Shuji Terayama will be 45 next December. He has been writing and directing plays for more than half his life. His "Nuhikun," written in 1978, was a smash hit at last year's Spoleto Festival in Italy. It was a similar hit at the current Spoleto Festival in Charleston, though some in the audiences at its three performances were puzzled from start to finish, while others, fewer each time, walked out before the end of its unbroken two-hour running time.

The title of the Japanese play is taken from Jonathan Swift's satire "Directions to Servants," in which Swift suggests that servants should take advantage of their positions to exploit their masters. Terayama, however, goes far beyond Swift. All of the main characters in his play are servants, among whom are a sleeping man, a human dog and a crazy woman who believes that she is the mistress. A variety of fantastic machines turn up during the play, including one which can turn any servant into a master. The author has also inserted a rumor that the real master is actually among the servants, himself playing at being a servant. If this is true, asks Terayama, who is the real master?

The play's ultimate message is what he sees in the present situation in the world, marked by the "absence of the master," a situation in which "my enemy is myself, your enemy is yourself." Everyone can be a master for 15 minutes, but at the end of the play in a sequence which is a precise parallel to the end of the Bernstein "MASS," everyone on the stage bursts out in a raging fury of destruction, setting fire to each other and leaving their world in ruins. Then, as in "MASS," the music, having reached its loudest point, becomes silent, followed by a hushed whisper of sound as everyone rises from the places where they had fallen and quietly leaves the scene.

Frequently during the 19 scenes of "Nuhikun," the actors suddenly appeared in various places among the audience, sometimes discomfiting the more easily startled among those seated in the large Gaillard Auditorium. Although the entire dialogue was in Japanese, except for a few moments when one actress spoke in English, the brilliance of the performers held the interest without any sense of nonunderstanding.

"Nuhikun" opens with a totally nude actor at center stage; frequently during the play there are various completely or partially nude moments, but they are only incidents in the course of one of the most absorbing presentations of total theater ever seen in this country. There is convincing reason behind nearly everything that Terayama shows us, even when he is seeming to be deliberately irrational. "Nuhikun" is also the most masterful discourse on the erotic that I have yet seen in the theater. Its large cast performs with a discipline, both individual and collective, that extends from tortuous slow motion to frenetic leaps and rapid flutterings of extraordinary technical resource.Brought to this country through the generosity of the Japanese government, "Nuhikun" is going from Charleston to La Mama in New York. It would be a tragedy if arrangements could not be made for it to be seen in Washington.