WELL, I MUST say it's very pleasant to be in Washington, D.C., without a play. Plays can spoil a place, and Washington, where most of my plays have encountered their first American audiences, has nearly been ruined for me all the way from "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," which spoiled Washington in 1967, to "Night and Day, which spoiled Washington in 1979.

I'm working on something new now and I'm glad that for once I've beaten it to this town. Perhaps I'll go out later and visit the Smithsonian or the National Gallery, or perhaps I'll have a cup of coffee at a table on the sidewalk and watch the people go by in the sunshine.

You probably know what I'm talking about, but if you don't, it's something to do with the remark made by a fellow writer on being asked whether he thought Hitler might still be alive: "If he is, I hope he's out of town with a musical."

Being someplace with a play does not make it technically impossible to do nice things; it simply takes away the desire. I haven't got the nervous constitution for this business. I associate your fair city not with cherry trees in springtime or amber woods in the fall, but with thundery overcast skies periodically ripped open by lighting just before the rain comes down.

The weather was never really like that, of course. My brain has invented it to give expression to a sense of dull apprehension periodically ripped open by the joyless hilarity which passes for good times among us hysterics with a play in production.

But this time everything is different, and the play I'm going to see tonight at the Eisenhower has been written by (oh, what bliss) somebody else, and I'm at my window on the eighth floor of the Jefferson Hotel warily testing two states of existence unprecedentedly combined: regular bowels and residence in the District of Columbia.

Why is it always so awful? After all, things have ended up happily in Washington even when they didn't end up so happily later in New York. (And by way of an ingratiating parenthesis, I might add that being in Washington with a play is a great deal nicer than being in New York with a play; in fact, being in Washington with a play is a great deal nicer than being in New York without a play. I don't much [insert red heart ] the Big [insert apple but don't ask where to insert it ]).

But even in Washington, my mother wouldn't know me. Underneath, when you really get to know me, I'm not the kind of chap at all who would take part in a clandestine lunch on the top floor of the Kennedy Center with an actress flown in from New York, while in the basement the actress whom she might or might not replace is making up for the matinee.

I can't recall a single occasion in England where an actor got replaced between the first day of rehearsal and opening night. But three or four times in Washington (under that thundery overcast sky) we have enacted the grisly ritual of long-distance phoning and secret shuttles to New York and finally the gallows walk to the dressing room to give somebody the bullet.

The first time I was here with a play the producer fired one of the English actors who came over with us, and by a stupendous piece of miscalculation, the announcement was made to the assembled company after the show one night. As the scapegoat (he hadn't, after all, cast himself in the part) stumbled tearfully into the wings, a cry of protest rose from the ranks. Six years later when I saw him again, the actor was still reverberating with the Washington experience. He never mentioned the amber woods which, as he might have noticed on the ride to the airport, had been particularly glorious that fall.

Nor did he mention my own role in this mess, which was graceful of him because actors know that authors have cast-approval, and technically I could have kept him in the job by rejecting every replacement offered . . .

Is it me? Is it America?

Listen, it's America. If I might take a minute to stimulate the Anglophobes, I have to tell you that it happens when we pass through Immigration. I think it's something to do with that yellow line on the floor. They tell you not to cross it so that it has time to creep up your back, and then they let you come forward so that they can check your name in the Undersirables book which lists everybody who ever said no to his producer.

Ever time I get on a plane to go home I get furious with myself for catching the disease. It really is different at home, this business of having a play done. At home, where, after all, the piece is going to get its first audience and where the possibility of grievous disenchantment is all the greater, things proceed in (well, comparatively) a nicely understated English way. It's a play, for heaven's sake. Some people will like it more than others. It will probably do all right, or better, or not.

Nobody, as far as I know, is checking the advance at 4 p.m. on a Monday to see how it compares with 3 p.m. or with 4 p.m. the previous Monday. A French mathematician called Thom has come up with something he calls Catastrophe Theory, which is one of those theories that are at once impressive and unimpressive for the same reason, namely that they explain practically everything. Thom says that a stress situation develops in one direction until it reaches Catastrophe Point, when it instantly reverses direction. This explains why a snarling dog on the defensive suddenly goes into the attack without an intermediate stage, and it explains how Broadway shows close, just like that. If I were Thom I would be pretty irritated by the London theater that won't get into line. On Shaftesbury Avenue it seems to be a common thing for reasonably successful plays to hang around for months in the reasonable expectation of giving a reasonable number of people a reasonable amount of pleasure.

The problem with Washington is that New York is coming up, and the problem with New York is that it's Jackpot City and the play is not just a play -- for heaven's sake! -- it's the whole future, it's our reputations, it's the fixity of our smiles when we meet on the street. We'll all be rich. We'll all be ruined. And the guilt of it all. When "Night and Day" got mixed notices I felt a real pig for keeping Jimmy Nederlander's Tiffany pen.

Kenneth Tynan once noted that in London during intermission playgoers ask each other, "Do you like it?" while in New York they ask, "Do you think it will go?" In Washington they still ask, "Do you like it?" and it is right to acknowledge that what I describe as the awfulness of being here with a play is really a picnic compared with Broadway. At the Kennedy Center I have Eleanor the chief usher to hold my hand, and Charlotte from Roger Stevens' office to hold my other hand, and I also have Roger, who displays an urbane calm proper to a man who is old and wise and has in his time bought the Empire State Building and sold it at a profit.

Yes, come to think of it, there's nothing wrong with having a play in Washington that not going to New York wouldn't fix, so let's start afresh.

In a minute I'll go and find the White House. It must be around here somewhere. I've never seen the White House because they didn't build it between the Watergate Hotel and the stage door of the Eisenhower, a route I know with my eyes shut, which is the way I sometimes walked it.

Up to 1976 ("Travesties") all I saw of Washington was the row of shops between the Saks opposite the hotel lobby and the Gucci opposite the stage door. After 1976 I didn't see as much because I discovered the underground carpark route which cuts out Saks.

The idea was that one should stay in a place where one could walk to work, but I now see that I've had better ideas. At the Jefferson the beautiful young woman at Reception did "Rosencrantz" in college and I'm getting the English Playwright service -- wine, fruit, chocolates and savory delicacies arriving on the hour.

I'm thinking of sending for my family. I could finish a play by the time the woods turn amber, and when the cherry trees are in blossom we'll put the damned thing on in Baltimore and spoil some other place for a change.