dramas are communicants suspended in limbo.

The conclusion that American theater diminishes its value by dwelling on this culture's narcissicism unjustly alienates theater and society from a ritualistic evolution. It unfortunately and unknowingly fixes our drama in one station and assumes that there it rests forever. The narcisstic obsession in modern and contemporary plays is not a reflection of the egocentricity of this culture. It is rather a reflection of the current status of the American community as it evolves from a low to a high station. Contemporary American drama portrays a nation in limbo.

Limbo is an introverted and introspective phase of great anguish. Passing from the '60s into the '70s, approaching the '80s, the American community convalesces from a frustrated idealism, an aborted spiritual socialism and a painful reassessment of public values. The culture retreates into itself to recoup, to reappraise past behavior and ideals. It is not a time for aggression or extroversion, but for brooding and mulling, for meditation. Our culture churns between disappointment and progress.

Plays that have been criticized for their thematic conceit, like the plays of Sam Shepard, Arthur Kopit's "Wings," and Spalding Gray's "Rumstick Road," are really revelations of private rituals on the part of both playwright and heroes. The characters in these plays surface from low stations and are caught in the painful ceremonies of rejuvenation. Shepard's heroes live on the edge of society. They write their own code of ethics and laws in an effort to compensate for the corroded ideals of the American Dream. Kopit's "Wings" dramatizes the ceremony by which a stroke victim restores her power of speech. Spalding Gray's "Rumstick Road" is an inquisition into his mother's suicide, a metaphorical self-examination. It reveals a struggle to reshape the self in light of the past and to move on.

Each of these plays is an instance of the theater of limbo. Their heroes are caught in ceremonies somewhere between crisis and apocalypse. In each play, the ritual is an adjustment to a flaw in a community: disillusionment with modernity in Shepard's plays; the demolition of language in "Wings"; and the perforation of family solidarity in "Rumstick Road."

What is interesting about these adjustments is that each ritual is internalized. The heroes withdraw into themselves, retreating from a troubled community. They do not propagandize. They do not challenge society or political structures. They prefer to let society carry on for the moment without them. Theirs is a secretive, private ritual, one in whidh more pressing personal ambitions must be resolved before the individual returns again to the community.

Together, the heroes of contemporary drama make up a unique public, a community of private selves in the process of self-reappraisal. This community is America momentarily looking at itself. It is America caught in ceremonies between the elation and optimisms of the '60s and a more conservative, deliberate future. It is a culture in limbo that our contemporary American theater reflects. CAPTION: Picture, Constance Cummings in "Wings": Heroes in limbo.By Harry Naltchayan - The Washington Post